Please tell us: Why?
Salutations and good afternoon, good evening for those of you who aren’t on the west coast. We’re going back Down The Pipes, the blogletter now also available on Bluesky. I’ll be handing out whatever invites I get to any DTP subscribers who want them…just like this post and respond to this email. First come first served, while supplies last, etc.
Current editions of DTP are sparse as I focus my brainpower on promoting We’ve Got A Band, a fun podcast where Gabrielle Bluestone and I talk to some really amazingly creative people about their careers and favorite band (it’s Phish). The latest episode features a lovely chat with the HQ Quizdaddy himself, Scott Rogowsky. You wanna clip? Here’s a clip. Also here’s a fun news item you may have missed: Scott is launching a new gameshow app. Nature is healing.
Listen wherever podcasts are sold (search for “Undermine”), and maybe go buy something from Section 119 using code Phan10 for 10% off your order. Obviously I’ve been paid to say that so consider this your paid promotional disclosure, but if you’re not going to buy a subscription here you can at least consider buying a Grateful Dead polo.
Lastly in the housekeeping division, I published something about creator labor I’m fairly proud of over at Passionfruit this past week based on my first trip to VidCon. I don’t generally write anywhere but here so this is kind of a big deal for me, but the response was positive enough that I’ll probably be doing it more, here and there.
And now, on with the show.
Down the Pipes is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Twitter continues to stumble over itself, the Bluechecks are commandeering their new territory from the native Tweeters and an exodus has begun to new corners of the internet, such as the competitor started by a bunch of ex-Twitter employees, BlueSky. We’ve seen these digital migrations before, though it’s been a while and perhaps some of you weren’t as chronically online as I’ve been the last 30 years, so you may have missed them.
They all go in the same rough series of waves, I’ve mentioned this before but Nick Denton once told me that he thought the internet was a 100 year revolution that would come in tidal waves; every decade or so another tsunami would overrun us and wash away our digital homes, communities, news sources, public forums, tools, and terrors. Still, like our scared nomad ancestors navigating unfamiliar wilderness, we move en masse from one platform to the next, rebuilding what was lost and asking ourselves what we could have done differently to avoid such a fate in the future.
The first migration I can recall living through was from AOL to just what we called “cable" internet. Once the cable companies realized their coaxal wires carried more data capacity than copper phone lines (reminder: A modem was just a way to turn your home telephone line into a data pipe hooked into other computers, servers, and data centers…that’s all the internet is), it was pretty much over for dial up services, which was AOL’s primary selling point for most of it’s useful existence. Our local cable companies were cheaper, faster, and they were doing early experiments with bundling their television and internet offerings making it easy to switch.
The best and most useful AOL feature jettisoned itself into a standalone app called AIM, the proto-Slack for a generation that now conducts most of its business through DMs, though at the time our business primarily consisted of posting emotional lyrics directed at our crushes. Back when I was blogging in HS, my way of informing my readership of a new post was by simply updating my away message with a link to Xanga. It was as good as tweeting to my followers (actually better).
This was the era of Livejournal and Deadjournal, Blogger and BBS. A few years after the freewheeling days of Angelfire and Geocities, but just before the dawn of Myspace. Social Media is not a term, yet. Marketing agencies had just recently started hiring digital designers and developers to build overwrought brand websites (my favorite was Candystand, a portal from Lifesavers that offered Macromedia Flash games like minigolf). Individual, homegrown websites and blogs are cropping up, like Maddox’s Best Page in the Universe and Ebaum’s World, Homestar Runner, and Neopets. Most newspapers were still just publishing yesterday’s paper on their website a day later, and Drudge was crushing them on scoops. Recall that the guy who started Twitter, Ev Williams, also started Blogger about a decade earlier. Those folks were working on digital publishing platforms for a long, long time.
Call me digitally old fashioned, but if I’m nostalgic for any era of internet it’s this era…platforms like Napster and KaZaa and Limewire and iMesh were cropping up, giving the internet a kind of naughty, illegal but what are they gonna do about it vibe. 9/11 had us feeling feverishly patriotic, the idea that the internet was a kind of wild west of copyright infringement, pornography, and stranger danger felt comfortingly American in those years. Like a newfound digital frontier where anyone could make a blog, sell a t-shirt, flirt with a girl (who was probably a guy pretending to be a girl), or build an empire. The American Dream was to be digitized.
That is, until we got to social media.
