This entry is part 35 of 39 in the series 40 years online

We lived on farms and then we lived in cities and now we’re gonna live on the Internet. — Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network

When The Social Network came out in 2010, I enjoyed the movie but felt frustrated at its lack of perspective on the very phenomenon it was trying to chronicle: the explosion of Facebook, and more generally, social media. 2010 was the year that Facebook lapped Google as the number one online destination, but the movie about its founding fundamentally failed to reckon with significance of social media.

And fair enough: as I wrote at the time, Facebook’s significance was perhaps too new to be comprehended. I compared The Social Network to Singing in the Rain, which was made in 1952, and did a great job of conveying the momentous arrival of talking pictures in 1927.  But as I noted at the time, “[t]wo decades gives you the perspective to look back on an historical moment and pick out the elements of lasting significance, while still giving you access to the people who lived through it firsthand.”

For the past forty days, I’ve taken a look back at the longer history of the Internet, dating all the way back to 1971 (the year of my birth) and even a bit beyond. In the delightful, relentless and astonishing process of writing these posts, I’ve confirmed my hypothesis: while it was relatively easy to pick out the most significant moments in the Internet’s distant past, that grew more challenging once I caught up to my own living memory of life online. And as I moved past the horizon that defined my own involvement in the nascent world of online community and social media, it became almost impossible to separate what defined my experience of the Internet from what defined the Internet itself.

But that’s as it should be. If there’s one thing we’ve achieved with social media, it’s the infinite customization of our online lives to reflect our own personal interests and passions. From search results that reflect our friends’ latest tweets to news apps that tell us just the news we want to hear, the time we spend online is as much a mirror as it is a window on the world. If that customization compromises the shared frame of reference that is essential to civic dialogue about our common present, it poses equal challenges to those who would seek a narrative about a common past.

There’s a temperamental obstacle, too. Those of us who are drawn to the Internet — not just a daily mode of communications and commerce but as an object of inquiry in itself — are typically fascinated by what it points towards rather than what it leads away from. We buy the latest gadgets, sign up for the latest beta, and speculate wildly about the next tool or trend, because we enjoy projecting ourselves forward into the miraculous techno-paradise (or even the horrific techno-dystopia) in which we immersed ourselves as young sci-fi readers. Nick Bilton encapsulates the sentiment with the brilliant title of his recent book: I live in the future and here’s how it works. For geeks, the work of anticipating and embracing tomorrow is a source of endless fascination today.

For forty days I’ve put away that fascination so that I can look backward, but inevitably, I’ve found our online past most interesting for what it suggests about our online future. Over the course of this series, seven recurring themes and insights have emerged:

  1. Conflict is the price of change: We like to talk about disruptive innovation, but we can forget that the disruption often involves significant conflict. From the MPAA fighting back against DVD decryption to the struggle over Usenet’s restructuring, many of the Internet’s leaps forwards have involved some hardcore street fights. That’s why you need to think carefully about initiating disruptive change, and be smart about when and how you break the rules.
  2. The Internet is not a spectator sport: Technology isn’t something that gets made behind closed doors. The advent of the social web implicates anyone who participates in an online community, social network or user-driven website. We’re all co-creators of the Internet, and that’s both a responsibility and a promise: in addition to the Internet thriving when we invest and contribute actively, we get more out of conversations and our web apps when we commit ourselves online.
  3. We are all avatars now: While there are still people who choose to stay (mostly) offline, it’s no longer possible to have a purely analog identity. From the weed we smoke to the fantasies we share, our culture is now shaped by the Internet in ways that go far beyond the amount of time we spend online. That means each of our individual identities is shaped by the net, too.
  4. Fear will keep them online: As Internet use expands, risk management is a major preoccupation for both people and organizations. Parents worry about what their kids do on Facebook; companies worry about social media crises. The most effective risk management strategies aren’t based on technology, but rather, based on asking yourself and your organization some tough questions.
  5. Memory is more than RAM: What do Barbies and dittos have in common with Hobbes’ Internet Timeline? They are all memory prompts that help us connect to our past, and to each other. The Internet can record dates but some of our most powerful memories remain anchored in visceral, offline experience.
  6. The Internet is asynchronous: I’m not talking about the Internet’s ability to support asynchronous communication via e-mail. I’m talking about the fact that we all land in different places on the Internet’s perpetually unfolding timeline. Some people like to race to the bleeding edge of the innovation curve. Others are more cautious and help innovators sharpen their thinking by pushing back. The Internet thrives on having people at both ends of the spectrum.
  7. Connection is the ultimate prize: Relationship is both the cornerstone of the Internet, and its most elusive good. In our quest for relationship, we confuse computers with humans, and cords with connections. But when we choose tools that connect us to the people we care about, and focus on how to use the Internet to support those relationships, we can live happily ever after.

Many thanks to everyone who commented on, tweeted about, shared or responded to one of these posts. Your reflections helped me make sense of this backward glance at the Internet. Tomorrow I will wrap up with a very special look at how to live online today.

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