We are living in precarious times. We heard it over and over this year, there’s no need to go into details. We know this.
And just as the new political reality has focused attention on so many other issues, it has also started a wider conversation on the state of digital technology and the social web. We now understand how dangerous it is that we live in a public sphere underwritten by digital advertising, and we can see that digital platforms are using our own behavior to isolate us, addict us, and misinform us in disturbing ways.
The stakes for the future of the web are high. Algorithmic filter bubbles have eroded the value of facts and crippled our ability to share a national conversation. Without net neutrality, we no longer have guaranteed access to a free and open internet.
But this doesn’t have to be the world we all inhabit. These problems are the downsides of a bargain we’ve had to accept in order to keep sharing photos, storing our files, inviting friends to events, getting restaurant recommendations, and so on. We may be “building a dystopia just to get people to click on ads,” as sociologist and New York Times columnist Zeynep Tufekci puts it, but we also have the power to build something entirely different.
Despite the situation we all find ourselves in, we at Are.na still feel optimistic about the future.
We’re hopeful because we see all kinds of people gaining a sense of their own agency to change the status quo. Instead of taking information and community for granted, more and more people are choosing to support the publications and platforms they want to be a part of. We already have all the tools and information we need to build a more participatory internet — now more and more of us are are chipping in to do so.
Are.na is proud to be just one small part of this shift. We’re lucky to have a dedicated group of about 25,000 members, many of whom are students and educators, who are creating a modest utopia of shared knowledge and interconnected ideas. But we’re also inspired by many other platforms and groups working on different pieces of the bigger puzzle: projects like NYC Mesh and other community networks, The New Inquiry’s “rhetorical software,” the self-directed groups of Learning Gardens, the Dat Project and many, many more.
The broader point is that culture is moving in a direction where we are all collectively deciding that we want a more positive, human experience out of the Internet and out of life. Within the limits of our time and attention, we have access to an incomprehensible amount of knowledge. Our digital tools and communities should help us navigate that diversity of thought in ways that foster our curiosity and allow us to learn from one another over the course of our lives. This isn’t just about the individual effects that one feels by enacting a more inquisitive and proactive practice of information gathering online. It’s about the long-term, cumulative effects of shifting culture into a space where learning is paramount.
So let’s agree to make a different kind of internet. At Are.na, that means creating a social space where we don’t rely on ads, our members are never the product, and transparency is a given. But we’re also rooting for any other project that delivers on the original promise of the web by sharing knowledge freely.
Here’s to 2018. Let’s use the agency we have to build an Internet that better serves us all.