Tyler Robertson

So… what else can we do with this "internet" thing?

Monday, December 19, 2022

Twitter has had real "last week of school vibes" for a couple months now, and once we scroll past the guides for downloading your archives and moving to Mastodon (and the newest fad, saying "Mastodon" without saying "Mastodon"), the landscape flattens out. The jokes about Elon are the same jokes about Elon we've had since he purchased "the hell site", the hot takes and off-the-cuff observations are getting stale, and even the threads β€” the haven of over-intellectual smut (and sometimes actual smut) β€” are starting to feel tame.

And I get why: we're all sad. We're moving from a thing that we begrudgingly loved to… a lot of other things that look basically the same. Mastodon has become the popular choice in my circles, and I even run my own server for it, but it looks and acts a hell of a lot like Twitter. The policies are infinitely better, and the kids running their own servers are going to do so with an infinitely more even keel than Musk can muster, but when it comes down to it… it's Twitter on hard mode. That's going to be fun for some people (me), but not great for many, especially those who used Twitter to build audiences that are quickly disappearing, or to connect with friends in a way that felt safe. I worry a lot about those people, and while I'm going to keep encouraging them to move to Mastodon because that's what we have right now, I can't shake the feeling that maybe we also need something different. Something that actually feels different, with different verbs and incentives and habits. Something that can be imperfect or temporary. Something that can make money, or spend money, or donate money, or not mention money at all. Maybe… maybe we need a lot of somethings.

Maybe we don't need capital-P Platforms anymore.

Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail

I think a lot about You've Got Mail, the 1998 Nora Efron romcom, which has been my problematic fave since its release. The villain of the movie is Joe Fox, played by Tom Hanks, and he's convinced himself that his corporate takeover of a corner of New York's Upper West Side is actually a good thing for the community. He calls his Barnes & Noble-esque big box book store "a place where the people of the city can mingle and mix and be", and a "goddamn piazza". In an early scene, he extols the virtues of the "cheap books and legal addictive stimulants" that they're going to make available to the neighborhood, as though you couldn't already get those things on any given street in Manhattan.

One of the reasons for this narrative he's constructed for himself is that the arrival of his big store means that the smaller book stores in the area will suffer and eventually close, including The Shop Around the Corner, run by Meg Ryan's Kathleen Kelly, who Joe immediately falls in love with (his grandfather was also in love with her mother, I guess? But we can't get into that here). Despite the immediate chemistry, Joe does nothing to stop the roll of his own capitalist steamroller, and Kathleen's store starts to go under. Worse still, it turns out she's the anonymous woman he's been clandestinely emailing, who he is also in love with. Even worse still, Joe's then-girlfriend Patricia Eden ("I love Patricia! I love Patricia. Patricia makes coffee nervous.") (played by national treasure Parker Posey) tells him about the Shop's demise, and her intent to hire Kathleen at her publishing company. Joe's business succeeds in taking over the market in the local area, but Kathleen β€” "if she turns out to be even as good-looking as a mailbox I'd be crazy not to turn my life around and marry her!" β€” is poised to succeed without him, and move on with her life. She even has an amicable break-up with her boyfriend β€” Greg Kinnear's Frank Navasky, possibly the best character in the movie β€” because she knows she wants other, better things out of life. So Joe finds himself in a pickle: how can he get everything he wants β€” the money and the girl β€” and pay none of the price? Being a man of means, he does what comes naturally: he launches a campaign of deception, subterfuge, and multi-level trickery so batshit it would make the guys from The Game blush. I won't get into the details because that spoils the movie, but you should just watch it.

Okay you've watched it? Great. Now, why does he go to those lengths to make Kathleen love him? I'd argue that it's because he realizes that he needs her more than she needs him, which is a scary thing to a man with money. He's not used to needing things. But suddenly he has awareness of this person that he can't imagine his life without, and he's constructed circumstances that are pushing her towards a successful life without him. So he goes to the mattresses. (That's a Godfather reference, they do that a lot in the movie.)

Now, what does any of this have to do with the internet, which is what β€” ostensibly β€” this post is about?

Elon Musk is Tom Hanks. We're Meg Ryan.

He needs us to keep his new business venture going, but has created the circumstances wherein our own various Shops Around the Corner β€” our tweets, threads, online friendships, etc. β€” are faced with an ultimatum: assimilate or die. We could choose to accept those circumstances, and change how we approach the platform in order to stay on it. We could even let the things we care about die off, but stay in the ecosystem in various ways: lurking to read other people's threads, or cross-posting to other Twitter-like platforms. We could move to other platforms like Instagram or Hive or Post, also owned by inscrutable business minds, putting off the problem for a while longer without really changing anything. That would be the equivalent of Kathleen going to work for Eden Books, a plot thread that's left sadly hanging.

But we don't need him, and like Kathleen Kelly, we don't even need the business he represents. We have full freedom to go about our lives without any of it. We can leave our Shop Around the Corner and we are still strong, competent, creative people in a world full of possibilities. Remember that half of "social media" is "social", something baked into our cores like cream in a cannoli. We were social long before we had media β€” possibly even since the 1800s! And we can continue to be social without Twitter.

Which is where I β€” a thousand words in β€” come to the point: The internet is a big place, with a lot of tools. We don't need to use those tools to make more things that look like Twitter.

Unlike Kathleen Kelly, we are not bound by a script that tells us to fall in love with Tom Hanks at the end. We can cut ties and go where we want, and do what we want, and that doesn't have to look like anything we've seen before. We can close the store. "You are daring to imagine that you could have a different life.", Kathleen's godmother Birdie (RIP Jean Stapleton) tells her at 1:17:35, "Oh, I know it doesn't feel like that, you feel like a big fat failure now. But you're not. You are marching into the unknown, armed with… nothing. Have a sandwich." The internet is a lever, under which our creativity can be a fulcrum that lets us lift up nothing towards something, and that something can be anything.

Now, this is all vague and feels impossible, because it is and it does and that's part of it. And you may be reading this and not have a clear image of what "the next thing" is. I don't have a clear picture either, if I'm being honest, but there are a few broad strokes I'd like to aim for, which I listed at the start of this post. In my head, "the next thing" should be:

I'd like to see a web that can be built on by anyone with the willingness to try, not just the techies or the bros with the money. And to get there (or get anywhere, really) we're going to need each other. There's that "social" bit again, so here's the call to action:

If you're a programmer, or have any inkling to become one, reach out to the people in your life who aren't. Ask them what they want from the internet. Listen to their answers. If you can find a way to create even one of the things they mention β€” no matter how small or messy or unprofessional the result may be β€” you've created something good in this world, and achieved more for humanity than someone like Musk ever could.

If you're not a programmer, or you wouldn't describe yourself as "techie", start talking to your friends (even the other non-techie ones). Talk to them, ideally not on Twitter, about what you'd make with the internet if you had infinite resources. Start finding the people who share your vision. Look at the tools you're all using already β€” the simple, stupid things you do every day β€” and see if they fit small parts of your idea. If you can, put two of those parts together, and odds are you'll have something close to your initial ideas. And I'll let you in on a little secret: that's programming. Sure, we mask a lot of it behind machismo and big words but all modern web development really is, when it comes down to brass tacks, is putting two pieces together until something works. There's no special sauce besides perseverance, and if you care about making the internet a better place (which, if you've read this far, I suspect you do), I believe that you can persevere.

If nothing else, Elon Musk has proven to the world that no one, no one, should suffer from impostor syndrome. Whatever you do in this life, at least it won't be as stupid as asking Twitter whether you should resign.

Elon asking Twitter whether he should step down as head of Twitter

So get out there. Let's try new things.