Flashback: The People’s Net

15 years ago, in the wake of the dotcom crash and reports of the Internet’s demise, I wrote this piece for Yahoo Internet Life. Joichi Ito just referred to it on his blog, so I thought I’d dig it out of the archives.

The Internet is Back, Alive and Well
Yahoo Internet Life, July 2001

To those of us who really love it, the Internet is looking and feeling more social, more alive, more participatory, and more, well, more Internet-y than ever before. This might sound surprising, given the headlines proclaiming the official bursting of the technology bubble. Likewise, analysts on the financial cable channels and the venture capitalists of Silicon Alley now shun any company whose name ends in .com and have moved on to more promising new buzzwords, such as wireless.

But the statistics fly in the face of conventional wisdom. In terms of real hours spent online and the number of people getting new accounts every day, Internet use is up. We spent an average of 20.2 hours looking at Internet sites in March 2001, up from 15.9 hours last year and 12.8 hours the year before, according to the latest data from Jupiter Media Metrix. More surprisingly, while countless dot-coms have gone under for failure to meet investor demands, e-commerce is actually up-it rose more than 30 percent compared with last year. More than 100 million Americans now buy goods and services online.

The Internet is more capable now than it ever was of supporting the vast range of individual, community, and commercial interests that hope to exploit the massive power of networking. Still, countless investors, analysts, and pundits have fallen off the Internet bandwagon.

Good riddance, I say. The experts jumping ship today can’t see the Internet as anything other than an investment opportunity that has dried up. Sure, the Internet made a lot of people money, but its real promise has always been much greater than a few upward stock ticks. If we can look past the size of our 401(k) plans to the underlying strength of our fledgling networked society, all signs are actually quite good. The Internet has never been in better health.

Maybe this kind of optimism requires us to look at the Internet less as an investment opportunity and more as a new life form. That’s the way we used to see it in ancient times, anyway. Back in the 2,400-baud, ASCII text era of 10 long years ago, the Internet had nothing to do with the Nasdaq Index. Until 1991, you had to sign an agreement promising not to conduct any business online just to get access to the Internet! Imagine that. It was a business-free zone.

How could such rules ever have been put in place? Because the Internet began as a public project. It was created to allow scientists at universities and government facilities to share research and computing resources. Everyone from the Pentagon to Al Gore saw the value of a universally accessible information-sharing network and invested federal funds to build a backbone capable of connecting computers around the world.

What they didn’t realize was that they were doing a whole lot more than connecting computers to one another. They were connecting people, too. Before long, all those scientists who were supposed to be exchanging research or comparing data were exchanging stories about their families and comparing notes on movies. People around the world were playing games, socializing, and crossing cultural boundaries never crossed before. Since no one was using the network to discuss military technology anymore, the government turned it over to the public as best it could.

The Internet’s unexpected social side effect turned out to be its incontrovertible main feature. Its other functions fall by the wayside. The Internet’s ability to network human beings is its very lifeblood. It fosters communication, collaboration, sharing, helpfulness, and community. When word got out, the nerdiest among us found out first. Then came those of us whose friends were nerds. Then their friends, and so on. Someone would insist he had found something you needed to know about-the way a childhood friend lets you in on a secret door leading to the basement under the junior high school.

How many of you can remember that first time you watched that friend log on? How he turned the keyboard over to you and asked what you wanted to know, where you wanted to visit, or whom you wanted to meet? That was the moment when you got it: Internet fever. There was a whole new world out there, unlimited by the constraints of time and space, appearance and prejudice, gender and power.

It’s no wonder so many people compared the 1990s Internet to the psychedelic 1960s. It seemed all we needed to do was get a person online, and he or she would be changed forever. And people were. A 60-year-old Midwestern businessman I know found himself logging on every night to engage in a conversation about Jungian archetypes. It lasted for four weeks before he realized the person with whom he was conversing was a 16-year-old boy from Tokyo.

