The online experience wasn't always one of Big Tech and "internet trash." What aspects of contemporary digital platforms preserve creativity and community and which need reformed?
by Naomi Smith, Clare Southerton, and Aleesha Rodriguez
Published onOct 10, 2023
💕✨Towards a Positive Internet✨💕
It’s a common refrain to hear that ‘the internet is trash,’ especially when we’re talking about social media where conversations can quickly turn hostile and polarised. At the same time, even the so-called trash social media platforms of today undeniably deliver us moments of collective joy and pleasure, as trending in-jokes and circulating emotions help us make sense of our experiences and even mobilise around political and social issues.
Given many of us spend our lives in these digital spaces, how do we move away from the ‘big critique’ of the internet as the ‘bad place’ and generate creative positive visions for our digital future?
In July 2023, scholars and practitioners across eastern Australia joined us in Meanjin/Brisbane for a two-day workshop called ‘💕✨Towards a Positive Internet✨💕.’ In designing the workshop, we took inspiration from bell hooks’ ode to love, to strategically and playfully lean into kitsch and femme aesthetics; a juxtaposition to the monochrome and masculine logics that dominate the imagined dystopian internet ruins. In practice, these considerations materialised through confetti, stickers, references to fandom, and tactile activities involving colour, glue, clay, blocks, and collage.
The workshop activities scaffolded from reflections on past practices (what did we love about the internet of old?) and then moved to present observations (what do we love about the internet now?), before asking the group to engage in speculative design and ‘backcast’ from the future (i.e., working backwards from the future), how we get to a positive internet—what changes to policy, technology, education, and practices? We wanted our participants to identify the common threads between the ‘old’ internet that they loved, and the internet that still exists today, and dwell on what they would want to see in the internet of the future. What kinds of communities should be preserved? What ways of connecting and relating and creating from the internet that existed before the mass commercialisation of many of our digital spaces need to be revived? What aspects of the digital world should be removed or reformed for a more positive internet?
Participants were generative and generous and offered critical reflections: asking what even is a ‘positive’ internet? For whom? And through what means? Emerging through these engaging discussions were the following five key takeaways.
1 // Emphatic descriptions of internet nostalgia
Many of us at the workshop (and beyond) have a love for the internet of old—for the intimacies of MySpace and Livejournal, slow dial up internet connections and ‘computer rooms’. Why do we long for websites that lack the aesthetically pleasing design choices that are so readily available in today’s click and drag, Canva-ified, and filtered, digital world? The ‘janky internet’ (as recreated here on cameronsworld.net) is personal, personalisable, and yes sometimes cringe. The internet wasn’t always on, although it was always waiting for you, in the computer room, not in your pocket. But the nostalgia for Y2K aesthetic speaks to a rejection of the smooth unending sameness of the digital media platforms that now dominate the internet landscape (we’re looking at you Meta and Alphabet).
2 // The value of customisation and interoperability
Along with a nostalgia for a less professional, less corporatised internet, came a desire to be able to get under the hood more—to be able to customise and change things about our digital worlds. With the rise of powerful platforms, it’s more common for our digital experiences of these interfaces to be tightly controlled by the decisions of a handful of companies (we’re looking at you Google and Meta). Internet traffic statistics indicate that the top five websites visited in 2021 were: Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. When presenting their creations to the groups participants described wanting more spaces where they could shape, play with, and customise, and a desire to move beyond these privately owned ‘walled garden’ style towards greater interoperability between platforms. Comparable cameronsworld.net to the sameness of our social media pages, which have limited and restricted options for customisability. It’s a long way from the loud, messy MySpace pages that shaped early social media experiences.
3 // Intimacy with strangers
At the workshop the role of strangers on the internet was a point of discussion that surprised us. It’s common to hear anonymity called out as the cause of antisocial behaviour on the internet — because some internet spaces are anonymous, they allow people to act in ways they wouldn’t when their behaviour had more ‘real world’ consequences. This is an argument that has been repeatedlycritiqued. However, many people pointed out that being able to feel close to strangers and form community with them, and to be anonymous if they want to, was an important part of the internet both in the past and today. Practices of anonymity also facilitated trust and intimacy. To find connection on the basis of shared interests or experience, rather than only physical proximity, to pour your heart out to a stranger on Reddit or to share excitement with another fan on Twitter is precisely the kind of connection that digital spaces afford and points to one of the many ways the internet has enriched our lives and made accessing shared joy easier. Perhaps you remember the 30-50 feral hogs meme?
4 // Sustainable computing
In imagining a positive internet future, themes of sustainability emerged strongly. Participants wanted a renewable internet powered by future sustainable technologies. We critiqued the extractive logic of contemporary digital platforms which extract data and labour (see for example, Giblin and Doctrow’s Chokepoint Capitalism) from their users, while also sucking dry environmental resources through water and energy, contributing to noise pollution, and dominating the landscape. A better internet is sensitive to our collective data and environmental commons.
5 // A positive internet is possible
Finally, a common thread throughout the two days was a feeling that a positive internet can be made from the wreckage. As we shared our love of the internet, and talked about what we would want to keep in a new iteration, it was clear that the building blocks of a better digital world are not something to be found in a new innovation but instead by seeking to preserve what still connects and inspires us. A positive internet is not only possible, it presently exists amongst the trash.
Where to from here?
We were disheartened by the many numerous negative (but understandable) critiques of the Internet. This workshop was our response to these critiques, and a way to start having different kinds of conversations about the Internet that was, is, and has yet to come to pass. The workshop was a way for participants to connect to what they love about the Internet, something we often take for granted. The wonder of the Internet, its ability to connect us with friends, family, and new communities is something that it is easy to take for granted. Instead of solutions, this workshop sits as a provocation and asks questions which we hope will motivate scholarly and industry practices moving forward. What is the internet we want? What would happen if we designed new experiences with an eye to amplify the positive aspects of the Internet we identified? And finally, as a community, how can we highlight, and perhaps reverse engineer some of that internet magic to provide guidelines and directions for positive internet futures?
We would like to acknowledge the 22 participants whose optimism, criticality, and enthusiasm for a better internet made the workshop a success. This workshop was supported by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child (through project number CE200100022) and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society (through project number CE200100005).
I absolutely love the idea of using print media to create our own internet, it goes back to the early days of DIY computers where the lines between analogue and digital were blurred. So much so that I created my own collage out of the limited magazines I have access to! I’d love a collective space where knowledge is shared freely, found useful, and fosters understanding and where community is cultivated from curiosity, humility, and creating change. Especially in this Big Tech/Data world we currently live in, I’d appreciate seeing more sustainable computing that honors the air and space that “the cloud” consumes (maybe you can see that, and more, in this image??)
As the editor of Commonplace, I encourage others to artistically create or to share your poetic reclamations of the internet.
(Alt text for image: a mostly blue-colored collage that’s kinda rotationally-symmetrical with the exception of the word “Magic” at the top and “Mischief” at the bottom and a space-man saying “AHA!”.)