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Gentrification of online spaces

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Image by Julia Tulke

I have been around online communities far longer then I’d like to admit. And I have lived through many waves of community building, discovery and colonization. One of the problems that I have seen happen over and over is a form of gentrification of online communities.

I do not feel that an online community being gentrified is the same as a physical community suffering this fate. I do feel that there are lessons and observations that we can take from both sides of the experience. I also feel that we are seeing this same thing happening again in the Fediverse.

Since my experience is primarily as a member of online communities I am going to stick to my lived experiences.

Some internet communities started out of marginalized or counter-culture folks finding new ways to connect. Think the dial up BBS’s, IRC or early forums. That was really it in the early days.

The early days of FIDOnet, WWIV and the Cyperpunks mailing lists where where my online persona was born. All you had to have was a modem and some sort of personal computer. The internet and the smaller networks of FidoNet or WWIV and other BBS’s was a magical place for geeky little me. I could find people who had similar interests, and easily interact with them. Things like video games, Role Playing Games, Physics, and of course computers. In the 80’s and early 90’s finding folks who were into D&D was hard! It was not nearly as popular as it is these days.

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We were proudly punks. We walked away from as much of the trappings of commercialism and polity society as we could. Our mantra was rebuilding the world. Our tools were technology, computers, the internet. We were young and idealistic.

We failed badly. We ceded control of our spaces to capitalist driven concerns. We thought that we were partnering with them. When profit vs doing right was the concern, the corps did what corps do. They chose profits over doing the right thing.

Since we had ceded our control over these spaces, what could we do? We watched as our communities were strip mined for value. We watched as the castles we built in our minds and on the internet were parted out. Thrown aside. The valuable bits made into something almost unrecognizable.

I recall a time when you could read each tweet as it was posted. When there was a sense of community. I recall “tweet ups”, BBS Pizza Parties, and evenings spent chatting with folks across town and across the world.

With the mainstreaming of these spaces, it feels like we built a theme park and had it to our selves for a while. And then the doors opened. New folks flooded goaded by growth hackers and hyper growth mentality. Curation, safety and moderation were pushed off or underfunded in the name of growth.

We have done a very bad job of teaching the new folks they way that it was, the way that it could be. The floodgates opened, and folks just logged in, walked around, and started to spend money. Folks assume that Facebook is the internet. That Twitter and Amazon are. And that’s almost true nowadays.

I hope that we can do a better job as folks move into the Fediverse. I’m already seeing some folks start to question why things are the way that they are in the Fediverse. Why the Mastodon community set up safeguards they way the did. Or worse, just ignoring those community norms and safeguards.

Don’t do that. When you join an existing community, you should be respectful. You should take time to learn the rules of engagement. The agreements on how to behave. The Fediverse is not twitter, and I feel that is a good thing. After all, we have proven that model is flawed.

That’s not to say that it’s perfect. But reflect before calling for drastic changes. Take some time to understand the why behind the feature before you discount it.

We saw where the Twitter road lead to. The Klept became fearful of the grassroots organization tools that Twitter gave to people. Then they bought it and are destroying it. Decentralized systems like the Fediverse have a built in defense against The Klept. It’s open source and decentralized. There is nothing to “buy” and light on fire.

Looking back, there were a lot of reasons that folks divested their control. One of the main ones was money. It’s expensive and hard to run a service. It’s far easier to pay someone to run it for you. And that’s the thing. When you use a “free” service like Twitter or Facebook, the experience is good. The apps work well. The services keep up with the load.

But how are they paying for the developers and systems folks to build and run all of that?

Because you are not the customer. You are not the person that is paying for it. You are the product. You are being sold. Your attention, your eyeballs, your time, your ability to spend money, your ability to create content is what is being sold. At one time, that trade off has made sense to most of us. We want the experience, we crave the connection. We give access to our contacts, our photos, our location, and our thoughts in exchange for access to the new shiny social network.

But this is not the real internet. It’s not what we dreamed when we dreamed of what the new century would look like. This is a profit driven, capitalist dream.

I’ve often said that internet access should be a public utility. I would go further and posit that the spaces should be community owned as well. Social Media should be run like PBS or NPR. We need to level the playing field. We need to insure that all people have equal access to information. We need to insure that everyone has the ability to access services and information on the Internet.

Of course this ties back to Net Neutrality. With out equal access, fledging services may not have the ability to gather a audience. We need to insure that new ideas are given the room to grow.

We must have equal and fair access to services. We must remove the profit from running what should be public services. We need to insure everyone has access to truthful, fair and easy to understand information and education.