opinion | Centralized social media took what remained of the early internet’s simplicity | Opinion

The internet today looks a lot different than it did 12 years ago. If you go back 12 more years before that, you’ll discover a World Wide Web that is, at best, primitive. This period, now dubbed “Web 1.0,” was characterized by crudely designed webpages, images with pixels that could be counted by hand and personal blogs. Yet, the stark difference in how the internet looked and operated during this time compared to today presents a feeling of nostalgia for many – one that reminds them of an internet before its commercialization. While commercialization and the onset of “Web 2.0” in the early 2000s began to take away this charm, the growth of social media into only a few distinct networks eliminated the few remaining elements that made the original internet so unique.

Around the turn of the millennium, the internet was still in the middle of what I like to call its “puberty.” During this period, the web was uncharted, unmoderated and unorganized. Websites were typically composed of tiled background images, contrasting colors, wicked fonts and poorly imposed pictures that could only be seen if your download speed was faster than your patience. These noisy and unstructured webpages are hallmarks of an internet that was, at the time, chock full of personal blogs intended for small-circle audiences.

During this time, social media existed almost exclusively as forums and chatrooms. Forums were hosted by a few big names, such as Usenet, Metafilter and Newgrounds. Chatrooms were similar, with America Online’s instant messaging service cementing itself as the go-to during this time. Forums and chatrooms, in general, were typically devoted to a topic of interest – such as bodybuilding, video games and movies – attracting an audience of interested people. In essence, they existed as a small section of the internet where like-minded individuals could talk with each other directly, away from a growing number of internet users.

Rapid and instant communication was still rather unprecedented in human history until this point, so people were understandably taking advantage of it, interacting with each other as though they were real-life friends. In 2022, this is nothing new – communities still exist online in larger numbers than ever before. The difference was that each community co-existed in its own corner of the internet, hardly ever disturbed by members of other communities looking to cause chaos for the sake of chaos.

When social media began to blossom in the late 2000s, forums and chatrooms lost the spotlight in favor of MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. While they persisted through the 2010s, forum usage has understandably declined throughout the past 15 years. The transition away from a decentralized realm of social networks into a few distinct major platforms specializing in different mediums for content ultimately eliminated the need for forums and chatrooms.

Of course, modern social media has its benefits. It is much easier to moderate content, faster to publish and more opportunities exist for content to reach large audiences. Communities still exist due to modern networks offering to link content through hashtags or Facebook pages. Reddit, one of the major social networks today, is essentially a conglomeration of thousands of sub-forums, with communities bounded by “subreddits.”

Yet, across all the major platforms – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and Reddit – content from all sorts of topics, related or not, bleeds through onto your feed. Algorithms calculate content that you may want to see, even if you don’t, and force it down your throat, allowing you to see other people’s valid or sometimes egregious opinions without asking. The ability to breach an online community now is effortless, requiring as little as only one hashtag in a post. And, if we’re being nitpicky, the colorful-yet-atrocious webpages of Web 1.0 have been replaced by dry, boring designs that just so happen to work well.

There is no denying that commercialization was beneficial to not only the internet, but also our lives and the world around us. But with that came the organization that forced the social media landscape to transition into only a few distinct outlets. Gone are the days of dial-up internet. Gone are the days of day-long upload and download speeds. Gone are the days of hopping on a forum early in the morning and utilizing perhaps your only communication tool with your online friends. Gone is the fun and simplicity that existed with early social media.

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