The courtyard and the public radio

23 July 2020
23 Jul 2020
West Lafayette, IN
3 mins

The Internet used to be a courtyard. Everyone spent their time online in the same few public places, and if you could yell loud enough, people would hear you. Today’s internet isn’t the same public, shared place it used to be. Today’s internet is millions and millions of public radio stations, all sharing a crowded airspace and limited airtime. People spend more time in private, curated groups, and tune the information that pierces their digital bubbles carefully. To be heard, people have to tune their channel to your voice, and you have to broadcast the right stories, every time, to build an audience.

When the web was young, there wasn’t much on it. It was a privilege, a niche skill, and an exotic hobby to write online as an individual, and visitors to this new digital realm roamed the network, hyperlink-hopping from one page to another.

Sometime in the last decade, the Internet started churning out more information and media than we could consume, even as we were spending more time online. So we built services to try to guess which stories were most relevant to us with opaque rules we collectively just refer to as algorithms. Algorithms filtered out the bad and gave us the good. We exchanged the finer control of whose voices we heard to the opaque algorithms of the Cloud above, and in return, we were no longer overwhelmed.

But algorithms, it turns out, didn’t serve us, the individual browsers of the web. It served the publishers, the operators, the people who wrote the checks. So we realized that we needed a different way to control the firehose of information. And this time, burned by the false promises of algorithms, we are deciding to curate the web ourselves. The computer doesn’t change the channel for us. We tune it, instead.

We tune the channel by subscribing to newsletters and following the specific voices we want to hear from Twitter and Instagram. We tune the channel when we decide to block toxic Netizens or take a break from social media entirely. We tune the channel by joining private online spaces – Slack groups, Discord servers, group message threads – where we can have conversations with people we trust, rather than the stranger voices of the Wild, Wide Web.

This shift means that, for those of us who want a voice online, we need to give reasons for the Internet to tune to our stations, and create ways to tune in easily. This is why newsletters are coming back, and this is why more “community” initiatives are popping up every day that really just boil down to exclusive, private group chats. People want to curate their own information soundscape, and tools are popping up left and right to make that as easy as possible.

We are now makers of things and speakers of thoughts in this place increasingly curated by humans, and I think that’s a great change. Humans are better than computers at finding stories worth sharing, even if not perfect. It means as authors, we can worry slightly less about understanding the mechanical systems that deliver our voice, and focus a little more on telling great stories and helping more people, because that’s what matters to humans.

Tell stories that nobody else is telling, and do it in your own way, to your own people. That’s the way people have always found their audience, and as operators of our own stations now, that duty is ours, too.

The hypertext Web is the real Metaverse

A cellular theory of communities

I share new posts on my newsletter. If you liked this one, you should consider joining the list.

Have a comment or response? You can email me.