Today in Tedium: As internet culture goes, it sure feels like we’re building up to something, doesn’t it? For a decade, it seemed like the goal was to expand reach above all else—even financial stability. And that lack of stability felt something like whiplash in the hands of large media outlets like BuzzFeed, which announced this week that its once-ballyhooed news operation would be winding down. It’s heartbreaking, yes, but it feels like the winds are telling us something—winds that longtime BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith, now at Semafor, is planning to contextualize in a forthcoming book. (What weird timing.) But of course, it’s not just the news outlets that used to dominate—nor is it the ways that we access information about the world. It feels like we’re at a bit of a crossroads with the internet itself, and maybe we need to start listening to the message that the times are sending us. With that in mind, today’s Tedium ponders the online world’s past inflection points, and considers what they could tell us about this particular moment in time. I’m going to analyze 10 distinct ones—I’m sure others will argue there are more, which I will concede, but this is a list of 10—and the deeper lessons about internet culture that we can cull from these moments. — Ernie @ Tedium
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1. The great ARC controversy
The time: 1987-1988
The shift: The maker of a popular compression tool gets outmaneuvered in the court of public opinion by an upstart.
The deeper lesson: On the digital frontier, good PR often wins over solid legal ground.
This is arguably more of a BBS-era controversy, but its influence over modern internet culture is hard to ignore. Essentially, an individual named Phil Katz built a faster version of a popular compression tool that borrowed but improved upon some of the original developer’s code. That developer, System Enhancement Associates, sued—but while both companies were absolutely tiny, Katz and his firm PKWARE were much more effective at portraying themselves to BBS users as the little guy.
Eventually, the legal battle led Katz to make the ZIP format, which we basically use every day. SEA, and the ARC format it developed, basically disappeared. (Katz’s life ended tragically, dead at a young age from alcoholism. His company is still active today, however—and is much larger than SEA ever was. Thom Henderson, the creator of ARC, did not have kind words to share about Katz’s passing.)
While other incidents from this era carried weight—the Morris Worm comes to mind—the situation that led to the ZIP file feels relevant today because it showed how online mob-building can shape the discourse even more than the facts. You can hear the reverberations of every crappy copyright-related decision YouTube or Twitter ever made in this battle.
2. Linus announces Linux
The time: 1991
The shift: For much of the internet’s history, software stacks were driven by stores and what came with the hardware. When Linus Torvalds announced Linux for x86 computers, it represented the starting point of the modern open source movement, which helped accelerate the internet’s growth by ensuring that basic building blocks could be installed by anyone.
The deeper lesson: On the internet, innovation flows up, not down.
The internet was clearly built as a noncommercial endeavor that would grow commercial, but it’s not hard to see things might have been different if we were trying to build this inherently noncommercial thing on fully commercial roots.
So it makes sense it would have been subsumed by just one company had it not been for the rise of Linux, which helped to develop technology that not only worked on a variety of hardware formats, but was particularly effective in server rooms. The best part—when Torvalds announced it, he specifically said it would be “just a hobby.” It turned out to be the ultimate Trojan horse.
We may use commercial software on our desktops, but it’s hard to imagine a world where the internet was anywhere near as vibrant as it was without Linux existing.
Adam Curry, wearing a Gopher shirt on MTV to fulfill the commercial terms of using Gopher.
3. Gopher lets the web win
The time: March 1993
The shift: The rising popularity of the Gopher protocol disappeared basically overnight after the University of Minnesota started asking users for licensing fees. This was bad timing, as the Mosaic browser, which supported both Gopher and the Web, came out right around this time—essentially defusing Gopher at a time its profile was about to surge.
The deeper lesson: Open wins over closed, at least in 1993.
While the Fighting Illini, which hosted the makers of Mosaic, were leveraging a golden opportunity to shape the future of the internet, another midwestern school was blowing its golden opportunity. The Golden Gophers seemed ready to step in the way of its own students in an effort to show a little authority. Hence the story of Gopher, the protocol that had much to offer to the internet, but fell into gradual disuse because its school tried to charge people to use it.
I think that if the University of Minnesota realized what it had, it might have responded differently and encouraged upgrades to the system that made it an elegant alternative for websites.
You can hear the echoes of latter-day Twitter from here.
