A Retro Way to Improve the Net

Written by: N.S. Palmer | Posted on: | Category:

In 1949, the legendary American comedian Groucho Marx resigned from the Friars Club of Beverly Hills. His reason?

"I don't want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members."

A lot of people are starting to feel that way about the internet. The hate, hysteria, Twitter mobs, privacy invasions, and intrusive advertising are too much.

But the internet wasn't always like that. When I first used it as a student in the late 1980s, the internet seemed new, exciting, and fairly reasonable.

Email was an awesome idea, though it was text-only and didn't work reliably. You couldn't email files. Connection speeds were slow, even over campus networks.

To connect with remote computers, you had to use the telephone lines, and that was even slower. Don't ask me how I know, but it took about two minutes to download a single photo of Star Trek's Counselor Troi -- fully clothed, of course, which was about as edgy as "internet porn" got.

Finally, you had to know how to use internet commands and computer operating systems such as Unix and MVS.

But as primitive as it now seems, that retro version of the internet might hold solutions to some of our current problems:

  • People seldom insulted each other. Even if they did, nothing much happened as a result.

    The only memorable exception was a discussion group titled "alt-ensign-wesley-die-die-die," devoted to a Star Trek character who many fans disliked (although the actor who portrayed him seems like a pretty decent guy).

  • There was very little fake news. You couldn't even find fake news unless you had technical skills.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were basically two versions of the internet. One version was for people in general. Everyone could use it. The other version was for researchers and technical nerds. Only they could use it, because only they had the knowledge required to do it.

Yes, Millennials, I know that I sound like your grandpa talking about "the good old days." It is what it is.

The Consumer Internet

The consumer internet consisted of competing online services such as CompuServe and America Online.

Online services were like Facebook: lots of people, lots of content, easy to use, and requiring no technical knowledge. But they differed from Facebook in four ways:

  • First, you paid a monthly subscription fee to use them, so they didn't bombard you with advertising or sell your information. But they knew who you were. It was technically possible to create bots or fake identities, but it was more trouble than it was worth.

  • Second, they had meaningful competition to keep them honest. If you didn't like one of them, you could switch to a competitor that was just as good. None of them dominated the market like Facebook. Present-day competitors like MeWe, Minds, and Gab might eventually dethrone Facebook, but not in the short term.

  • Third, they didn't automatically show you a "newsfeed" whose content they could select to manipulate you. Instead, you looked for content and forums that interested you.

  • Fourth, online services did not even pretend -- like Facebook and Twitter -- to be free speech zones. Their users were paying customers who were usually well-behaved. And they did sometimes discuss politics, including controversial opinions. But if anyone started harassing others or using offensive language, each forum had moderators who could impose penalties from censorship to expulsion. That was understood.

    As far as I could tell, moderators were not employees of the online services. They were users who got free accounts in exchange for moderating the forums in which they participated.

    The moderators were not nameless. They posted in the forums. They were readily available to discuss users' concerns or complaints. There were no hidden censors deploying mysterious algorithms to block any content they didn't like. If you got censored, you knew who did it and why. It was all open and above-board. People sometimes griped about it but it worked well.

    And since users were paying customers, moderators did not censor people arbitrarily. There had to be a good, defensible reason. The services didn't want to lose that monthly subscription money. As has been said about Facebook and Twitter, "If you're not paying for the product, then you are the product." Users of online services were paying for the product.

On a smaller, non-commercial scale, individual computer nerds often ran "bulletin board systems" (BBSs) on their own PCs. If you had the phone number, you could get access. BBSs were usually owned by fanboys, so their content and discussion forums reflected that. Their influence was limited to their own small user base. Two interesting side-notes:

  • If I remember correctly, the photo of Counselor Troi came from the Westside BBS in West Hollywood. That BBS was pretty well known to Star Trek fans.
  • When PCs were first introduced in government agencies, many agencies had enthusiasts who set up BBSs with all their agency's information. If you were a spy and you had the BBS phone number, you could have learned a lot. Of course, military and intelligence agencies were a lot more security-conscious. You couldn't get into their systems unless you were a very good hacker who didn't worry about going to prison. The method used in the 1980s movie "WarGames" was called a hack-hack attack, and it wouldn't work on any secure computer except in a movie.