It felt as though we were wiring up a global brain. Techno visionaries of the period, such as Ted Nelson-who coined the word hypertext-told us how the Internet could be used as a library for everything ever written. A musician named Jaron Lanier invented a bizarre interactive space he called “virtual reality” in which people would be able to, in his words, “really see what the other means.”

The Internet was no longer a government research project. It was alive. Out of control and delightfully chaotic. What’s more, it promoted an agenda all its own. It was as if using a computer mouse and keyboard to access other human beings on the other side of the monitor changed our relationship to the media and the power the media held. The tube was no longer a place that only a corporate conglomerate could access. It was Rupert Murdoch, Dan Rather, and Heather Locklear’s turf no more. The Internet was our space.

The Internet fostered a do-it-yourself mentality. We called it “cyberpunk.” Why watch packaged programming on TV when you can make your own online? Who needs corporate content when you can be the content? This was a world we could design ourselves, on our own terms. That’s why it fostered such a deep sense of community. New users were gently escorted around the Internet by veterans. An experienced user delighted in setting up a newbie’s connection. It was considered an honor to rush out to fix a fellow user’s technical problem. To be an Internet user was to be an Internet advocate.

It’s also why almost everything to do with the Internet was free. Software was designed by people who wanted to make the Internet a better place. Hackers stayed up late coding new programs and then distributed them free of charge. In fact, most of the programs we use today are based on this shareware and freeware. Internet Explorer and Netscape are fat versions of a program created at the University of Illinois. Streaming media is a dolled-up version of CUSeeMe, a program developed at Cornell. The Internet was built for love, not profit.

And that was the problem-for business, anyway. Studies showed a correlation between time spent on the Internet and time not spent consuming TV programs and commercials. Something had to be done.

Thus began the long march to turn the Internet into a profitable enterprise. It started with content. Dozens, then hundreds, of online magazines sprang up. But no one wanted to pay a subscription charge for content. It just wasn’t something one did online. So most of these magazines went out of business.

The others … well, they invented the next great Internet catastrophe: the banner ad. Web publishers figured they could sell a little strip atop each page to an advertiser, who’d use it as a billboard for commercials. But everyone hated them. They got in the way. And the better we got at ignoring banner ads, the more distractingly busy they grew, and the more time-consuming they were to download. They only taught us to resent whichever advertiser was inhibiting our movement.

So advertising gave way to e-commerce. The Internet would be turned into a direct-marketing platform. An interactive mail-order catalog! This scheme seemed to hold more promise for Wall Street investors. Not many of these e-commerce businesses actually made money, but they looked as if they could someday. Besides, Wall Street cares less about actual revenue and more about the ability to create the perception that there might be revenue at some point in the future. That’s why it’s called speculation. Others might call it a pyramid scheme.

Here’s how it works: Someone writes a business plan for a new kind of e-commerce company. That person finds “angel investors”-very in-the-know people who give him money to write a bigger business plan and hire a CEO. Then come the first and second rounds, where other, slightly less in-the-know people invest a few million more. Then come the institutional investors, who underwrite the now-infamous IPO. After that, at the bottom of the pyramid, come retail investors. That’s you and me. We’re supposed to log on to an e-trading site and invest our money, right when the investors at the top are executing their “exit strategy.” That’s another way of saying carpetbagging.

What’s all that got to do with the Internet, you ask? Exactly. The Internet was merely the sexy word, the come-hither, the bright idea at the top of the pyramid. Sure, there were and still are lots of entrepreneurs creating vibrant online businesses. But the Internet was not born to support the kind of global economic boom that venture capitalists envisioned. And by turning its principal use from socializing to monetizing, business went against the Internet’s very functionality.

People doing what comes naturally online-such as sending messages to one another-doesn’t generate revenue. The object of the game, for Internet business, was to get people’s hands off the keyboard and onto the mouse. Less collaboration, more consumption. Sites were designed to be “sticky” so people wouldn’t leave. And “information architecture” turned into the science of getting people to click on the Buy button.

