'Just because I can build this, should I?'
When it first became available to anyone with a telephone line and a modem, The World Wide Web was a very special place. Every trip onto the Web was a voyage of discovery. Content was being created at breakneck speeds, and behind every website was someone who took on the mantle of ‘webmaster’ for the pure love of the subject matter.
Interested in the ecology of Iceland? The works of Chaucer? The Powerpuff Girls? You could guarantee there would be at least one website on the subject painstakingly curated by someone just as fanatical as you. Someone who cared so much about the subject they taught themselves HTML just to share what they knew. It was fandom-driven-development.
The Web was also a beautiful maze.
There were no search engines. No algorithms telling you what to look at next. Nothing to serve up content specifically to support your worldview. Anything you wanted to see, you had to go out and specifically look for it. And if in the process you came across a little pocket of culture that was foreign to you, you would learn something new about the world. There were no comments sections telling you that what you had just read was wrong and that the author should harm themselves—you were trusted to use common sense to form an original opinion.
Perhaps most importantly, The Web was a place where communities sprang up organically.
In 2021, companies pour huge amounts of time and money into curating communities—Chief Community Officer is a real job title you can hold. It’s taken a long time, but the importance of communities is increasingly being recognised by businesses.
But back in the 1990s? Any enthusiast with a modem was capable of bringing together hundreds or thousands of strangers. Those online communities came about naturally, and from them, you could make friends. Real friends. Friends you would stay up until the early hours of the morning talking to about everything and nothing. Far-flung friends who would teach you about their interests, their part of the world and their culture. You never stopped learning.
In those days I ran a number of vibrant communities, none of which were intentional. They just happened, because humans are good at organising into groups. It’s literally in our DNA. That evolutionary trick helped us grow from cavepeople to a global civilisation. It put people on The Moon. But working in groups requires trust, and trust is built by getting to know someone.
We tend now to treat the problem of ‘community’ as though it’s a new one, but it isn’t. We’ve always known how to build them. Decades ago, online, they were everywhere. So what changed?
In the early 2000s, The Web took a hard right as Social Media took off. The importance of The Individual over The Community soared, and many of the old vibrant communities migrated to social platforms to die a slow, undignified death.
Why did this happen?
Once advertising became a viable online business model, finding ways to make users return to your site every day took centre stage. Almost overnight, dopamine became the currency of The Web, and interactions became more individual-centric. Where we used to have to get to know someone and form a real, human connection, it became the norm to broadcast short messages about ourselves—Status Updates, which we all knew and loved as the taglines of our IM profiles, now without the need to have the accompanying conversation. And when typing became too much work, Likes simplified the process even further. We collected hundreds of ‘friends’, knowing precisely nothing about most of them. It was how all the platforms operated, so it became the new normal.
To keep the dopamine flowing, the new generation of community tech worked hard to avoid negative experiences. Keeping you in an echo chamber is the easiest way to do this: see more of what you like, and less of what you do not. On paper it sounds like a good idea, but in practice it deepens trivial political divides and removes healthy challenges to your worldview.
Soon enough lines were being drawn everywhere between imagined us and thems. We forgot that life is messy, people are not perfect and that there is nuance is every single situation; that nothing is simply good or evil; that some things require considered conversations rather than emojis. We stopped learning about each other and started making dangerous assumptions about each other.
It. Was. Devastating. We had lost something truly beautiful.
Growing up with technology, I was in constant awe of the possibilities. With The Web, I saw those possibilities flourish as communities self-organised around fansites, encouraging endless learning, conversations and friendships. The future was going to be something extraordinary, and it was all thanks to technology.
But here’s the thing: while technology can be amazing, it is not amazing in and of itself; it requires us to make it amazing.
We make technology. Technology that can go viral overnight and gain a large percentage of the world’s population as users. So we have a responsibility to ensure that the things we create are carefully considered at every stage. No one set out to create today’s individualistic online culture, and that’s the most terrifying part—that it happened not because someone said, ‘Let’s change online behaviour for the worse,’ but because they had to figure out how to monetise platforms that people were increasingly expecting to access for free.
We have a responsibility to ensure that the technology that powers the next twenty years is better than the technology that powered the last twenty years.
Regaining the lost potential of The Web (which I honestly believe is in self-organising, tangentially educational, social groups) is not a complex problem, but it will take a concerted effort to solve. If enough technologists work to reframe what is ‘normal’ online, we can undo some of the damage accidentally wrought by The Web. And it starts by asking a simple question at the beginning of each new project: ‘Just because I can build this, should I?’