I still remember when one of USENET’s biggest gripes was the influx of users from AOL. As a shared space (or spaces) of communication, USENET had its own parlance and etiquette and suddenly
all of these new users were invading and ignoring all of the informal rules that had helped make the different groups fun and interesting. This was not the fault of the AOL users. They didn’t know.
All they knew is that the walls were down and they were free to roam.
They understood the Internet from an AOL perspective: capital exchange. They were Internet consumers. They wanted what AOL sold them: access. They paid a fee and they were provided service and
access to a ton of stuff. It didn’t matter who created the stuff or the networks that had come together to share and build the stuff. They paid money to AOL and they wanted their stuff. They got it, too.
USENET still exists, today. I check in every few months or so more out of a sad sense of diligence than anything else. The vibrant nature of the forum (in areas that I know of, at least) has all but
Then again, so, too, has AOL.
I thought about that a lot today a I watched the influx of Twitter users to Mastodon. There were a lot of new users and that is always exciting. I followed a lot of really interesting people who I hope stick
around and contribute to the network that is being built. We’re smarter now. The unguarded platforms from USENET’s heyday are gone. We front load a lot of etiquette and provide moderation safeguards to prevent
heavy abuse. I will admit something, though. I don’t for a minute believe that all of these new users are going to stay. I am not even sure most will. The AOL model has become the default, and maybe it always
was. A lot of the Internet is dominated by consumer spaces. Pay a fee and you get access to the stuff. For Twitter, as with most social media, the fee is simple - you pay with your data and your content. You are fodder for
advertising firms and agencies along with a host of even less savory data brokers. Your data means cash and Twitter is happy to take that as its share of your subscription fee. If you happen to post, all the
better. Your content helps to feed the machine.
We have come to expect this model. In essence, the gates around AOL didn’t disappear, they were extended. Now, they have grown so large that we no longer see them.
Mastodon is a space that doesn’t run in the same way. Sure, you can try to consume content but it will be difficult. No one is really trying to sell you anything (I am sure there are a few, but they are rare.).
You have to seek out the networks and engage with them. They aren’t necessarily looking for you. They’re busy creating stuff. You have to make an effort to connect and that, I like to think, is by design.
Mastodon isn’t alone in this model. It’s something I have been realizing for a while now. The world beyond the traditional Internet is booming. It is easy to look back and miss what is, in many ways, the myth
of the old Internet. I say myth because that old Internet was exclusionary in a ton of terrible ways. That some of that world is gone is a good thing. The world beyond the gates of traditional Internet isn’t gone.
The good stuff sticks. That new, old, world is there and it is still as fun, and as interesting, and as weird as those USENET forums.
There are some cool people out there still building cool things in the spaces between. I encourage you to seek them out, find your space, and join them. No billionaire can ever match what they already have.