The history of the origins of the Internet that you know is wrong

But we’ve been telling the same story about the Arpanet and the web for 25 years, and it no longer satisfies us. It doesn’t help us understand the social internet we have now: it doesn’t explain the emergence of commercial social media, it can’t solve the platform’s problems, and it won’t help us imagine what comes next.

Today’s social media ecosystem functions more like the modern world of the late 1980s and early 1990s than the open social web of the early 21st century. It is an archipelago of proprietary platforms, imperfectly connected at their borders. Any existing gateways are subject to change at any time. Worse, users have little recourse, platforms shirk responsibility, and states are hesitant to intervene.

Before the widespread adoption of Internet email, people complained of having to print business cards with half a dozen different addresses: inscrutable sequences of letters, numbers and symbols representing them on CompuServe, GEnie, AOL, Delphi, MCI Mail and so on. Today we find ourselves in the same situation. From nail salons to cereal boxes, the visual environment is littered with incompatible social media brand logos. Facebook, Google, Twitter and Instagram are the new walled gardens, a throwback to the late 80s.

In recent years, it has become commonplace to blame social media for all our problems. There are good reasons for this. After decades of techno-optimism, the reckoning has come. But I’m disturbed by how often people, not platforms, are the target of this criticism. We are told that social media is making us vapid, stupid, intolerant and depressed, that we should be ashamed to take pleasure in social media, that we are “wired” to act against our own best interests. Our fundamental desire to connect is pathologized, as if we are to take the blame for our submission. I call shenanigans.

People are not the problem. The problem is the platforms. By looking at the history of the modern world, we can begin to untangle the technologies of sociability from what we call “social media.” Underlying many of the problems we associate with social media are failures of creativity and curation. Ironically, for an industry that prides itself on innovation, platform providers have failed to develop business models and operating structures that can sustain healthy human communities.

Silicon Valley didn’t invent “social media.” Ordinary people have made the internet social. From time to time, users have adapted networked computers for communication between people. In the 1970s, the Arpanet enabled remote access to expensive computers, but users made email their killer app. In the 1980s, Source and CompuServe offered a flood of financial news and data, but users spent all their time talking to each other in forums and chat rooms. And in the 1990s, the web was designed for posting documents, but users created conversational guest books and bulletin boards. The desire to connect with each other is essential. We shouldn’t have to apologize for the pleasure of being online together.

Commercial social media platforms are of a more recent origin. Major services like Facebook formed around 2005, more than a quarter century after the first bulletin boards went online. Their business was to shut down the social web, mine personal data and promise personalized advertising. Through intelligent interface design and the strategic application of venture capital, platform providers have succeeded in expanding access to the online world. Today, more people can get online and find each other than ever before in the days of AOL or FidoNet.