On November 22, 1977 a van drove onto Interstate 280 and into history. Most histories of the Internet begin with the ARPANET, the US Defense department network that gave birth to today’s Internet. But the true Internet began when that van used TCP to bridge between three networks: ARPANET, a satellite network and a packet radio network. It’s this networking of networks — or internetworking — that first demonstrated the future Internet.
It was only in 1996 that this moment was recognized for its historical significance, and in 2007 it was celebrated with a special event at the Computer History Museum. Reflecting on those early days of the Internet, Vint Cerf — part of the original van crew, and by 2007 the chief Internet evangelist for Google, was quoted in a news story as saying: “A lot of people think the Internet just happened. But it was a lot of hard work.”
Cerf may have been speaking in the past tense, but the work isn’t done: new technologies and standards are developed all the time. And these are still early days: of the 2 billion people online today, only half were online in 2006. You can reckon that we’ve still got lots of growth ahead, not just in how many of us are online but in what we do there and how we do it.
When Cerf and his collaborators took to the Interstate, the hard work of creating the Internet was best left to the programmers. Today, thanks largely to social media, user-generated content and the emergence of the programmable web, you can help to create the Internet without writing a single line of code. You can help create the online world in which you and your children are going to live. You can take on some of that hard work. Here’s how:
- Tithe your time online. The Internet is not a religion (usually) but it is a community. The same way that members of a religious community might contribute 10% of their income to the church, members of the Internet community can contribute 10% of their time online to the health of the network itself. If the average American now spends 13 hours a week online, that means dedicating about 80 minutes to the kinds of active contributions described in this list.
- Be a good colonist. I wanted to tell you that you’re the Columbus of the Internet, but let’s face it, the Columbus thing didn’t work out too well for a whole lot of people. So do Columbus one better: as you help to discover this new world of the Internet, do it without the evangelizing, land-stealing and disease-spreading. Get to know and appreciate what already exists online and think about how to add to it. Try not to bulldoze anything (or anyone) who is already there.
- Make a node. The Internet is not a series of tubes. It’s a series of nodes and connections. You can make one of those nodes by creating your own blog or web site. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It just has to be useful or interesting to at least one other person.
- Aim for 49%. That’s the maximum amount of your online energy that should go into promoting the Brand of You. (If you think you can keep it to 48%, or maybe even want to be a human being instead of a brand, so much the better.) The other 51% can go to talking about other people and ideas and maybe even to just listening. This is the hard work of building an Internet that is not simply a monument to narcissism.
- Make a connection. Remember how the Internet is both nodes and connections? That’s not just a description of the Internet’s underlying architecture: it’s also a description of the way it connects information and people. You can make a connection between two pieces of information by posting a hyperlink: that is the most basic level at which the Internet connects something over here to something over there. Or you can make a connection between two people by introducing them via e-mail, tweet or blog post.
- Tell us how you did it. If you’ve ever been delighted to find a tech solution, recipe or business tip online, you know that a big part of the Internet’s value is the help it provides on just about any topic. You can help make our global repository of how-to information as complete as possible, by sharing the step-by-step version of how you’ve done something. It could be how to got your kid to sleep through the night, how to set up an RSS to email newsletter, or how to perform an emergency tracheotomy. Write (or photograph, or video) how you did it, and put it online.
- Report a problem. People often say that one of the Internet’s strengths is that it is self-healing. For example, if someone writes something incorrect on a Wikipedia page, somebody else will correct it. But as that example suggests, the Internet isn’t self-healing: it’s healed by the active participation of people who take the time to correct a mistake or solve a problem. And the first step to solving a problem is knowing it’s there. Whether it’s taking a moment to report a Twitter spammer, capturing a screenshot of an error message and sending it to the site in question, or letting someone know that you got a 404 on their blog, reporting a problem can help keep the Internet shipshape. If they don’t know it’s broke, they can’t fix it.
- Answer a question. How long to wait before sending a follow-up email when submitting a résumé? How do the Chinese concept of the self differ from the Western view of the self? How can I install Plex on my AppleTV? If the Internet now has 2 billion users, you can figure it’s got at least that many questions. Answer one every week.
- Add an issue to your basket. Political scientists like to talk about the “basket of preferences”: the assortment of positions on a range of issues that determine how a given person votes or engages in other kinds of political action. If your basket of preferences currently includes (let’s say) lower taxes, the legalization of gay marriage and stronger controls on carbon emissions, consider adding an Internet-related issue to your basket. It might be online privacy or net neutrality or Internet freedoms in China. Pick an issue and help to shape the policy environment for the Internet by voting or volunteering for politicians who champion that issue, by supporting lobbying efforts, or by engaging in direct action.
- Make something. I know, I know: you’re not a programmer. Neither am I. But you can actually help develop some part of the Internet’s technical assets, whether that’s by creating a customized widget or documenting a web application or making (and sharing) a pipe. Try it out and you will feel like a super stud. And you will feel just a little bit more part of the team that is making the Internet.
If you’re the kind of person who has always dreamed about moving into fully finished, fully furnished home, with everything supplied down to the last washcloth and spoon, then by all means sit this one out and let the rest of us do the hard work. But if you’re the kind of person who’s always dreamed about designing and building your own home, then roll up your sleeves: you’re going to be living a big chunk of your life online, and you get to help decide what that living space will look like.
And if you’re the kind of person who has always dreamed of living in a van…well, the Computer History Museum has just the place.