In the June 9, 2022, issue of the magazine, Ethan Zuckerman reviews The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media by Kevin Driscoll. The book looks at the early history of what became the Internet, before dial-up ISPs, back when users interacted on bulletin-board systems—closed computer networks that brought hobbyists together across the continent and could be considered the predecessors of modern social media. “It may be hard to imagine a future in which Facebook is undone by a return to independent community management by hobbyists,” Zuckerman writes. “But our ability to imagine alternatives is directly related to the histories we tell.”
Zuckerman is an associate professor of public policy, communication, and information at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. During the first dot-com boom in the 1990s he helped pioneer an early precursor to social media, and since then he has devoted his career to understanding and advancing technologies that can serve the public good. He has written two books, Mistrust: Why Losing Faith in Institutions Provides the Tools to Transform Them and Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connections, and his writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Columbia Journalism Review, and Nieman Reports.
This week I asked Zuckerman over e-mail about his personal history with the Internet and his current work searching for a more open alternative to the corporate-controlled Web.
Edgar Llivisupa: What drew you to study the Internet?
Ethan Zuckerman: I am an accidental Internet scholar. I was one of the first employees hired at an early dot-com firm, Tripod.com, where we provided free homepages for millions of users and built one of the first businesses around user-generated content. In the process, I created the first pop-up ad, something I am eternally apologetic for.
After I left Tripod in the late 1990s, I started a nonprofit called Geekcorps in Accra, Ghana, that offered mentoring and training for programmers and designers. In the years I worked in the developing world, I became deeply interested in the implications of the rise of the Internet in countries that rarely get media attention, work that led me to a fellowship at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Harvard brought me in for a one-year fellowship and I managed to hang around for eight years before they finally pawned me off on MIT, where I took over MIT’s Center for Civic Media. Those years in Cambridge never led to formal academic credentials—I still have only a BA—but gave me a great deal of practical experience as a researcher, teacher, and, eventually, advisor for doctoral candidates.
What was your experience of the Internet in its early days?
My first Internet connection was through a VT-220 terminal connected to a VAX minicomputer at Williams College in 1989. The VT-220 was what’s called a “dumb terminal”—it was basically a screen and a keyboard that couldn’t do anything by itself, but it allowed me to share the VAX, a powerful Internet-connected computer, with everyone else at Williams. I used the VAX to talk with my girlfriend, who was attending UC Berkeley, and, like young geeks do, we exchanged login names and passwords so we could each explore the other’s systems. I got the better end of the deal—VAXs died out not long after the 1980s, but her system ran on Berkeley Unix, which is closely related to the Unix that I use on my Mac today and that runs Web servers around the world.
The early Internet, for me, was green letters on a black screen, text-based and pretty limited. I chatted and sent e-mails, perused funny text files that were shared on FTP servers, and dipped my toes into Usenet news, a set of bulletin boards that served both as a collective social space for early Internet users and tech support for anyone knowledgeable enough to use it that way. I fancied myself a graphic designer, and I learned a great deal about copying my college computing center’s expensive design software from my more criminally minded Usenet friends.
In your review you describe how groups that are chased off corporate platforms often embrace smaller, less restrictive ones, referring to sex workers on Mastodon but also hate groups on Gab and Stormfront. You argue that in a future, more democratic and inclusive Internet, this trend would likely accelerate, but might be beneficial because extremist groups would be kept out of the mainstream. On the Internet you hope for, would regulation of large, mainstream platforms change in some way? Would such platforms still exist?
I don’t actually want Facebook to disappear—I just want it to stop being the default for conversations online. Facebook has done one thing magnificently well: it offers a near-universal index that allows people to find one another online. But Facebook is not a particularly good social network, partly because it tries to be everything to everyone. In the future I am trying to build, we would have thousands of different spaces for thousands of different conversations. For some of these conversations—a conversation about health issues that benefits from privacy, a conversation about civic issues that benefits from careful moderation—having a space that’s fit for each purpose may be transformative by allowing better conversations to take place.
Not all these conversations are going to be admirable uses of these technologies. Extremist communities are early adopters of many online spaces, often because they’ve been locked out of more established spaces. I still think this is a healthy development because isolating these conversations to a smaller group of participants helps control the spread of hateful ideologies and means people have to choose to seek them out. While there’s a great deal of research suggesting that the “rabbit hole” effect by which people are drawn into extremist media is not nearly as significant as sometimes estimated, creating barriers to entry for these communities is a good thing.
Many governments are keen on reining in tech giants like Meta, Amazon, and Google. How do you think this will affect the future of the Web, if at all?
It’s harder to rein these companies in than it looks. Yes, you can—and should—split Amazon into a business that provides a marketplace for third-party sellers and a company that produces its own branded products. That proposal, made by Elizabeth Warren and others, should be easy for antitrust authorities to adopt. What’s harder is breaking up Facebook. Even if Instagram and Facebook are forced to be different businesses, what prevents them from sharing data through the vast ecosystem of third-party data brokers that exists? Simply breaking up the giants doesn’t take steps toward regulating the wild west that is data collection for ad targeting.
What would be a more profound shift is investing in alternative, smaller, community-controlled models of Internet communities. That could be done in addition to trying to break up these large companies or as an alternative pathway. For me, thinking about what social media could do if it were structured to be small and community-governed is far more radical than breaking up existing companies.
In the two years you’ve been at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst you launched the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure, a research group that is studying and building alternatives to the existing commercial Internet. Are there any current projects there that you’re particularly excited about?
There are two primary projects we work on at iDPI. One is Smalltown, a social network designed for use in local government. It allows people to start a conversation about issues to be covered in town meetings, and it provides structure and moderation to keep that conversation focused on local civics. The other is Gobo, which allows users to view all their social networks—including these new, small social networks—through a single tool. That tool allows the user to control the algorithms that sort her social media feed. She, not the social media companies, gets to decide what’s most important to her and what she gets to see first.
Reimagining the Internet, a podcast from the iDPI that you host, asks experts about their perspectives on the ever-evolving Web. Has there been a guest who provided a solution or thought that has stayed with you?
I come back to Tracy Chou’s work again and again. She’s a young software developer who shared information about the percentage of female engineers at the company where she was working, Pinterest. Others participated and she ended up compiling a spreadsheet that showed that women rarely comprise more than 15 percent of the engineering staff at major Silicon Valley tech companies. This information put pressure on tech company hiring, but also put scrutiny on Tracy, who found herself the victim of a great deal of online harassment. She ended up leaving her job to create Block Party, an app that helps people on Twitter block organized harassment. I love that her response to attempts to silence her have led her to work on making social media better and safer for dissident voices.