I miss the internet.
I know, I know. It seems a bit weird. But what we have today isn’t really the Internet. Today, the web for most people is 1-4 sites they visit on a daily basis. News is regurgitated, opinion is bubbled.
I miss the days of (non-corporate) mailing lists, of self-hosted websites - and perhaps most importantly, those days before gmail and facebook and twitter.
There are good people doing good work towards that (and this post will have a list at the end), but it’s a tough road. Those who know me, know that my ‘mission’ is to make everything I do centered in some way around art, technology, and community. It’s that community that I miss.
Let me tell you a story.
Jred.net or how I started building and learned to love the web
Back in 2007, in a weird set of coincidences, my mom discovered Myachi on TV around Christmas-time. She bought them for my siblings and I, thinking it would be a fun little stocking stuffer. Little did any of us know, this random bag full of sand would change a lot about me.
Myachi, for those who don’t know (read: everyone), is what is called a ‘handsack’. Think of a hacky-sack, but for your hands. For a semi-chubby kid without a ton of friends, it is the perfect distraction to spend hours and hours on after school.
One of my favorite trick videos:
The video above shows some of the really cool things you can do with Myachi’s. Monk and Animal were two ‘masters’ - people employed by the company to sell the toy in toy stores in NYC. All the kids who got into Myachi dreamed of being Masters one day. Who doesn’t want to get paid to play with toys?
For me, Myachi was a place to meet people from all over the world. At this point, I was 13, in Junior High, and not really great at anything. I got a lot of confidence from learning tricks - I showed off a lot at amusement parks, tourist attractions, or anywhere there were people that might be interested.
This story, however, is about the community that was created around this toy. Back in the day, there was a PHPBB forum hosted at jred.net. Today the forum has died but, for a short period of time, jred.net was a great place to learn. I started giving back to the forums by making avatars. I had mucked around in GIMP and thought I was great at design (oh god, was I wrong), so I offered to make avatars for anyone that wanted one. And so I got better at design. I made some emotes.
You can actually see some of the avatars and emotes I made here. I recently pulled all the images I could get from the wayback machine.
Eventually, I got promoted to forum moderator. I learned a lot about people and moderation on the internet (Jred was a more respectful community than many I see today and it was full of 13 year olds). I started working on the forums a bit too, first by writing guides, then by editing some of the styles and code on the site. I once even helped root out a hacker that had found a loophole in the software and taken over the site (I learned a ton about social engineering from this).
The point is, I found a community that was open enough to allow me, a 13-year old with little to no computer skills, to learn and grow with them. I still keep in touch with some of the community, but for the most part that place has died out.
Think about this today. Many communities are now on Facebook. Can you imagine a situation where a young kid could learn by hacking on a Facebook page? Facebook is too closed source. Communities don’t own the software, they just rent the space. MySpace used to be good for that. You could edit your page. Lots of people learned by trying to improve their MySpace pages. What now?
These days, I get that sense of community from this site. People here are respectful, the software is open source, and interacting here feels like a real opportunity to give back to the community in a meaningful way.
I don’t know the solution, but I am sure that it starts with curiosity. Working within your communities to improve the lives and skill sets of people there is important. Finding new avenues to reach new people is important. If you are looking for something to do, start a group. Meet real people in real place and get them to talk about the things they love to talk about. Then take that community online. Build a place where people are able to give back and collaborate to improve the community.
“So the internet I love still exists, if not on Facebook or Twitter or Google. The Internet I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.”
Finally, take back the internet from the big players. Start using open source and decentralized software. I’ll keep an up-to-date list of the software I use at the end of this post. Pay for a server on NearlyFreeSpeech or even AWS or whatever you like and make a website. Build it poorly, then work on it. Make it do cool things like blink or spin or ask the user questions. Then share it. Send it to me, send it to your mom, or send it to your congressperson with a note about why community is important and how they shouldn’t forget that - just get it out there.
Some parts of the internet that I like
- Mastodon - a free, open source, decentralized version of twitter. Find an open node and have fun :) (You can find me here)
- ProtonMail - secure email from Switzerland. Stop giving Google more information about yourself.
- Glitch - Glitch seems to be actually doing something to bring back the web that I remember.
- Dev.to - Write something. Write anything. Give back.
- NearlyFreeSpeech - Pay a few bucks for a server. Build something cool, make yourself a website, build a blog.
- Not software, but support local artists. Go see concerts, visit art galleries, maybe even make some art yourself. The world will be better for it. Come back and share them online.