Anyone logging on to the Internet for the first time in the year 2000 encountered a place very different from the interactive playground of *0 years earlier. Browsers and search engines alike were designed to keep users either buying products or consuming commercial content. Most of those helpful hackers were now vested employees of dot-com companies. And most visions of the electronic future had dollar signs before them.

But the real Internet was hiding underneath this investment charade the whole time. It was a little harder to find, perhaps, and few in the mainstream press were writing about it anymore. Nevertheless, plenty of people were still sharing stories, e-mailing relatives, finding new communities, and educating themselves.

This is why so many of the business schemes were doomed to fail. The behavior control being implemented by more nefarious online merchants, the mercenary tactics of former hackers, and the commercial priorities of the Internet’s investors were a blatant contradiction of the Internet’s true nature. Sure, the Internet could support some business guests, the way a tree can support some mushrooms at its base and a few squirrels in its branches. But businesses attacked the Internet like men with chain saws. They needed to be rejected.

The inevitable collapse of the dot-com pyramid was not part of some regular business cycle. And it most certainly was not the collapse of anything having to do with the Internet. No, what we witnessed was the Internet fending off an attack. It’s no different from when the government abandoned the Internet in the ’80s, after scientists online began talking about science fiction instead of defense contracts. The Internet never does what it’s supposed to do. It has a mind, and life, of its own. That’s because we’re alive, too.

Now that the Internet’s role in business has faded into the background, the many great applications developed to make our lives better are taking center stage. They are compelling, and surpass some of our wildest dreams of what the Internet might someday achieve. This past spring, for example, as one dot-com after another was folding, M.I.T. announced a new Web curriculum. This leading university promised that, over the next 10 years, it will carry online the lecture notes, course outlines, and assignments for almost all of its 2,000 courses in the sciences, humanities, and arts. Instituting a policy that would make an Internet investor shudder, M.I.T. plans to release all of this material, to anyone in the world, for free.

Or have a look at Blogger. It’s not just a Web site; it’s also a set of publishing tools that allows even a novice to create a Weblog, automatically add content to a Web site, or organize links, commentary, and open discussions. In the short time Blogger has been available, it has fostered an interconnected community of tens of thousands of users. These people don’t simply surf the Web; they are now empowered to create it.

Taking their cue from old-school Internet discussion groups like Usenet, Web sites such as MetaFilter let people begin discussions about almost anything they’ve found online. Each conversation begins with a link, then grows as far as its participants can take it. This is the real beauty of hypertext, and it’s finally catching on. Although hackers have used bulletin board interfaces on sites such as Slashdot since the Web’s inception, more commercially minded endeavors-e.g., Plastic-are adopting the same model to generate dialogues about culture and media.

On Yahoo! the biggest growth area is conversation. Yahoo! Groups, a set of bulletin board discussions and mailing lists, contains thousands of the best discussions happening online-and almost all of them have been started by real people. Based on an old but still widely used style of e-mail conversation called Listserv, it allows group members to read postings and add to the conversation without ever opening their browsers. Some of these special-interest groups are narrowcast to a degree possible only on a global network where people interested in anything from absinthe drinking to zither tuning can find one another across great distances.

And now that international trade and open markets are no longer the Internet’s chief global agenda, more humanitarian efforts are taking shape. Back in 1999, my friend Paul Meyer helped launch Internet Project Kosovo (IPKO) just days after NATO stopped shelling the Serbs. A single satellite dish let Albanian refugees find lost family members, and enabled aid agencies to allocate their resources. Today, Meyer and others are helping people in this and other war-torn and developing regions to network, and even open businesses.

For those whose refugee status ended long ago, Ellis Island has teamed with the Mormon Church to create a database containing arrival records for the 22 million immigrants who came through the New York port between 1892 and 1924. Linked databases, accessible to anyone via the Internet. Is this starting to sound familiar?

Or remember how the Internet was supposed to provide us with alternative sources of news and information? Although it was almost lost under the avalanche of content during the dot-com gold rush, AlterNet has emerged as a vibrant source of news and opinions you won’t see in your evening paper anytime soon. It’s the ultimate alternative newsweekly, available on the Web or by e-mail, using the Internet to collect and syndicate content from sources that just couldn’t get published any other way. And it’s free.

