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I’ve been using the internet wrong. There's a good chance you have too - especially if you're over a certain age. It's not surprising really. Every generation lamented the way the latest technology or media was ruining us. My parents told me that TV was rotting my brain. I’m sure a parent once said the same about books. Can you imagine? Each new technology changed the way we interact and new conventions evolve. Older generations could only see the negatives because they didn’t understand those changes. It’s the same story repeated throughout history.
For much of human history, we gathered around the proverbial campfire to share stories, dance and play games together. Our more recent history - the history I grew up in - was broadcast over air waves to radios and televisions around the world. On July 20, 1969, six hundred million people around the world simultaneously sat with their families in front of an electronic box to watch the Apollo 11 land on the moon 240 thousand miles away. The days following people gathered at their contemporary versions of the campfire - the office watercooler - to bond over this shared experience.
Nearly 20 years later, a television was rolled into my third grade class like thousands of other classrooms around the country to watch Christa McAuliffe become the first high school teacher in space. Tragically, we witnessed her short-lived heroic story come to a violent end as the Challenger exploded a mere 74 seconds into its journey killing Christa and her six fellow astronauts. It was my earliest memory of a national tragedy. It seemed everywhere I went in the days following that was all that adults were talking about whether it was with strangers or friends.
A few months ago, I watched Elon Musk’s company SpaceX launch and land it’s first successful flight of the reusable rocket, Starship, after numerous failed attempts. Fellow billionaires, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, launched their first test flights on manned rockets. These events might revolutionize space travel. Yet, most people didn’t watch any of them. If you did watch them, it was probably a clip on Twitter or Youtube. In fact, there were far more conversations around the memes and commentary in reaction to the launches than the events themselves. Digital technology transformed the way these experiences were shared by upending three important characteristics of broadcast media.
Radio and television were largely experienced synchronously with the exception of VHS or cassette tape recordings. If I missed an episode of the sketch comedy series In Living Color, I was shit out of luck. I wouldn’t know what my friends were talking about in the school cafeteria the next day. I earned social status because I had recordings of the Stretch and Bobbito radio show. It was hard to come by because recording it required you to be awake at 1am when it aired and remain awake to flip and change the cassette tape if you wanted to record the full 3 hours. I earned even more status with those that weren’t aware of the DJ duo that exposed us to 90s hip hop legends like Wu Tang Clan, Biggie, Jay Z and Nas among others when they were still unknown and often yet to be signed to a record deal. Their show was broadcast on the local college radio station of Columbia University in New York with a broadcast range of maybe 60 miles. I had to finely tune my radio knob back and forth while perfectly positioning the antenna to get clear reception. Synchronism shrunk the world by delivering experiences that were shared across space. It also created scarcity. A scarcity that was controlled by relatively few gatekeepers.
Shelf space for content was finite. There were limited hours in the day where people watched television or listened to the radio. That time was extremely valuable and access was guarded by a handful of companies. Most of these companies wanted to follow proven avenues of success. Content had to have clear categories, so they knew who the audience was. It couldn’t be too different from what was already popular. It had a homogenizing effect on the culture. It was also a one way relationship with the consumer.
The relationship created a separation between creator and consumer. A small exclusive class of creators fed content to the rest of us. We were mere spectators. When we talked about a song or a television show with our social circle, it was about the content. We might have used content references as fodder for inside jokes with a few friends, but the content was the content.
Now, it seems more like the reaction is the content. There is a whole ecosystem built around the reactions. Whether you watched Biden’s inauguration or not, you probably know what Bernie Sanders’ jacket and gloves looked like because you saw no less than ten of the thousands of meme images that circulated the internet for weeks. Hell, you probably shared one or two on your own social media accounts. YouTube is heavily populated by videos of people reacting to old songs or comedy routines for the first time. A TV show isn’t really popular if it doesn’t inspire dozens of podcasts dedicated to reacting to the last episode. It is all about the reaction.
A belligerent septuagenarian with thinning orange hair seemed to get this dynamic more than most. He used it to become our first President as a troll - common internet lingo that refers to someone who says or posts things solely for the purpose of getting a reaction. Many people misunderstood the effectiveness of the former president’s twitter account. His intended audience on Twitter was not his supporters. In fact, many of them wished he would stop tweeting. The real audience was the media specifically and liberals in general. He kept them in a constant state of reaction. The content or what he actually believed or wanted to do was irrelevant. It was all about the constant attention he could elicit by stoking anger and panic. He was the ultimate finger in the eye to “coastal elites” that many of his supporters felt looked down on them and wanted to tell them how to live. The irony is that he crafted his skill as a troll for decades in an earlier media platform that could be thought of as a prototype for much of today’s reaction as content paradigm - tabloid media.
If you’re like me this dynamic is a mixed bag. I have a good laugh at a fair amount of memes. I often find insightful commentary on current events. But more often it feels like the internet is doing more to divide us and stir up resentment than it is doing to fulfill its promise. This feeling is not without merits. There are no doubt many ways the internet amplifies divisions. When trolls with few friends that were once limited to bathroom walls can suddenly find each other thousands of miles apart and broadcast to millions with the press of a button on a device they can fit in their pocket, what do you expect?
The good news is that there is not just one internet. There are many internets just like a city has many neighborhoods. You could never get an accurate picture of New York if you only went to Times Square. If you did, you would probably think it was a horrible place and might never come back. Even if you spent your time there with a local, you would only see one small version of the city. Each neighborhood has its own character. On the internet, there are infinite neighborhoods and you can be a part of as many as you like. That is where the good stuff is.
Recently, I joined the OnDeck Writer’s Fellowship. It was a cohort based course. There were a number of great talks and lessons that were given over the span of 8 weeks. But, the real value was in the community. I did not take enough advantage of connecting with other fellows through impromptu chats, but I was able to connect with a handful of people. I was lucky enough to be in one of the few cohorts that continued meeting for our weekly writing group sessions after the course ended. I doubt I would still be attempting to call myself a writer if our weekly meetings had stopped. In fact, the only reason this piece - only my second months after the first - was posted is because of the tough love they gave me in our last session.
Week after week, I’ve looked forward to meeting with these five people whom I’ve never met in person who live thousands of miles away spread across 3 continents. I eagerly waited to read Kyle’s brilliant synthesis of ideas from Book Pairings or learn more about the impact of Creative Friendships as Kate shed light on Herbert Matter’s impact on Jackson Pollack. Manish inspired me with his consistent optimism and the lessons he delivers every week on investing and life. I also enjoyed the occasional 2 hour long chat with Harry about crypto, tech and the idiosyncrasies of Britain and the US. One of his recent posts was the inspiration for this piece you’re reading now. He also has a great newsletter. Emily was our newest addition. Her first piece in the group blew me away. It connected a deeply personal life event to larger societal issues masterfully. The tagline on her newsletter perfectly encapsulated why I started Citizen Code - “stories about tech changing the world, instead of eating it.”
I wish I could steal it.
It turned out the best parts of the internet are experienced as a multiplayer game. Hidden among the tweets, blogs, podcasts and newsletters are your tribes. When I started my newsletter, I thought it was about building a following and maybe one day earning money off of subscriptions. On the rare occasion that I tweeted, I was attempting to get the attention of a big name or just accumulate likes for a clever remark. Now, I realized it’s all about finding those people that nerd out over the same things. Your content is your smoke signal inviting your people to gather around the new campfire.