We need to develop an internet of people, not an internet of things.
Over the past few weeks, my wife Dezzie and I have talked about the idea of reclaiming the internet of our youth. Fifteen years ago, web firms were just learning how to monetize, which they now have down to an art. With the exception of popups, the ads weren’t as annoying, the trolls weren’t quite as troll-y, and friends were hanging out on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) whenever they were able to dial in on their 56K modem. Now, popups have evolved into in-window popups, leaving me in a desperate search to find the “x” button to dismiss (a nearly impossible task); reputable news sites have reduced themselves to the embarrassing trend of click bait; comboxes show how far humanity has to go before we reach the United Federation of Planets; and digital communication between friends has been reduced to selfies with words that disappear in less than ten seconds (the Mission Impossible ideal has been reached!).
Before I continue, it’s not all bad. I’m not a Luddite who wants to wish away technological innovation. In the hands of the right people–folks who know how to properly use the technology–the city of San Francisco can uplift children facing terrible illness; Kenyans can send money to family members in need with their phones; drivers can avoid traffic on the road ; anyone can crowd fund awesome inventions that never would have never seen the light of day otherwise; creatives can record, edit, and produce their own videos that entertain and inform; the parents of a child born without an arm can collaborate with people around the globe to develop a custom-made prosthetic arm; and I can stay connected to family across the country with a touch of a button. We’re living at a new height of creativity as the tools available to artists, innovators, and designers are more refined than ever. So what gives?
Beyond these external markers of progress, fifteen years ago there was a sense of community and vibrancy present on the web that has since been lost in my life. I don’t rush home to talk to my friends on Facebook like I used to on AIM–being always connected via mobile messaging ended that. Blogs were a thing I wrote as a hobby (hello Xanga!), not a legitimate source for news and commentary. And the websites, well, the websites are much better now than then. I’ll be happy if I never see another website built with Flash intros and iFrames, but I wager a good 10% of church sites are still built using ten-year-old techniques (this one is particularly aged).
Growing up with the pre-social internet allowed me to have important conversation with friends from school and church. These conversations probably wouldn’t have taken place otherwise. I remember staying up late with friends and talking through the finer points of our faith (and playing some Yahoo! games like Pool and Towers, may they rest in peace). These conversations would eventually propel me to study theology in college, which was practically unheard of for someone who graduated from a public high school.
The internet of my youth helped me develop deep, lasting friendships.
The Internet of 2015
Each time I read a story about Facebook bullying and the pressures of social media on youth, I think, “I’m glad I don’t have to face high school now.” Youth in 2015 worry about their online persona and image in addition to being cool at school. Years ago, when the internet was for “nerds” and “geeks”, it didn’t matter. I only gave my AIM handle to my friends in due course of time and to acquaintances as I signed their yearbooks in May. Now, high schoolers’ classmates are easily findable on social media and the pressure is on to “friend” and follow the right people.
For adults, the internet can easily become an exercise in confirmation bias. Very rarely do we follow people and news sources with which we disagree. No one wants to be constantly exposed to positions that make their blood boil, but when we only see news stories from like-minded people, our view of the world becomes very, very small. “No possible reasonable person could hold such a position,” we reason, “because no one I follow posits contradictory positions to my own.” The “echo chamber” effect of social media leads to a divided world, where “they” become less reasonable and more monstrous.
In practice, our use of social media and the internet as a whole has become a “like”-fest. We opt for the pain-free method of content-approval instead of personal engagement. I can double-tap to “like” something on Instagram in less than a second, but takes me at least 30 times longer to produce a thoughtful response. Meaningful interaction costs us more, but it gives us more.
Reclaiming the internet of my youth requires meaningful human interaction.
“Talking to One Another”
As a Catholic who works in the field of communications, I keep an eye on what Pope Francis says and writes. Every year on January 23, the Pope releases a message for “World Communications Day,” which is held later in the year. This year, in a message directed at families, he writes (emphasis mine):
The great challenge facing us today is to learn once again how to talk to one another, not simply how to generate and consume information. The latter is a tendency which our important and influential modern communications media can encourage. Information is important, but it is not enough. All too often things get simplified, different positions and viewpoints are pitted against one another, and people are invited to take sides, rather than to see things as a whole.
Francis is calling for a shift back to the days of using the internet ( and especially social media) for meaningful conversation and connection. I used the internet of my youth to develop friendships, and it was fabulous. The best part of internet relay chat (IRC) (besides, perhaps, downloading Metallica concerts from 30 years ago) was chatting with people who share a common interest. And it seems that people on the internet used to be so much nicer as a whole than they are now. Perhaps we had dial-up to thank for this? Slower speeds meant we had to think longer about what we would say. Did I actually want to wait ten seconds for a comment or a guestbook page to load?
What would real conversation on social media look like? Below is one example of a quick but great conversation with my wife’s cousin Rocio. A favorite on her original tweet would have spelled doom for actual human interaction. Only by replying did we have a conversation, albeit a very quick one.
It’s easier to discuss the merits of something like Parks & Rec than it is to discuss why we’re for or against a particular policy. But we have to start somewhere.
Reclaiming the internet of my youth can only happen when we actually talk to one another, not simply browse to generate and consume information.
Let’s talk, not exchange thumbs-ups
Robots can be programed to “like” something. I suggest using the internet to express your humanity and acknowledge mine. Pause for a moment to think and then reply when I post something of substance. I’ll try to do the same.
We need a new way forward on social media and on the internet, a way that is more human, a way which better reflects my experience as a youth on the internet in the time of dial-up. “Reclaiming the internet of my youth” isn’t about going back to a certain time in history and stopping technological development. No, it’s about claiming that the internet is for more than playing Farmville and watching cat videos. The internet, at its best, is a platform that allows us to build community and strengthen friendships, to encounter the other and learn from their experience.
We need to break out of the fear of commenting on others’ posts, the fear of replying to a tweet instead of favoriting it, and get back to blogging or tweeting for the sake of family and friends. There’s no such thing as a perfect blog post or a perfect tweet or a perfect comment. Embrace the humanity and the flaws of the other and enter into a conversation or a dialogue. Your reward won’t be 100 “likes,” but rather the enjoyment of genuine, honest friendship.
Isaac Garcia (@eyegar) works in the communications office for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas in Silver Spring, Maryland.