The Transformation of the Internet: Dead Dotcoms, the Privilege of Access, and Slacktivism

This past week has been fantastic, and I learned so much about the history of the internet and all the evolutions that took place for it to be where it is now.

For each skeptic, there was an equally staunch supporter of the internet in its early stages. Take the late 90’s for example: Just as the internet was taking off, there were millions of dollars invested into all these online companies– millions that disappeared after the dotcom bubble burst. These companies flopped because they didn’t evolve quickly enough (AskJeeves) or were too ahead of its time (Boo.com). However, investors saw the potential in this internet thing and believed in it enough to funnel millions into these companies, and despite the failures of many of these dotcoms, they essentially got the ball rolling on a list of dotcom do’s and don’ts for future companies. Thank you, dead dotcoms.

Here’s the obituary I wrote for UrbanFetch, an online almost-Amazon that lasted for a year:

Urbanfetch, 1, died of natural causes in her home in Manhattan on October 10, 2000. One of the grandmothers of the internet delivery sector as we now know it, Urbanfetch paved the way for Manhattanites to place an order on the web and receive it within the hour, often delivered by a courier on an unmotorized two-wheeled vehicle—and the service was free. To gain traction over her siblings in the industry, Urbanfetch revolutionized customer relations-building by delivering complementary t-shirts and warm cookies along with each order, in addition to finding the lowest costs for items requested by her clients. In the end, business arithmetic won: Her output was more than her input, and she went kaput.

Urbanfetch will be laid to rest next to her estranged older sister, Kozmo.com, with whom she was engaged in a lawsuit over proprietary rights that was settled out of court late the year before. Her legacy includes a joke on The Daily Show and a gentle reminder to really think through a business model that guarantees low prices for products and free one-hour delivery by bike messenger. She’s survived by a child of the same name, who has partnered with MaxDelivery to bring back her original idea for speedy deliveries in the New York City area.

Fast forward 10-15 years, and we’re at a point where the internet is no longer just a tool used by the military and scientific institutions and no longer simply a way for us to access email. It’s so ingrained as part of our daily lives. We shop online, we instant message with friends online, we look for movie showtimes online, we look up information online about our date before meeting for the first time, we apply for jobs online, we watch the news onilne. Sure, I can do all of the things I listed the old-fashioned way, but it’s just so much easier with the internet. After all, that’s what technology is here for: to make our lives easier.

But what a privilege it is to be on the grid and to have access to this technology. In this past week’s reading, what really hit a chord with me was realizing that access to the internet and all its glory means access to social capital, and as such, the internet can now be considered to be a part of a system of oppression that causes greater societal disparities: 25% of Americans don’t have access to the internet, and a significant part of the world also does not have access to the internet. To be fair, they’ve gone on just fine without it, and I’m certainly speaking from a privileged perspective here (as I type a public blog post on WordPress, no less), but I feel like we live in a world that values access to information, and those who don’t have that access are at a stark disadvantage. On top of that, there’s this whole debate about net neutrality– whether internet speeds can be sold at different price points for different speeds, high and low. My stance is that as an entity that’s owned by no one, the internet should remain neutral, and everyone should have affordable access to it. Honestly, I think internet access should be treated like a public utility, or at least subsidized by the government. Preventing groups of people from accessing the web– whatever the reason, though typically it’s costs for the consumers or the company– is akin to actively ensuring the marginalization and hindrance of social mobility of those groups.

That’s just thinking locally; on a national and international level, the internet is such an incredible platform for social change, which makes it all the more depressing to know that groups of people can’t access it. The readings and our discussions referenced the Arab Spring uprisings, the Occupy movement, and gay marriage as all having benefitted from the local, national, and global communities. While all of those are great, we’re also paving the way for “slacktivism” and “clicktivism”– that is, activism from the comfort of your computer screen. I suppose that could also mean the definition of activism is changing, but there’s a marked difference between donating $10 to a GoFundMe campaign and signing an online petition than going to a rally with thousands of others and making demands of the government. We talked a lot about digital convergence– maybe this is social convergence: the coming together of old and new ways to make social change?

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