Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Book Reviews

A Happier Internet

Searching for creativity in a profoundly uncreative medium.

Jonathan D. Teubner

THR Illustration [Shutterstock photos].

Twitch is a social media platform where people can livestream themselves playing video games. Its streaming stars, who seem to dress mostly either in cosplay or for a day at Miami Beach, bring their fans directly into their homes and, in many cases, actual bedrooms. Twitch encourages its streaming stars to engage more personally with their followers. These “fans,” as they are called, can start to feel as though they have an actual relationship with the stars.

Connecting with others while playing video games apparently has its appeal, and monetary rewards. Top stars make as much as $120,000 per month. Twitch streamers with more modest followings can easily earn a living wage playing video games in full view of the world online. As one streaming star, Sweet Anita, told a New York Times reporter recently, “I laugh every day. I get paid to play video games. It’s a surreal world.”

Surreal doesn’t quite seem to capture it. Occasionally fans don’t see it merely for the money-making conceit that it is. Stalking is a common problem. One streamer known as DizzyKitten had the understandably alarming experience of one of her followers traveling from Washington State to her small town in Arkansas on the pretense that they were married. Others have received death threats against themselves and their families for considering moving onto a different platform. The online world rarely, if ever, stays online.

By now we are all accustomed to the problems presented by social media. The mental health maladies associated with heavy use can give one pause—depression, memory loss, sleeplessness. But perhaps the more disturbing consequences occur when social media erupts into our everyday lives: stalking, death threats, violence. This, too, is the world social media has wrought.

It’s become somewhat standard to say that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and smaller platforms like Twitch are a novum—something completely new our society must grapple with. Our best psychologists, neuroscientists, and epidemiologists are on the case. But as Kevin Driscoll charts in The Modem World, social media has a history. The premise behind his book is that this history is worth reconstructing, if for no other reason than that it discloses a different way to be online, one that is less corporate and more participatory.

The prehistory of social media, as Driscoll frames it, provides an alternative history of the Internet itself. Histories of the Internet typically begin in 1969, when the Department of Defense began awarding contracts for the development of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), one of the first networks to implement the communication protocols still used on the Internet today. This narrative generally features a predictable cast: There are military strategists conceiving of ways US authorities can communicate after a nuclear attack. There are researchers at Stanford and other universities making it possible for their institutions to connect to the ARPANET and turn it into something approaching a wide-area communications network. Then there are the heroic entrepreneurs, often backed by significant funding from venture capital firms, experimenting and adapting as they strive to expand the ARPANET for broader use.

This narrative of the Internet’s beginnings comes with all the trappings of a best-selling spy thriller. The Internet has indeed been—and continues to be—the playground of elites: the run-of-the-mill billionaires churned out by our global financial system, the shadowy figures lurking in intelligence communities and illicit networks, and hackers of all varieties. Even from the Internet’s earliest days, its money-making potential was clear, and not just to the financially clairvoyant. It was the late twentieth century’s westward expansion, but instead of homesteading on putatively unclaimed lands, it staked out its territory with domain names, websites, content, and, yes, advertising. The military-industrial complex, the postwar research university, and the emergence of Big Tech—the Internet is what they have wrought. Or so we have been taught.

But as many technology critics have argued, this standard folklore assumes a very specific institutional location of the Internet, at the intersection of government, corporations, and universities and the informational networks they created and maintained. Even in the most detailed histories of the Internet, it isn’t clear how these projects morphed into, provided the background for, or even funded the development of the interactive Internet that arose in the early 2000s. It’s time, therefore, for a new narrative that looks at the history from the vantage point of social media platforms that have become synonymous with the Internet.

Driscoll offers the beginnings of this alternative history from his perch as assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. He wants us to see the hobbyists and amateurs who pioneered nascent versions of social media.

