The promise of the internet was that of a panoply of riches; a nearly limitless tapestry of human potential where geography was no longer a factor. But what we’ve gotten is rather the opposite. The vast audiences of the internet are mostly guarded by gatekeepers who are careful to extract and monetize your identity for access. Rather than radically democratizing economic opportunity, the internet has done just the opposite, hyperconcentrating it in a just a few metro areas (and mostly for just a few types of people). Just as television was built in the Hollywood complex, so has tech’s center of gravity remained in Silicon Valley.
If you listen to online communities of creatives (artists, writers, musicians, and the like), opinion is deeply split about whether the internet has been good for them or not. (I am personally a hobbyist fiction writer, and active in some of those circles.) At first glance, this sounds odd. The web theoretically gives them access to a nearly unlimited new audience, right? Yet the very platforms that creatives must use to reach those audiences – those like Facebook, Google/YouTube, Amazon, or even slightly more targeted ones like Etsy – also utterly commodify them. The internet’s winner-take-all dynamic creates a tiny class of fabulously successful artists and then a very long tail of everyone else. “Standing out” is incredibly difficult, and usually requires aggressive social marketing efforts that – surprise! – aren’t free.
The web’s dominant attention gatekeepers will probably forever have a central role in internet culture. But a web rife with independent creators offering everything from journalism, to music, to stories and education outside of the boundaries of Facebook and Google would be a healthier and more interesting world to live in. In a lot of ways, it would be a turn back to the early days of the web that some of us remember, except with much more democratic participation this time. And it’s a much more appealing vision for the internet than billions of people scrolling through their Facebook feeds.