First with Friendster but more noticeably with Myspace, the move towards social media was one that felt refreshingly cool in a way that the internet had never known before. Once purely the providence of computer nerds, the internet was becoming accessible to everyone, and with that came all the societal pressures of style, charm, wit, and beauty. Myspace was an opportunity to express one’s tastes and life digitally in a way that felt more performative than what most people had access to previously, and we started creating online avatars for ourselves that pretty closely mirrored who we wanted to be in the world. The proliferation of digital cameras, webcams, and even early flip phone cams were critical to Myspace adoption. Prior to these profile networks, you needed to have some basic coding background to build a website. Now just about anyone could have a page with content to fill it.
The rise and fall of Myspace was fascinating to witness, it started primarily with scene kids and indie bands (they made it incredibly easy to upload music files and photos; the perfect digital press kit for an upstart band looking to get signed). When I was an A&R intern at Columbia Records in 2007, all I did was cruise Myspace for trending bands. I surfaced the band 3OH!3 to Matt Galle this way, who ultimately signed them to his Photo Finish Records imprint. We also passed on Drake because his Myspace numbers kinda sucked back then.
If the “scene kids” started Myspace, it was the early wave of extremely online, attractive “influencers” who really blew it up. Jeffree Star was an early star on Myspace as was Dane Cook, but an oft-forgotten fact: So was TSwift. You ever see her old profile? She was a prolific commenter. Or her bio from 2008? Check this absolutely endearing shit out.
Show me the lie! It’s literally a paean to oversharing, a document that should be taught in high school social media literacy classes worldwide. This early internet—like the millennials who mostly populated it—was horny and sincere, slightly traumatized by war and terrorism, and still felt wild. Myspace was a safe haven for our sincere expression of who our friends were, who we liked, what we looked like, what music we listened to, and what movies we quoted.
Myspace messages made celebrities broadly accessible for the first time, I recall fondly DMing with Chelsea Handler and Weezer’s digital archivist Karl Koch. Jack Antonoff was there building an audience for Steel Train. Bo Burnham had just posted a few videos from his bedroom on Youtube and was grappling with immense online fame despite relative local obscurity. But I’m starting to get ahead of myself.
Myspace was a good business and a good platform, but it wasn’t a great one. Their primary revenue consisted of a cheap looking “Punch the Monkey” advertisement (what?), and they were not prepared for the amount of spam, scams, and bots that would flood their servers once the platform reached critical mass. The site started feeling sticky and slow, gunked up from 3 straight years of checking your comment wall multiple times a day.
Whereas Myspace was open to everyone and populated with extremely online teenagers, Facebook offered an aura of exclusivity. The Ivy League passport was digitized. Going to a top ranked college granted us access to a social network of all the other brilliant young people in our school and grade, and suddenly Myspace felt a little trashy, a less serious version of the internet for those of us who were starting to think about building a LinkedIn profile. It was elitist, sure, but in a way that was more accessible than ever.
For those of us who didn’t grow up already ensconced in the upper echelons of the monied elite, Facebook felt like getting accepted into the Skull & Bones. The connections and photos were more intimate, the “poking” was more suggestive, and the DMs were more tawdry. Entire relationships were playing out in semi-public on our walls. It was exclusive and it was safe from our parents or teachers accessing our profiles, and for the first time we had an internet that truly felt like ours, built by someone who grew up like we did.
The utopia was not to last, however, as investors piled in and advertisers lined up around the block. Millennials until this point were considered a marketing enigma…we had strong brand preferences and decent spending power, but traditional forms of advertising seemed ineffective at modifying our taste. The olds understood that the internet was shaping our culture, and Facebook was where we were spending many hours a day getting our internet. It was only natural they’d show up to try and sell us something while we were there.
Gradually Facebook opened up, from ivies to sub-ivies, then to state schools and NCAA schools, then to all schools, then to all businesses, then to anyone with a pulse and an email address. By the time our parents were joining Facebook, the thing that made it feel like a special club house for our friends and colleagues to gather was capitalized and commoditized into oblivion. Spam ticked up, fascist and international bad actors weaponized the distribution stream, and like Myspace on a lesser scale, Facebook was ultimately overrun by the hordes.
Meta did manage to keep their head above water longer and more actively than Myspace, largely because they built up the war chest big enough to buy their way into new competitors like Instagram and WhatsApp. Anything they couldn’t buy (like Twitter, Snapchat, or TikTok) they copied (with Newsfeed, Stories, or Reels, respectively). The waves are still eroding the Meta empire but I wouldn’t count them out just yet, they are weathering a storm that is seldom weathered for decades, but they’re hanging on.
