November 1st, 2012
Today in random philosophical pontification…
I think now is the point at which I should use my power as Grand Poobah of Everything to declare that everyone except network engineers should stop talking about ‘the internet’, please.
There no longer is ‘an internet’, except at the physical / protocol level which smart network engineers maintain, virtually thanklessly, so venture capitalists can make lots of money on top of it. And when people talk about ‘the internet’, they’re not talking about that.
Lots of talking heads like to pontificate about ‘the internet’, even still – is it ruining our social lives? Is it good or bad for society, politics, free speech, knitting, $WHATEVER? I think the reason these types of discussions tend to be ridiculous is that they’re built on a false premise. There just isn’t ‘an internet’ any more.
There was a long period from the 1970s to the 1990s when there was clearly ‘an internet’ like this, which the few geeks who used it could sensibly talk about in a monolithic way. Pretty much everyone on ‘the internet’ used the same small range of services (which didn’t come to include the WWW until the 1990s, of course) – email, usenet, telnet, ftp, maybe a bit of IRC. It was the network layer which still exists with a thin veneer of basic services on top that a fairly small number of people used for broadly similar purposes.
There was then a very brief period from the late 1990s to the early 2000s in which a whole lot of people were using ‘the internet’, but they were still really only using a pretty basic range of services – many of the same ones that the geeks used, especially email. The new bunch of ‘regular people’ internet users went gaga for the WWW, of course, since it’s nice and easy to use and permits the publication of lolcats.
Now – and, really, for at least the last five years or so – there is no ‘the internet’ any more in terms of a recognizably unitary culture or set of services. ‘The internet’ that I, as someone who started using the internet at the end of the ‘geek’ period, use is utterly different from ‘the internet’ that a typical high school kid uses, which is utterly different again from ‘the internet’ that a 63-year old guy in Dakota uses…and so on.
I think I’ve visited tumblr twice. I filter the crap out of facebook and treat it as an analog of MSN Messenger, which may not make any sense to Mark Zuckerberg or an internet marketing graduate (these things now exist) but makes perfect sense to me. I only have a Twitter account for sending out QA announcements.
I run a desktop mail client and an IRC client and still use an ftp client occasionally, which makes sense to me and maybe most of my readers but is an alien language to someone who first used ‘the internet’ on a smartphone. (Let’s not even get into the servers.)
Even the WWW has now diverged enough that any ten people might have a completely different set of top-ten most visited sites (aside from Google). Does it make any sense to say that someone who visits gadget blogs, someone who visits political news sites and someone who visits petcare tip sites are all using the same internet? I’m not sure it does.
This really crystallized for me with the Hurricane Sandy coverage. There was loose discussion everywhere about how it was being followed ‘on the internet’. Well I was reading about Hurricane Sandy ‘on the internet’ but to me, that meant I refreshed the CNN front page about once every five hours. I wasn’t subscribing to the mayor of NYC’s Twitter feed or following photo feeds or anything like that. How is it possible to talk about a single ‘Sandy on the internet’ experience?
My internet is not your internet, and all our internets are now different. We’re all routing our traffic over the same network but there is no monoculture any more. It does not make any sense to talk about ‘the internet’ in that way, and I would like for everyone to stop, please. Thank you!