How could we make a better internet?
For too long, the World Wide Web has been shaped by tech capitalists in California. A non-toxic, ad-free digital world is possible – but how do we get there?
In the beginning, things were going to be good. When the first web pages began to blink up on screens in 1991, they brought with them with a boom of utopian thinking. Back then, the internet was envisioned as a dreamscape, an abundant space of infinite information sharing. In 1996, less than seven years after Tim Berners-Lee first proposed the World Wide Web, cattle rancher, Grateful Dead lyricist and internet pioneer John Perry Barlow wrote the now-infamous piece “A Declaration for the Independence of Cyberspace”. In it, he talked about a new “civilisation of the Mind”, a world “without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth”. In the early days, the internet was going to bring us to new realms of possibility. It was going to bring us together.
Jump to today, and this hopeful tech-utopianism feels like a distant call from a lost world. Targeted ads burst and breed across every available online surface, while over half of all web traffic comes from bots. Trolls, hate groups and inflammatory far-right content flourish, and personal data is mined and sold for profit. Now, with Mark Zuckerberg expanding his empire of apps into the metaverse and news that Elon Musk has bought Twitter for $44 billion, it seems clear that instead of a free, abundant utopia for all, the web is simply a playground for tech tycoons.
Traces of the idealistic language used by early internet pioneers remain – Musk’s bid for Twitter described the platform as having “tremendous potential”, promised to strive towards “making the algorithms open source” and “defeating the spam bots” (it doesn’t take a self-professed genius to realise these two goals work against one another). Yet it’s hard to shake the sense that billionaires are not doing good, just business.
There’s this pervasive feeling that the internet is broken. It’s becoming a dystopia, a seething mass of conspiracies, violence, misogyny and greed. But what if, instead of darkly joking about how bad the internet might get, using old Black Mirror episodes to express our unease, we imagine how it might be better? What if, instead of nostalgically yearning for an earlier internet full of glittery, kitschy GIFs and chat rooms, we started to dream of something new?
Some digital natives believe a “better internet” has already arrived in the form of Web3. To the average user, the terms “Web2” and “Web3” might seem like jargon, but this only proves that most of us are still firmly lodged in Web2 – the current iteration of the internet, with all its social media, online shopping and data surveillance. But while many people are catching up on what Web3 is, laughing at crap NFT art or falling for scams, a wave of internet theorists are harnessing new crypto and blockchain technologies to create online communities that are supposedly free from some of our present day’s most glaring issues.
Berlin-based writer Caroline Busta says that, despite how it might look on the chimp-filled Twittersphere, “Web3 is more than Bored Apes in shutter shades”. In 2018, Busta co-founded New Models, an aggregator taking arts, tech and media content from all over the web and presenting it in a simple and decidedly retro single-page layout (while swerving the pay-to-play social network models).
It looks like a leftover scrap from the old internet, before ads and pop-ups jostled for space on our screens. One of its foundational principles is the same as it was in the internet’s early days: decentralisation, or the process of giving back power to the user rather than greedy middlemen. In Web3, supposedly, decentralised apps can take the place of centralised social networks, while allowing individuals to maintain ownership over their data. Though, as Busta suggests, it’s best to view Web3 as “not a replacement for Web2, but more of a layer that sits in relation to it”.
“In my head,” Busta says, “Web2 is to Times Square what Web3 is to Dimes Square.” In case this analogy about New York locales is too obscure, in other words, Web2 has become an endless barrage of adverts and scrutiny; a space where you’re relentlessly monitored and encouraged to both spend money and market yourself. Dimes Square, meanwhile, is a triangle of Lower Manhattan that has become, to some, the epicentre of NYC’s downtown creative class.
Dimes, then, is “an autonomous layer with its own economy that floats beyond Times Square, yet still interacts with Times Square, socially and economically.” But, crucially, it’s “the enclave where people actually live their lives”. For Busta, a better internet would be one “where we can separate our public and professional existence from our more local, personal lives. Where all of our energy isn’t going into performing for mass audiences but towards building new spaces and testing out new ideas together.”
This year, in collaboration with digital theorist Joshua Citarella and Interdependence (Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst’s podcast for the crypto-curious), New Models launched Channel, a “decentralised media organisation and platform” that bundles all three businesses together with an NFT digital membership card. “It’s time for the new cultural institutions to be built,” says Channel. “We believe Web3 offers powerful tools for imagining what they might become.”