The "Real Internet"

The other version -- the "real internet" -- was more of a wild-west show. It offered uncensored freedom to say anything or share any content that was legal. But as I described earlier, it was not easy to use. There was no such thing as "point and click." You had to learn commands to establish connections, get access to remote computers, and navigate different operating systems. You also needed a real internet account through a school or government agency. You couldn't get to it from the consumer internet, at least not until the mid-1990s. And you still couldn't do very much with it.

So the real internet wasn't available to everyone. Even if you had an account, the skills barrier made it almost like an IQ test. You couldn't use it unless you were smart, technically sophisticated, and highly motivated. That limited the size of the user population. Even with total freedom of speech, there weren't enough susceptible people for anyone to whip up a Twitter-style mob or harassment campaign.

You could shop, but not much. Most of the shopping and other commercial activity was on the online services because they had large customer bases. E-commerce wouldn't really take off until after the invention of web browsers in the 1990s. The web put a "front door" on the internet that made it easier for non-technical people. Some consequences have been good, while others have been bad.

What's the Internet For?

Is there a way to apply the 1980s kind of model in 2019? We want to keep the good things about the internet and minimize the bad things.

What are the good things that people do on the internet? Here's my list. If you can think of other things, please comment: I don't pretend to have all the answers. We want to keep:

  • E-commerce: Buying and selling. Brick-and-mortar stores hate it -- justifiably -- but it's here to stay.
  • Email: Written correspondence delivered faster than postal mail. It's become an essential part of our lives.
  • Personal interactions: Chats, videoconferencing, and discussion threads provide limited contacts with other people. They're not as good as face to face conversations, but (a) they're not nothing, and (b) they permit interactions that would otherwise be impossible.
  • Posting content: Blogs, photos, and videos seem to be the most common types of content.
  • Getting news: Real news is a good thing. Fake news is a bad thing. But what's real or fake is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. That's going to be a problem.

What Should It Not Be For?

What are the bad things that people do on the internet? We want to eliminate or minimize:

  • Mobs: Inciting hysterical mobs to harass and threaten people online or in real life. Organizing riots.
  • Fake news: News stories that are demonstrably (often obviously) misleading and that incite people to hate each other.
  • Privacy invasion: Social media, websites, and search engines collect personal data and sell it: "If you're not paying for the product, then you are the product."
  • Pornography: Even if it's mild, legal, and not horrifying, pornography is too easy to get on the internet. That leads to addiction, desensitization, and it damages human relationships.

Applying a 1980s-Style Remedy

No solution to any social problem can be perfect. There are always costs and benefits. Improving the internet is no exception. Here are my suggestions:

  • Use antitrust law to break up Facebook. A social media company that controls 68 percent of the U.S. market is too powerful.
  • Use antitrust law to break up Google. A technology company that controls about 70 percent of internet searches while selling software, computers, tablets, and phones is too powerful.
  • Regulate social media. For example, eliminate "newsfeeds," so that content is available if users want it but doesn't display automatically. Prohibit user conduct such as objectively-defined harassment or bullying. Require social media companies to publish clear and specific guidelines for moderation, so that users can know in advance what is and isn't allowed. Require social media companies to have enough moderators for individual moderation, just like in the glory days of CompuServe.
  • Make the internet harder to use, so that most people will flock to easier social media sites or reborn online services. Most e-commerce should be there.
  • Require a license to engage in e-commerce. Just as with a brick-and-mortar store, the license should document who owns the business, where it's located, and what it's selling.
  • Prohibit some e-commerce on social media. If some kinds of e-commerce are legal but socially harmful, prohibit them on social media and online services. They'll still be available on the hard-to-use real internet. Freedom sometimes includes the right to do unwise things, but there's no reason to make unwise things easy to do.

Those are partial and imperfect ideas for solving serious problems. But we've got to start someplace. Our current situation is unsustainable.

Your thoughts?

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it "intriguing and vital to living."