The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.
–Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google
The Internet was once solely the province of academics and researchers; universities communicating with the governmental and military facilities that financed their research; and governmental and military facilities communicating with one another. The type of information it carried was static and highly structured and, since unhindered communication was a necessity, there were few boundaries, and the people using it were expected to know and abide by its rules. As a result, there was little need for security and facilities routinely shared information and files. The very purpose of the Internet was the free exchange of information, laying the groundwork for the massive communications portal it has become
As college students found their way onto the Internet, this culture began to change. The type of information exchanged became more informal and less rigid. Newsgroups began to flourish where people could chat, exchange information, and occasionally seek out nude photos of popular celebrities. It was in this environment where I first discovered the Internet, through an account at New York University, sometime around 1993. At the time, Freenets were springing up at places like Case Western University in Cleveland, and Erlangen in Germany which represented some of the earliest attempts to establish online Internet communities. The first note I posted to an Internet newsgroup was an inquiry about my family on soc.genealogy, and the first response I received was from a guy in Australia, telling me there were Lupos Down Under.
America Online (AOL) was one of the first widespread attempts by a company to package Internet usage and sell it to consumers with no background in the technology. Throughout the mid-1990s, their ubiquitous compact disks provided many experienced Internet users with free coasters for their drinks while allowing novice users their first access to the free wheeling and anarchistic world of the Internet and most didn’t like what they found there. Many of these people had backgrounds in the rigidly structured world of online services such as Prodigy, and found it hard to deal with a platform with no centralized authority which, to many, must have resembled an unmonitored bulletin board at their local supermarket.
It was during this period when the Internet was being overrun by one group of newcomers after another that I began to see it as a microcosm of society at large, particularly with regards to the experience of immigrants. Each new group started with zero knowledge of the existing protocols and etiquette, and usually set off a backlash among more seasoned users, in particular, those who had themselves been newcomers just a few years earlier. When students started using the Internet, the systems administrators who kept the mechanisms functioning, and therefore had the highest degree of knowledge about the portal, found themselves dealing with less experienced people who wanted to set up numerous chat rooms and newsgroups which, in the eyes of the admins, wasted bandwidth. The students, who established the rudimentary elements of what would over the next two decades evolve into social media, resented the intrusion of the first wave of consumers onto the Internet via services such as Netcom and AOL, especially since this included many of their parents, and the term “AOLuser” became a favorite derogatory expression for them. WebTV made it even easier for inexperienced people to get on the Internet, invoking the ire of AOL users, who now considered themselves the experts, just as the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of cities such as New York and Boston resented the influx of Irish, German, and Italian immigrants in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and as many of their descendants now are resentful of Muslim newcomers.
When the World Wide Web first came about in the early-90s, I didn’t like it. Unix browsers at the time were text based without a method for displaying graphics and the whole enterprise seemed designed as a method of collecting links to other sites rather than conveying useful information. Netscape changed all that. The introduction of a graphical interface to the web suddenly made it come to life and demonstrated its full potential for transmitting knowledge. The Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) which made up the web was a simplified form of Standard General Markup Language (SGML) used at CERN, making it relatively easy to master. Before long, websites were popping up all over the place, and businesses were anxious to get pages set up, even if they didn’t understand what the Web was or why they needed to be there. Many of these early pages were little more that fact sheets about the company containing text, with some photos, and a phone number or email link to contact a representative.
The Internet has since become a giant, worldwide, round the clock conversation that anyone with access is free to take part in. Implicit in that, however, is figuring out the rules, and observing the etiquette necessary to get the most out of the experience. Learning to navigate the various social media platforms is akin to learning a new language and culture. Each one has its own customs and quirks, and therefore its own special flavor. For people who spend most of their time on Facebook, visiting Reddit might be a confusing experience, and a considerable learning curve could be needed to understand the culture. Going from WordPress to Twitter would be similar to a novelist switching to writing micro stories. Instagram does not support animated GIFs, whereas Tumblr seems to thrive on them. Nowadays, the free transmission of information which was the bedrock of the early Internet, has led to such problems as identity theft, denial of service attacks, and phishing scams making tighter security a necessity.
Security is not the only dark side of the Internet. One industry which has thrived has been the porno industry. With the advent of digital cameras and video recorders, and quick wireless connections, filmmakers only need a reliable server, a domain name and willing participants to set up shop. It is, perhaps, typically human to create the most advanced communications network ever devised then use it to download and view nude photos and sexually explicit videos. On a more sinister note, terrorist networks such as ISIL use the Internet to communicate quickly and efficiently and to recruit new members.
An even more pervasive threat is cyber bullying and online shaming. Anyone who has ever visited certain Reddit forums, read the comments on a news or political site or fan page, knows of the incendiary nature of some of the posts. Marginalization within society which breeds hostility and mistrust, combined with the relative anonymity of online forums, combine to contribute to the angry and twisted posts some people make. Access to information and the number of public records available make it easy to identify and track an individual and just as easy to post personal details which “go viral” and disseminate quickly. As an experiment, I once tried collecting facts on an individual whose name I overheard at an event the previous evening and the level of knowledge I was able to gain about the person was frightening. In the hands of cyber vigilantes, and an overly eager audience numbering in the millions, information can become a deadly weapon.
Free exchange of information via the Internet has had a profound effect on people in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and this effect is expanding at an exponential rate. Throughout Africa, for instance, people use their phones to share music and videos of their favorite local bands or performers, giving them a global audience. It’s almost a cliché within the United States to see people glued to their wireless devices, oblivious to the world around them. With technology advancing at an increasing pace, the information revolution created by the Internet and World Wide Web in the 1990s, will continue to transform society for generations to come.