It’s not that the original Internet community went into some sort of remission. No, not all. While e-commerce customers were waiting for return authorization numbers for misordered merchandise from Pets.com, the participants in AOL’s chatrooms were exchanging tips on caring for their Chihuahuas. While DoubleClick was reckoning with plummeting click-through rates on its banner ads, the personal ads in the Nerve singles classifieds were exploding. While the value of many E*Trade portfolios was falling into the red, people who’d never sold anything before were making money peddling items through the auctions on eBay.

Likewise, as headlines panicked investors about the failure of broadband, the massive communities built on IRC chat channels and other early live networking platforms were finding new, more advanced avenues for social and intellectual exchange. For-profit streaming media companies like Icebox may have failed, but the streaming technologies they used have survived and flourished as social tools such as iVisit and NetMeeting. And while the client lists of business-to-business service companies have shrunk, peer-to-peer networks, from Napster to Hotline, still grow in popularity and resist all efforts to quell the massive exchange of data, illegal or not.

In fact, the average American home now has more information and broadcast resources than a major television network newsroom did in the ’70s. A single Apple laptop is a video production studio, allowing even for the complex editing of independent films. Add a fast Internet connection, and a home producer can broadcast around the globe. My own Aunt Sophie, armed with a scanner and e-mail account, has inundated the family with photos of all our relatives’ new babies.

Independent radio stations run through DSL and cable modems out of studio apartments around the world find loyal audiences through Shoutcast and other amateur media networks. And, as the word amateur suggests, these stations are born out of love for a particular genre of music. They allow aficionados from anywhere to enjoy their favorite styles-from raga to reggae-round the clock.

The early Internet was often compared to the Wild West-an anarchic realm where a lone hacker could topple any empire-and that spirit of independence still dominates the culture of the interactive space. Any group or individual, however disenfranchised, can serve as the flash point for an extraordinarily widespread phenomenon.

Online sensations-such as the spoof of the Japanese video game at All Your Base Are Belong to Us! and the parody of Budweiser’s “Wassup?” commercial at Budwizer.com: Wassup Page-are launched by teenagers and distributed by e-mail to millions of office cubicles, eventually finding their way to the evening news. Think about it: The mind-melding of some 14-year-old kid and his computer-such as Neil Cicierega, who created the brilliant parody of consumer culture called Hyakugojyuuichi!!-becomes a conversation piece around the watercooler in thousands of offices all over the world. Powerful stuff.

It gets better. Thousands of hackers worldwide still represent a threat to major software companies, the DVD industry, and any corporation whose interests rely on closed-source computer code or encrypted files. No sooner is a new closed standard released than it is decoded and published by a lone hacker-or by a team of hackers working in tandem from remote and untraceable locations. Activists of all stripes have also seized upon the Internet to cultivate relationships across vast distances and promote new alliances between formerly unaffiliated groups. The Internet-organized demonstrations against World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle and Quebec are only the most notable examples of such networking.

In spite of the many efforts to direct its chaotic, organismic energy toward the monolithic agenda of Wall Street, the Internet can’t help but empower the real people whose spirit it embodies. I’ve mentioned only a few of the thousands of equally vital new buds blooming on the Internet today. They thrive because they promote the life of the Internet itself. They are not parasites but fruit, capable of spreading their own seeds and carrying the Internet’s tendrils even further. They are the Internet.

They share the very qualities that make the Internet so compelling and valuable: transparency, participation, openness, and collaboration. Theirs are the ideals and communities that allowed the Internet to fend off efforts to harness its power for a single, selfish objective. They are also what will keep the Internet resilient enough to withstand the next attack.

So do not mourn. Rejoice. While you may never be able to sell that great dot-com name or make a bundle on that tech stock you bought last year, you’re getting to participate in something that no civilization in the history of the planet has ever had the privilege of experiencing until now: the Internet.