Central to Driscoll’s story are bulletin board systems (BBSs) and the system operators, or “sysops,” who controlled them. The first BBS emerged in 1978 from a local microcomputer club in the Chicago area. Ward Christensen and Randy Suess, members of the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyists Exchange (CACHE), were simply trying to make the archives of the club’s newsletter accessible online. As the story goes, computer hobbyists from outside Chicago almost immediately began to call in and check out the system and swap messages. A simple e-newsletter became a public forum. But it was still a rather bespoke or, perhaps, geeky public: To get online, users needed a telephone line, a modem, and some kind of data terminal. (Before the mid-1990s, it was uncommon for computers to have built-in modems.) Christensen and Suess’s computerized bulletin board System (CBBS) was representative of dial-up BBSs: The CBBS “host” computer was hooked up to a single telephone line and could handle just one user at a time. If the user were lucky enough to connect, his data terminal would begin typing out, “WELCOME TO CBBS/CHICAGO *** WARD AND RANDY’S COMPUTERIZED BULLETIN BOARD SYSTEM.” The user could then read messages and leave his own. If they had any questions or needed to report any problems, users were encouraged to call Christensen or Suess at home. It was a simpler time.

BBSs began popping up all over the United States. But they weren’t optimized for interregional communication. In fact, most BBSs were local communities. This was due to the limitations inherent in the Bell System, which charged for long-distance phone calls. Unless you were a particularly dedicated user with a not insignificant amount of capital to cover your monthly phone bill, you would stick to exchanging messages on a local BBS. Ultimately, there were some workarounds that allowed users to call an out-of-area BBS more economically, but these, as the story goes, were quickly displaced by the World Wide Web, the interconnection of thousands of local networks into a single “web.” But in the meantime, BBSs brought about an Internet culture of popular participation, decentralized administration, and quirky technological innovations. It was, at least in Driscoll’s rendition, a happier Internet.

Driscoll traces the Internet culture of BBSs back to mild-mannered ham radio operators and the renegade and often irreverent callers on citizens band (CB) radio. These wildly different discursive cultures—Morse code, on the one hand, and foul-mouthed slang, on the other—infused BBSs with the strange mixture of middle manager orderliness and radical flunkey subversiveness that continues to be the everyday office culture of the tech sector (think sneakers and black T-shirts paired with a fussy insistence that protocols be followed). Driscoll’s chief achievement in The Modem World is to bring to life and into conversation these diverse cultures and show how they initiated a different kind of virtual interaction.

While the masters of the government and university networks did not see geeky chitchat, online games, and software downloads as technologically sophisticated, one of the earliest efforts to create a national system out of BBSs, the FidoNet, went much more smoothly and quickly than earlier attempts to make ARPANET national. Yet much of the conversation remained local: Floridians talking Florida, Bostonians talking books, and Washingtonians talking food. Interest-based groups that were potentially interregional did begin to emerge, GAYNET and BIBLE being two prominent examples from opposite sides of the culture wars. Even these were largely efforts to coordinate in-person get-togethers.

Perhaps the most curious feature of the BBSs—and one that Driscoll ties in to today’s handwringing about social media—is that even with FidoNet’s national network, these digital bulletin boards remained independent, cooperative networks without a central authority governing the technology or social behavior of the users and sysops. BBSs were, in keeping with their roots in irreverent CB culture, lively at times. In order to keep the community relatively functional, the sysops had to act as de facto content moderators.

But there was a different standard for each BBS. Not only did some host the form of taunting we now associate with the outright bullying of gamer culture, but others soon reaped the financial rewards of hosting pornography. Many of the financially self-sustaining BBSs included some form of “adult” content. But what didn’t happen—and this is one of Driscoll’s most important points—is the homogenization of content. Gay culture, fundamentalist Christianity, community advocacy, and right-wing extremism all existed in their separate BBSs. There was no single platform through which algorithms could predict which comment would most likely get you to engage. A potentially provoking comment would, in most cases, simply be inaccessible to you. The decentralization of BBSs was, in short, the civilizing force behind the sysops who attempted to instill some order and decorum.

