Web plasticity

When the Internet started out, people wanted to use it to chat and discuss. So we did as human beings had always done. We created tribes.

In this manner, we got newsgroups, posting boards and so forth. This worked very well at first.

But just like real-world tribes, Internet groups degenerated into noise as soon they exceeded a certain size. To keep them going, we had to recruit moderators to regulate the groups. Even then, the groups can still quickly degenerate.

At the other side of thw evolved. The Internet evolved.

Misbehavior online remains a serious problem but we have better tools, both socially and technologically to deal with it. The web responds to damage better.

On the one hand, we are learning about the futility of endless arguments. On the Internet, there will always be people who are “wrong” by some definition of “wrong”. No matter how much effort you put it, you cannot make them all see the “light”. Yes, there are still as many “trolls” as there was, but people are better at ignoring them so they create less damage. People are also learning about the consequences of their actions: when the web started out, it wasn’t “the real world” so being abusive online couldn’t possibly affect your career. Today, anyone can track everything I write online. If misbehave, anyone can find out. This realization is entering our collective psyche.

On the other hand, software puts much less an emphasis on fixed virtual groups. If you write a post on Facebook or Twitter, it is not, by default, meant for a particular group. And when we do work with groups, they are much more disposable than they used to… because we have realized, as Seb Paquet put it, that creating groups is ridiculously easy.

Paquet’s idea leads us to what I call “web plasticity”. It reflects the fact that the web is an open online network, as Stephen Downes would put it. It is a network that is perpetually reconfiguring itself.

We could have imagined that the web would become a collection of fragile but precious groups that we had to maintain… or else we would fall into chaos. The web would be like a compartmented brain, prone to seizures and strokes.

What we have today is something stronger and richer, and far more robust. Yes, you can still choose to live in your own little social bubble, but it couldn’t be easier to connect to multiple such bubbles.

A good instance of this observation is GitHub. GitHub is where software is built today. The site itself is not important, but what makes it work matters a great deal. Software used to be built in coordinated teams. That extended to open-source software. Sure, you could make contributions to other people’s software, but it was hard. I know because I did it. Sending a patch over by email was awkward. What GitHub made us realize is that you do not need groups. You can allow anyone to easily “fork” (copy) a piece of software, modify it and republish it, sending a patch over to the original source. This was possible before, but not at the click of a mouse. By enabling this level of openness, GitHub changed how software is written. This allowed collaboration on a scale that simply was not possible before without expensive coordination.

People have forgotten why we did many of the things we did when the Internet started out. Getting interesting content was hard work at first. If you were passionate about something, it was hard work to share efficiently your enthusiasm. Posting boards and personal home pages arose out of that need… but they were hard to maintain, hard to filter, hard to manage. But they made sense because that’s what we knew: outside the web, we knew how to create groups and how to build “places”. So we reproduced the same pattern online. But, as it turns out, this sold the web short.

The web has gotten a lot more “plastic”. You can reconfigure the web around you, to make it work for you. The software has gotten a lot better but, just as importantly, our brains have adapted to the web.

I know it sounds a bit crazy to talk about the web evolving, becoming more plastic… but how could it be otherwise? There millions of experiments being run on the web at any moment. Things that work tend to stick around, things that do not work tend to go away.

Where does that lead us? I think that the writing is on the wall: the very concept of a group, or of an organization, is threatened by the web. Imagine a world where, on the fly, you can participate in various projects, according to your skills and interests… and that’s how problems in our society. Need to build a robot to go to Mars? Don’t go to NASA, have a bunch of experts in the world collaborate, and build the robot for you.

Sounds crazy? Lots of software you use every day is built just like that.

The web is bringing us to a fully plastic future where people are almost always viewed as nodes in a constantly reconfigured network rather than members of a group.

Further reading: Liquid modernity

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

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