“My hope,” Dryhurst says, “has always been that this internet will encompass 1000 competing ideas at any one time.” Like Busta, he seems to believe in decentralisation and competition as essential goods, urging that Web3 is “not any one thing, but a chaotic swarm of different ideas realised at an ever increasing pace.” To him, it’s “a chaotic open internet where, from one day to the next, you can choose to interact with different services offering you a better deal.”
But while Dryhurst is surely right that “the web feels more fun when we aren’t doom scrolling the same advertising feeds every day,” it’s unclear how this “chaotic open internet” might fundamentally change power relations. Or, indeed, how it would be a genuine alternative to Web2’s profit-over-people doctrine.
Maria Vorobjova is a London-based artist inspired by the aesthetics and boundless digital utopianism of ‘90s internet communities, using bold primary colours, intense pixelation and blocky, geometric shapes. “The recent mushrooming of decentralised and distributed networks within Web3 aims to move cyberspace out of the grasp of tech monopolies and offer netizens alternative modes of collaboration and cohesion,” she says. “But they won’t automatically yield an egalitarian, equitable cyberspace.”
James Muldoon, an author and senior lecturer in political science at the University of Exeter, goes even further. “There is nothing necessarily progressive about decentralisation,” he writes in a recent article, Why Web3 Can’t Fix the Internet. He thinks Web3 is “unlikely to meaningfully redistribute value because it doesn’t challenge the fundamental drive to commodification that now dominates the web.” Despite the analogy of public squares, all too often crypto communities feel exclusive and impenetrable – more like private members clubs tacked on to the side of Web2’s sprawling mall complex.
“My view is that the internet is broken because it’s a business,” Ben Tarnoff, author of Internet For The People: The Fight For Our Digital Future, tells me. “That is, the internet’s various dysfunctions and depredations are inextricable from the fact that it is owned by private firms and run for profit.” If it is this profit motive that is breaking the internet – making it fit, not for public use, but for plunder by the world’s richest men – then inserting digital token systems into online communities won’t be enough to radically transform it. As Tarnoff puts it, “a better internet would be one in which people, and not profit, rule.”
There is growing momentum behind the idea of deprivatising the internet; of treating it as a public good. In his book, Tarnoff argues for creating a public stack in which each layer of our digital media – even the pipes that carry the Internet across oceans and into our homes – is democratised. Other activists and theorists are thinking along similar lines. Some have argued for breaking up platform monopolies into smaller firms, or, as James Muldoon suggests in his book Platform Socialism, devolving ownership and control to tech workers and users as co-operatives.
Others such as Alexander Monea, author of The Digital Closet: How The Internet Became Straight, suggest platforms should be publicly owned. “I think the internet should be a public utility,” Monea says, “including everything from its physical infrastructure and access to the web to the platforms that increasingly constitute the entirety of our experience of the internet.”
So, what would a public internet look like?
“If I had to imagine it,” Monea says, “it would be a simple interface for sharing, engaging with, and discovering multimedia content, likely with a simplistic and/or throwback interface.” He suggests a mixture of “Reddit without the toxicity and Craigslist without the lack of accountability, perhaps with elements of Twitch and TikTok mixed in.” But perhaps the best model we already have is Wikipedia.
Potentially, then, transforming the internet from a private mall into a public library might mean it doesn’t look all that different. Users could still chat, create and share content, and join communities, but the major change would be that it’s not monetised with targeted ads. This would, in turn, remove the incentives to harvest personal data through surveillance.
The crucial thing is that, as Tarnoff puts it, “an internet where the people rule” – from municipally and cooperatively owned broadband networks, to worker-owned, app-based services and self-governing social media communities – would mean viewing the internet as a core infrastructure and essential utility on par with water and electricity. “In a better world,” London-based artist Cecile B. Evans suggests, “the answer to ‘what would a better internet look like?’ would be ‘(trans)nationalised.’”
The fight for a better internet is, basically, inseparable from the fight for a better world. “When I see breathlessly long threads describing gonzo resistance tactics in reaction to the takeover of Twitter by an apartheid trust fund,” Evans says, “I wish people would stick to using that energy to imagine dismantling whatever version of capitalism we’re in.”
Essentially, we can either have a democratic, public internet that prioritises comfort and collective safety, or a commercialised internet that delivers profits to a handful of white men in California. Creating a better internet means striving for solidarity and social justice. Another world is possible. And, as Ben Tarnoff says, “another social media is possible, but we must fight to make it so.”