In his concluding chapter, which is simultaneously the most interesting and least developed in this seven-chapter book, Driscoll presses the point that in today’s social media crisis we often blame the people on the platform. People’s basic desire to connect is, according to Driscoll, pathologized, “as if we should take the blame for our own subjugation.” From his perspective, the blame should squarely rest on the platforms. As his history of social media shows us, there was another path—a different kind of interactive web could exist. He is in one respect entirely right: There is nothing historically necessary about today’s commercial social media.

But Driscoll’s account seems a touch blinkered to the fact that the primitive nature of the technology that BBSs relied on might have had just as much to do with their limited viciousness as their decentralization. One could, for example, receive a threatening and traumatizing phone call, but connecting more than three callers at once was difficult, if not, in some cases, impossible. Driscoll acknowledges in one place that BBSs were not “scalable.” And it is at that very point where we need more from him. As anyone who has ever pitched an idea to venture capitalists knows full well, scalability is central precisely because it’s the most trusted indicator of the monetization potential of a product or service under development. And the simple fact is that what gets funded gets built. Once we happen upon a business model in social media that can financially scale without scaling the user base, we can more easily see our way toward a social media platform that retains all the positive features of BBSs. Without that, there simply is no plausible future for a social media in which small is beautiful (and profitable).

Social media desperately requires innovation, both in the underlying technology and the business models through which developers attempt to make it sustainable. Unfortunately for us, social media companies are profoundly, criminally uncreative. Too many people have believed their own hype, which more often than not is targeted at venture capitalists and others who have the means to fund the next big idea, whether it is the metaverse, cryptocurrency, or the latest AI iteration. Meta, née Facebook, is often thought of as a leader in machine learning, with tech wizards hidden away who could really make the algorithms that power its newsfeed work for the common good. But that perception is mostly the result of good branding, not what the actual business does. But that’s not to say that innovation is in short supply tout court. There are innumerable technology companies innovating, and some of these are doing it with a greater appreciation for a wider variety of stakeholders. But it’s true that there has not been a serious challenger to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, at least in North America. While part of this has to do with the monopolistic stratagems of Facebook and Twitter, it is also attributable to network effects, which are hard to replicate when a very similar product already has them. The point of having a network effect is that you have so many users on your platform that you don’t have to compete on quality. You simply are the place to be. Network effects play on the widespread fear of missing out, which leads to a few people making a lot of money.

Another reason that there are few serious challengers to the big three is that social media platforms are starting to be considered passé. Drawing a distinction between the early information-sharing Internet and the participatory Internet of the early 2000s, digital media mogul Tim O’Reilly dubbed the latter Web 2.0. But now we have Web 3. Like Web 2.0, Web 3 is a branding concept. It generally captures the cryptocurrency-NFT-metaverse wave, some of which is receding with an oncoming recession. Whatever else Web 3 is, it is a vision of life lived entirely online. I might just be a little too early millennial—the Oregon Trail generation, as I understand—but life lived entirely online doesn’t draw me in. And neither, I wager, will Web 3 attract the requisite money to realize this vision for one simple reason: Web 2.0 was financially successful because a vast array of corporations accepted the fiction that social media behavior was generally reflective of what the population believed and cared about. But by Web 3’s very nature, it will not be possible for it to attract the same stratospheric level of monetization as Web 2.0—or at least not in the same way. In short, it desperately needs a new monetization method.

We should, however, be very worried about those platforms that sit at the intersection of social media and the metaverse. Despite social media’s best efforts to stage-manage their platforms as self-contained social experiences, they are profitable because they can propel real-world behaviors such as purchasing a handbag. But a social media platform for gamers unsettles an algorithm’s ability to predict real-world behavior. In a gaming environment, the game is the world; the social media add-on simply extends a portal to the real world. In this case, the terrors that have befallen Twitch streaming stars are sadly to be expected. When one party thinks this is merely life online and goes about playing a role, but the other party thinks this is “real” life, genuinely troubling experiences emerge. Just ask DizzyKitten.