4. The Eternal September
The time: September 1993
The shift: AOL gave its customers access to Usenet, which disrupted the techie-favoring tone of the early internet watering hole, leading to a whole heckuva lot of gatekeeping.
The deeper lesson: Tribalism wasn’t going to work as the internet went mainstream, but we would be stuck with it anyway.
I’ve written about this many times over the years, and in many ways, I think it may be perhaps the most important thing to happen in the history of online culture.
Sure, commerce plays a big role in the modern internet. So does innovation and research. But ultimately, the thing that makes the internet work is community, and the mishmash of new types of users launching into the internet in the fall of 1993 just made the environment unworkable, but encouraged a lot of gatekeeping that still happens today.
5. ICANN launches, then its founder dies
The time: October 1998
The shift: Jon Postel, one of the pioneers of the internet, handed off control of many of the internet’s basic functions—the grunt work, the thankless tasks which he undertook personally—to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which he was to help lead. But just weeks after it formally launched, Postel died.
The deeper lesson: The internet needs to be managed like a government, not a fiefdom.
To me, the story of Jon Postel is one I see a lot of myself in. Postel, a researcher at UCLA, spent literally decades developing many of the basic protocols of the internet, and as it matured, Postel’s role became unusually important in terms of the function, as he managed the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority largely by himself.
But he intentionally shook the apple cart in early 1998, leading the U.S. government to intervene, and pushing forth the creation of ICANN. But before he could truly put his mark on the organization, he died—taking his institutional knowledge with him, but at least giving us a succession plan, so we weren’t totally screwed.
Many open-source projects have this problem of a founder who dominates a platform’s creation, only for that founder to lose interest or become unable to manage the project. The internet was just too important to let die on the vine, however.
6. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act passes
The time: October 1998
The shift: One of the first copyright laws written specifically in response to the internet, the DMCA created long-term reverberations in terms of how we approached ownership.
The deeper lesson: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Some might argue that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was more fundamental, but I think the DMCA was a bigger shift in how the internet worked, as I think Section 230 basically was a defensive measure that allowed the internet to function as it was originally intended. (Had the rest of the CDA gone through—it famously was thrown out—then yes, it would have been the bigger shift.)
Over time, the DMCA, albeit frustrating and imperfect, gained a reputation of being something of a necessary evil, as it allowed people to share copyrighted information while largely avoiding the hammer, but gave owners a recourse to get rid of content that violated their copyrights.
The rise of Napster the next year showed that there was an actual need for it, even if it was not well-loved. (Major content industries learned that suing customers was a bad idea, though.)
7. Facebook eats the internet
The time: 2004-2007
The shift: Facebook, a closed network, finds strong popularity among college students as a way to build community.
The deeper lesson: Closed wins over open, at least in 2004, with the help of venture capital.
The pre-2004 internet showed hints that walled-garden platforms would be important elements of the way we experience the digital world—I mean, that’s what AOL was, after all. But Facebook’s presentation of that network, which leaned heavily on existing communities (i.e. college campuses) to grow, helped it build a pretty powerful moat in the long run. Sure, it got overtaken by parents, but the reason they joined in the first place is that they wanted to keep up with their kids.
As a digital society, we did not understand the deal we were making at the time—and you can see that, as networks like Mastodon skew a few years older, that many younger audiences still don’t. Which is why hitting kids in college is a brilliant move if you’re launching a new social network.
8. The iPhone takes over
The time: June 2007
The shift: The internet in our pockets. ’Nuff said.
The deeper lesson: The way we use the internet is going to change with the times.
Look, there’s a chance you’re reading this on a black square with a bright screen with a little antenna inside. Given that we were previously reading things on desktop machines, in web browsers, there was no way it wasn’t going to change how we use the internet.
I think in many ways, it was the building block of what eventually emerged—people with no technical skills but a cheap phone able to take part in the digital discourse. Some can argue that was good, but it’s also been plenty disruptive.
9. Yahoo shuts down GeoCities
The time: October 2009
The shift: An early, deeply influential online community—one in which many people got the chance to experience web design for the first time—shuttered for no other good reason than it didn’t seem profitable to keep it online.
The deeper lesson: Archival work is going to matter a lot as the internet ages.
