🥽 can the internet’s past help us create a better future for the internet?

a discussion with early internet pioneers Caterina Fake, David Bohnett & Dr. Nancy Baym

Creator platforms and social media platforms saw us migrate our social lives to the Internet. While allowing us to share and interact with people we never could have before, it also fragmented our experiences and relationships. 

There's an endless list of unintended consequences. 

Today's platforms were inspired by the many that preceded them — but along the way, we started to go astray. How can we make sense of where we are today? What can we understand about the decisions that were made and the structures we had in place? And, most importantly, how can the builders of new platforms that also intend to "bring the world closer together", "give everyone the power to create" or "organize the world's information" do it better?

I recently hosted a conversation at the Harvard Berkman Klein Centre for Internet & Society with Caterina Fake (previously co-founded Flickr), David Bohnett (previously founded Geocities) and Dr Nancy Baym (who has researched internet communities since the 90s and is currently at Microsoft Research).

You can view/listen to the full conversation here: https://cyber.harvard.edu/events/hindsight-2020

Here are five quick takeaways from Leora & I:

1. The platform’s values trickle down: The fundamental assumptions around the wants and needs that dictate the creation of new internet communities have remained the same. And building self-governing communities has always been messy. But what we’ve seen over the course of history is that the affordances and values of the platforms affect people’s behaviours. And these are defined by ‘the Abrahams’, to use the biblical analogy. These are the founders and early community that begat what comes after them. 

What we’ve seen, unfortunately, is that these founding values can get distorted by misaligned incentives, money and power.

As an example of these affordances, Flickr's backend was as big as its frontend; most don't realize this. And the time and effort put into this very involved backend is what eventually carried the community. Also, Flickr started out by charging users for the service - so the users weren't the product. The freemium model for Flickr happened after the Yahoo acquisition. 

2. The push and pull of feeds and participation matter: Flickr had one of the first ‘feeds’, which at the time was called “recent activity”. Facebook was inspired by Flickr in their re-invention of the feed - which in the naming itself was indicative of this new direction they took. This was the inflection point where Facebook started prioritizing the most viewed or most sensational/attention-getting posts in a feed dynamic, and what saw us move from more participatory systems in online communities to this thing that came to be known as ‘social media’. It was not only more passive, based on a ‘push’ model vs. a participatory one, its business model was based on monetizing the granularities of user behavior and attention. 

3. Online sociality can be mapped to offline sociality. We can look to behavior patterns from these offline spaces - whether that’s concerts, meetings, bar hangouts - to get an understanding of how good and bad behaviour manifests online. Much internet design has been based on the removal of frictions, but frictions serve a purpose: they add accountability, they increase commitment, and they can provide a kind of 5 second breath before we speak. An example of frictions changing behaviors of people on the network can be seen in NextDoor, which has a 24-hour delay when posting.

4. Ecosystems and timing are everything: In addition to looking at offline sociality, the success of internet community platforms comes out of the current ecosystems and timing.

For example, there’s a big difference between sitting at a computer in the days of Geocities and now where we’re constantly in front of our phones. That has had a dramatic impact on both business models and behaviour.

Part of Flickr’s success was Friendster getting people accustomed to having a profile online, high speed broadband becoming more prevalent and cameras on phones.

Geocities initially tried to break out of ISP walled gardens (AOL, Compuserve, Prodigy, etc.). It’s interesting to notice how we’ve reverted back to walled gardens and attempts to break out of them today. 

5. There’s a downside to ‘always on’ culture: We’re seeing the effects of cognitive overload caused by 'always on' culture, constant access to handheld devices and endless feeds. This’ll lead to more thoughtfully designed software, but also an appreciation of disconnecting. Additionally, we’re seeing the flip side of everything being 'free'.

As Nancy Baym put it so succinctly:

These are communication platforms. And communication is a fundamental facet of humanity. It's not just value you can extract from people. It's really the foundation that shapes our world and that needs to be honored. So it's my hope that we find a way that it can be honored first and we let the business models follow.