The Emotional Age of the Internet
Monday, August 3, 1998 by Dave Winer.
Oh the Internet!
I look back to the winter of 1996. I was bright-eyed and optimistic. When the Communications Decency Act came out of Washington I believed it was possible to counteract the forces of fear with sheer numbers.
I organized a project, 24 Hours of Democracy, a large essay website, to show that there were thoughtful people on the net who had dreams of a new communication environment that would be more democratic, more inclusive, more interesting.
AOL, a sponsor of the project, ran a mail list for people who were participating. I requested that participants use the list to coordinate work and express political opinions on their websites, not on the mail list.
The purpose of the project was to show the power of the web, not the power of email. My theory, then as now, is that the web is a far more effective medium. People seem more careful about what they say.
As the guest-host of the mail list, I repeatedly asked the other guests to stay on topic. Then the flames started coming directly at me. No good deed goes unpunished, or so it seemed at the time. Would these people behave this way if they were face to face at a meeting in AOL's office? I doubt it.
In the middle of the attacks I kept thinking of the silent ones. People who sit by, the majority of them, while a few people post message after message selfishly venting their emotional stuff.
For example, when I posted an announcement that I would be off the list for an indefinite period, I had been called for jury duty, the discussion switched to a theory that the Clinton Administration had arranged it to deprive them of their leader. This still makes sighhh. It's so self-centered and unrealistically self-important. I assured them that this was a ridiculous idea. I had received my notice *before* the project started, but the paranoia continued.
I unsubscribed from the list, unceremoniously, as I feel it should be done. Don't threaten, just do it. There's nothing more unpleasant than the final fuck you from someone who acts as if the world revolves around them. Just go. Quietly. Close the book and move on.
I've been on the other side of this too. I've gone back and re-read some of my early postings on Apple, they're all still there, and I see the same thing. My face blushes, I missed something back then.
If Apple didn't recognize the role of a developer community, then no such community exists. When it's relative to a brand name or a company or a product, it must have recognition. I was committed to the existence of the Mac developer community, but it only existed in the minds of a few people.
In Austin, TX, at the closing dinner of an independent Macintosh web developer conference in the summer of 1996, I asked a question. "Of all the people in this room, who is going to make $5 million in the next three years?" Eyes darted, not landing on any individual. That wouldn't have happened in the PC software market, or in the early Mac market. People believed that a bet could pay off.
The obvious response was to get out. No amount of pain is worth the hard work of being a developer without any potential payoff. If there's no way to win, why are we working so hard?
That's the realistic view, but in the mind-game world, powerlessness begets rage. People who realize they have no say in a future they're committed to, who struggle to stay there, even after the world has changed. Eventually you move on, go thru the stages of grief, starting with rage and ending with hope.
If you move, you have power. If you stay, you remain powerless. I really believe that powerless people must want it that way. The instant they want to be relieved of powerlessness, they just have to exercise their power and it's gone. Poof! It's just like mathematics.
It's also like chess. Try this strategy. Move a knight back and forth endlessly. Your king will be dead in a few moves, if you're lucky. If you're unlucky, you're playing with someone else whose strategy is powerless knight-movement. You're in for a long game until you give up.
The Internet is a more powerful seduction than the Macintosh, it has promise that the Mac never had, after all it's the platform without a platform vendor, so there's no one to blame for it getting stuck. Never mind, the collective net still blames Microsoft. It won't work, because Microsoft isn't responsible, as Apple wasn't. They never promised to take care of you, and honestly, realistically, you won't die if they don't. Yet the arguments have the seriousness of a life and death struggle. People use war analogies. It feeds their powerlessness, they act as a soldier in battle raging to stay alive; but they have neither the weapons or a realistic enemy.
No individual person is to blame for the failure of inspiration on the net, the blame lies with human nature. If we can evolve we can be powerful. If we have no discipline, if anything goes, we go back to the dysfunction of the houses we were raised in. It's like being in a bad marriage with millions of people. It goes bad in an instant. One day cool things are happening. Then someone feels powerless and acts on it and the cool things stop.
Endless paraniod flamefests can be fascinating. It's a good vehicle for looking at your own pain. I watch other web writers deal with it. Here's my advice. You're growing if you go deeply into the pain that false accusations raise. Sure there's a person on the other side of the bits who hates you, lies about you, just like someone once did. But remember that they're just ones and zeroes, and that the person writing them doesn't know you. He's talking to someone else, the message has been addressed incorrectly.
It works the other way too. Larry Tesler, the former CTO at Apple, said something brilliant to a friend of mine who sent him a flame letter. "Someone is obviously using your email account without your permission." We laughed. What an elegant response.
Geocities offers free web hosting. Their users pay nothing. The company wants to put a watermark graphic on every page it serves. Users erupt in violent email, a contradiction in terms. A handful of supposedly powerless people have discovered that if they cry venomously enough via email, they'll get attention.
Does Geocities have the power to put the watermarks on pages they host? Of course they do! What a silly question. Do the people using their service have a choice? Yes, they could go with Tripod or The Globe, or some other free page hosting service. Not only is it possible to switch, it's easy.
In a series last month, I looked at Netscape's keyword server feature in version 4.5. My complaints came from a powerful place because I have a choice since Netscape has competition. It was actually a second derivative concern, I'm concerned about *becoming* powerless.
I want Netscape to survive because if they don't, the web developer community, a potentially fictitious group, will cease to exist. If Microsoft is the only game in the browser business, they will define what it means to be a web developer. Then I predict a replay of the Austin scenario.
I'm not writing this to raise your fear. I'm talking to your power. What can you do to raise the emotional age of the Internet? If you feel as I do, that the lowest common denominator rules, what can we do to balance that? I'm working on these issues right now. Comments are welcome.