From Old Paris to a New Internet


In June of this year, human rights watchdog Frank La Rue, as a “special rapporteur” to the United Nations, said in a UN report that the Internet is “an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress.” In short, Internet access is considered a basic human right and every country in the world should strive for universal access for its citizens. And while this claim can be shaky, it’s still a difficult thing to deny. The Internet has helped topple dictators and elect presidents. It has greatly expanded the ability for free expression and access to information. So calling Internet access a human right does has some legs, but as the western world’s Internet goes increasingly more mobile, and as the four horsemen of information technology (Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon) gear up for domination, one has to wonder: what kind of Internet will it be?

In a now somewhat dated book titled Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the way we Create and Communicate, author Steven Johnson invokes the disorderly nature of Old Paris, with its winding streets and unpredictable neighborhoods, as a metaphor for the Internet. Old Paris was built from the ground up, organically; in piecemeal according to those that lived on and traveled its streets. This works incredibly well with our conception of the Internet and its democratic ideals: It is the people who use it. Norms and values on the Internet were/are created unpredictably, vibrantly, and, at times, chaotically. But then, staying with the metaphor, Paris was rebuilt to heighten its efficiency, to make travel easier. Here, Johnson’s comparison stops. But there is an aspect of this metaphor that is beginning to hold true to our current Internet. Paris wasn’t merely rebuilt to improve travel—it was also rebuilt to bring a greater sense of control to Napoleon III. The streets were remade so that dissent and uprising could be found and squashed more quickly and efficiently. The local knowledge that reigned supreme in the haphazard street layout of the old city was now debunked by a new administrated system of purely functional streets and pathways that allowed for quick orientation and unhindered maneuverability. Gone were the random, casual encounters of Old Paris’ public life, replaced with grand boulevards meant to merely move people from one place to another. This seems more like where the Internet is headed today.

Now, this administered Internet experience is nothing new. Remember AOL? That walled garden that never wanted you to leave, that just tapped into the web rather then being on the web? AOL organized a then-confused-and-cluttered Internet. Many say that was AOL’s downfall: a too limited interface, too narrow of a user experience—that and the phasing out of dial-up and the introduction of broadband. In any case, people began wanting to explore, to be free to see, experience, and interact with the World Wide Web. The garden was controlled and pretty, but the walls were too restricting.

We're now moving back in that direction. Social media is the future of the web as evidenced by the astonishing figures of Facebook: with over 800 million users, Facebook dwarfs the population of many of the world’s countries. Indeed, Facebook today is larger then the entire Internet was in 2004. U.S. citizens now spend 16% of their total online time on the social networking site. Facebook, like AOL, is awesome at organizing and unclutterifying what is a massive social interaction mess. That allows it a great advantage and a certain soft power of attraction. With this kind of size and influence, Facebook is actively shaping Internet interaction. Mainly, it doesn’t want you to exit Facebook. By integrating games, its own chat and email systems, news feeds, etc., why would anyone log out? It’s even easy to imagine a time where there isn’t an Internet browser anymore—just a Facebook application launched from your desktop. The genius of Facebook may lay in the fact that there is so much to do on Facebook, so many options and products, that the monolith that is Facebook seems different for everyone.

But for other players (media or otherwise) to be able to tap into Facebook’s huge audience, you have to play by Facebook’s rules. You want access to the garden? You have to walk the provided path. And one such path that seems troubling is the single, consolidated identity trend. You can be many people at once on the (general) Internet—a blogger about bicycling, an enjoyer of cat videos, an anonymous contributor to a camera geek chat forum. On Facebook, ideally and according to its own rules, you can be only one. Thus, for some other entity to tap into Facebook it has to also support a single, consolidated identity. This is limiting for us, the users, but very lucrative for Facebook, the data hog. And so the limiting trend is accelerated.

Google+, Google’s latest foray into social networking, is—as defined by one of Google’s own—“a knee-jerk reaction” to Facebook’s dominance in the social space. But, as a previous post pointed out, Google+ adopted and upped the ante on the single identity trend. There was blowback from the pro-anonymity crowd, but the rules remained: use your government name or get booted. Google, however, is different from Facebook in one crucial way: you know you’re on the Internet with most of its services. The garden may be walled, but it’s more like Plexiglas. You can see what else is out there, but there’s a good chance you’ll still Google for it.

And then there’s Apple. Instead of creating applications that take advantage of the vast open, messy spaces of the Internet and allow users to explore, Apple would rather use the Internet to “tie Apple devices together,” as writer Rafe Needleman comments. It’s latest offering, iCloud, displays this attitude perfectly. iClould, in a way like Facebook, would make the Internet invisible to the user while natively depending on it to work. The photos on your Mac are also on your iPhone, are also on your iPad, all via the magic of the cloud. The walls here enclose not so much content, but the “Apple experience”—one that is slickly designed and intuitive. iTunes is another great example. Your music is in the cloud, but only accessible with an Apple product. Contrast this to something like Pandora or Spotify, where all that’s needed is a way to get online.

Christopher Poole, the founder of the website and discussion forum 4chan, gave a speech at the 2011 Web 2.0 Summit laying out his concerns about the treatment of identity online. In it he expresses his worries about the big Internet players dictating how entire populations are meant to use the web, and how that’s more limiting and eroding online options. But, more importantly, he says, “What’s really at stake now is the ability to be creative and expressive on the Internet.” Exploration and discovery and the ability to make mistakes are curtailed under a single identity, or within the new walled gardens of the Internet, or on our multiple Apple products. Suddenly, it seems, the web is limiting, not limitless. So while the Internet debate will continue, running the range from Human Right to being dominated by a few companies, it may be time for one of the big wigs to remember the vibrancy of the Old Paris model and design a product, or merely a space, where it can shine once again. Because then everyone else will follow suit.

Human Rights, internet, Social Networks