Twitter, on the other hand, seems to be struggling through it’s own freefall. While the birds continue to tweep through their death spiral, the collective internet’s focus is starting the anthropological shift I’ve seen it make so many times before.
The digital diaspora begins anew, with broadband explorers setting off towards the outer edges of fringe product and community. We exchange beta codes and tips on new platforms that show promise, we hit up our founder and investor friends and ask them what they’re excited about. If it is anything like previous cycles, the first settlers will experience the next digital gold rush.
But there’s another technological thread here that I’ve neglected to pull on yet. Throughout this outward facing explosion of internet culture through the maturation of the American millennial (that’s a free thesis title for anyone who wants it), there has been a distinct counterculture movement that has been fiercely and actively anti-capitalist.
It started its funding through the same method most anti-capitalist movements get funded…piracy through the lens of a no-victim Robin Hood effect. Napster and all the illegal file sharing protocols that came after it were interested in making media and entertainment a freely available commodity to anyone who wanted it. At worst it was a massive economic upset driver if you owned Tower Records or Blockbuster, but at best it was an enormous Library of Alexandria with every piece of recorded film and music ever commit to tape available for free, to anyone.
‘Would the internet be driven by capital or ideas?’ was the fundamental question of that era, and the capitalists had great lobbyists and lawyers with a well prepared answer. The money was going to talk and the communal ideas would walk.
Which came first, BitCoin or BitTorrent? The answer is BitTor, by a fairly large margin (2001 vs 2008). Torrenting, for those who aren’t as tech savvy, was a means of doing P2P filesharing where a file was effectively decentralized across many different host computers, each one holding a kind of piece to the file’s complete puzzle. It was impossible to shut down, and even well-known seed tracker sites like the aptly named Pirate Bay managed to continue operating for years without much government intervention. Sound familiar?
This “free, decentralized internet” movement eventually ballooned into all matters of illicit, decentralized marketplaces, and one of the hardest challenges to running an illegal business on a computer is that money tends to leave a digital paper trail. Transfer requests, card authorizations…the internet was built on the same pipes that the banking system had been using for decades prior, they knew how to trace a dollar that moved out of one bank account and into another.
Which is how we get to BitCoin, crypto currencies, NFTs, Wallstreetbets, the whole lot. The BitTor to BitCoin anarchy pipeline is better poised here than we’re giving it credit for, the only thing slowing that cohort down is they haven’t figured out decentralized governance yet (they’re actively working on it though, imagine this is what early conversations around functional democracy were like).
While their ascendancy still seems a way off, that wave is going to continue crashing hard against the moors of digital and economic reality. Eventually, the desire for a better path for human governance and equity made possible by a global computer network will satisfy and replace our distrust of more traditional institutions if those institutions are unable to offer a tenable, competitive alternative, an outcome they seem to be struggling with.
For those of us who are simply looking for a town square to share ideas and check the pulse of society, our options are vast and none seem obviously dominant yet. Discord feels good, so does Bluesky. Post and Mastadon seem lagged behind an early jump. Hive seems like a slow start. Truth is attracting a certain kind of moth, Twitch is capturing another. TikTok is unstoppable and making social media stardom easier to achieve than ever. Substack and Patreon are allowing creators to swipe credit cards. Young people still love the ethereal Snap, and I’ve failed to mention the Youtube elephant in the room.
Our attentions will continue to splinter, or dare I say, decentralize. There are forces at work on both sides to recapture a singular, controllable news feed, and there are opposing forces out fighting against a system that has spent centuries protecting it’s underbelly, mainly by hyping culture wars and stoking false outrage. Capitalism only weakens against organization, and periods of mass disorganization generally tend to be the best time to consider an organization strategy. This movement is bubbling up out there and has been gaining momentum for decades, it’s coming and will likely be a helluva break when it finally organizes itself in a way that sticks.
Meanwhile, the end users will continue to build new profiles, follow new channels, appease new algorithms, and the world wide web will spin madly on while the builders and early adopters balance a desire for riches with a desire for a post-capitalist principles.
The battle for the soul of the internet is happening around us, and who wins and loses will have an enormous impact on what kind of information system we wind up living with. None of us, individually, will have much of an impact on this arc, but collectively how we spend our attention online is deeply important over the next few years. New companies rise, old ones will fall, and the abandoned battlefields will be consecrated while new beachheads are fortified.
The world wild web is just as wild as its ever been, so pick a side, find your new community, and let freedom ring.
Until next time!
Down the Pipes is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.