A critical researcher’s uncritical manifesto: We should fall in love with the Internet again

Video art by Taru N Hohtonen
Video art by Taru N Hohtonen presented at the club.

This is a blog post version of Salla-Maaria Laaksonen’s festive speech at the WorldWideWeb 30-year anniversary party at Lavaklubi, Helsinki, March 12th 2019.

Dear friends of the World Wide Web,

As all of us here today, I definitely would not be here if it wasn’t for the world wide web.

I am a social media researcher, and I represent here a researcher collective Rajapinta that focuses on Internet research. However, my own story with the Internet goes far beyond my researcher career. It is a love story that started over 20 years ago, somewhere between IRC and Java-based online chats. Me and the world wide web grew together, from IRC to KissFM chats, from Jaiku to Twitter.

I believe this is a common story for many. A couple of years ago I attended a professional workshop on influencing. The consultant asked us to write down the name of the biggest influencer of our life. Four out of seven participants, independently, wrote down “the Internet”. I bet many of you would as well.

Indeed, the Internet has influenced our lives in many ways. It has changed the way we communicate, how we shop and how we read news. It has even changed the way we die or at least how me memorize those who have passed.

Yet, if you follow the current discussions of the Internet or read the news that concern social media, it becomes difficult to find these narratives of the technology that so profoundly changed our lives.

Instead, we talk about hate speech and cyberbullying, we talk about influencing elections, we talk about misusing personal data, and technology addiction. We hear politicians talk about ‘nettiväki’, the ‘social media folk’ to refer to online users who emotionally herd from one topic to another, who need to be civilized and controlled. Behind these claims there often is the idea that the technology is somehow making us humans do these things.

But I think there is so much more to the web than these alarmist notions. The web is also a marvelous place, where many forms of culture and communication live side by side.

And it is precisely this what makes it interesting for a researcher.

For a researcher the Internet is a bird-watching tower to climb into and see what is happening in the world, or sometimes a small campfire for storytelling.

In my own studies, I have climbed that bird-watching tower and sat on that campfire to study political discussions, online protests, social media influencers and social media stirs.

In all these what I see is genuine conversations, I see learning and I see peer support, I see real political debates.

This brings me to my title and my manifesto:

For a researcher, the world wide web is a sociotechnical system, constituted by both humans and technology.

This means the web is a technology that affords and limits what it’s users can do, but it is also constantly shaped by us users, it has to adapt to the practices we invent on that technology. So it’s not that the web can dictate what we do with it, but we have power to use it for own purposes.

That is why we can also shape the web and make it a something we want it to be.

We can keep alive the anonymous peer support from the 90s forums.

We can support the flat communication arenas, where a citizen can go and talk to a politician.

We can build the tower of Babel, where people speaking different languages around the globe can exchange ideas.

What I’m describing here sounds like the lost Internet imaginary of the 90s, but it is still alive somewhere over there. I see it on my researcher’s table and I want to bring it back to the public communication as well.

So, I will end with a call for us all: to celebrate the 30 years, let’s cherish the best parts of online communication and make sure we are acting so that our actions are building and rebuilding that web that exists in those early utopias. It is up to us to shape the web.

Happy birthday, dear WWW! We will take care of you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s