Look, sites die. There is nothing that is going to keep that from happening short of new laws. I have a whole theory about what should be done, in fact.
But in many ways, Yahoo’s killing of GeoCities both soured the internet’s opinion on Yahoo as a company and set the stage for other shutdowns of this nature, each more brutal and heartbreaking than the last. For those who keep track of such things, the two worst ones are usually this, followed by Google Reader.
10. Social media turns into a social pulse
The time: 2009-2015
The shift: This trend, captured by both social networks like Twitter and Instagram as well as socially driven news outlets like BuzzFeed and Mashable, saw the real time turn into a driver of the modern internet. But it didn’t last—with the rise of the pivot to video showing its limits.
The deeper lesson: Hype is a hell of a drug, and building on someone else’s land is always risky.
In a way, we’re still living in this era, but the point where the excitement started to go away really began when it started affecting people’s jobs.
A couple of key points in this movement I would say are the BreakingNews Twitter account, the Miracle on the Hudson incident, the launch of BuzzFeed News, Tumblr, the dress, and the website Klout. In many ways, this period was good, because it gave average people a voice in the cultural conversation, and even allowed some of those people to surface important discussion points.
But in other ways, things moved so fast that growth happened just to keep the machine going. Stupidly, we thought we would eventually figure out the money problem later. We did not.
In so many ways, the shuttering of BuzzFeed News and the removal of Twitter’s blue checkmarks, on the same day—a shift that makes this list go to 11—felt like the wholesale destruction of the 2010s internet. So what do we make of this shift in light of the prior ones we discussed?
To start, I think it’s safe to say that the mass experiment of just putting millions of people in the same room and hoping for the best is ending. It is very clearly not working. While, sure, it’s great to be in the same party-line conversation as Jason Isbell or Danny DeVito, niched-down communities exist for a reason, and we spent more than a decade fighting against them.
Secondly, I think that page views and trending topics turned into a very dangerous metric with which to build lasting internet content. Sure, there are some places where this model mostly works—YouTube, for one, has benefited from the communal scale. But the problem is that this tooling, over time, becomes easily perverted. You see it every day on Twitter, where political organizations attempt to push the trending topics into a specific direction, and appear to treat Twitter as a daily battle, rather than a daily conversation.
That’s one factor here, and it amplifies many of the lessons I emphasized we learned in the list above. But add to that the mass culling of understanding encouraged by the wholesale removal of legacy blue checkmarks—which, say what you want about it as a status symbol, it was an easy shorthand to figure out relevance and accuracy in a world that often fights it—and you run into a situation where it becomes less sustainable than ever to use social media as a sustainable real-time tool. We had something important, and we lost it because we failed to nurture it.
When I was working on ShortFormBlog, I would follow news events live on Tumblr and Twitter to see what sort of new angles emerged and report on things that I saw. Elon Musk removed some of the strongest signals that one would need to do this kind of coverage, including information on the tool used to post an individual tweet and the authority of the source, because he inherently does not understand what he bought.
We will need to nurture these lessons from the 2010s on smaller networks, more gradually. The era of the single-network party line is over, at least for now. We need to niche down, then build back up.
At the same time, many of the other underpinnings of this era looked shaky even back in the mid-2010s—particularly the news outlets that were built to cater to these social networks.
I think what we’re starting to learn is that we cannot build things without thinking about the revenue models first, because it immediately puts us un an unsustainable path, where the biggest problems gradually become unsolvable. BuzzFeed News was a great site, but it ultimately struggled because it insisted on putting its revenue model at the mercy of social media. And while it’s not the worst thing in the world to create a parasitic business—that’s what Musk’s former company PayPal did, after all—the problem is that BuzzFeed and companies like it built parasitic businesses on shape-shifting creatures.
It makes sense that boring old HuffPost is staying around, as a profitable part of the BuzzFeed machine, because it is built around search. All the jokes about what time the Super Bowl is aside and fears of AI shifting the conversation ahead, the fact of the matter is, if you want to be a parasite, you need to build a parasite on something that can prove stable in the long run.
I think the big shift we will see from the shuttering of BuzzFeed News is the insistence that, when we build new business models for journalism in the digital age, the money conversation has to come first. BuzzFeed News is dying because that conversation came too late.
Let’s hope we remember these lessons.
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