KATE THOMPSON DAVY: Welcome to the splinternet(s): freedom and fragmentation online
The split between the medium-is-the-message Oldies and the everything-is-a-meme Youth shows experience is not universal
There is a fantastic song doing the viral rounds called Welcome to the Internet. It is from comedian Bo Burnham’s deeply sardonic Netflix special Inside — written, performed and filmed by Burnham in a single room during the 2020 shelter-in-place orders in the US.
The opening verse goes: “Welcome to the internet / Have a look around / Anything that brain of yours can think of can be found / We’ve got mountains of content / Some better, some worse / if none of it’s of interest to you, you’d be the first...”
From there, Burnham’s tone and delivery descends from jaunty salesman through mania to Bond villain, careening through foot fetishes, race tensions, cooking and fan fiction porn. It’s a wild ride, honestly, and when you stop tapping your unphotographed foot long enough to reflect on the content, it may leave you despairing.
The New Yorker’s reviewer describes the show as part of an “emerging genre of hyperactive art born of the minds of people who have been online since before they hit puberty ... explor[ing] what it means to live with a brain broken into shards by a steady stream of social media and open tabs and reality television”. Yikes, that pulls as few punches as Burnham himself.
As someone who was a teen on the wrong side of dial-up, but only just, I’m a self-appointed mediator between the two groups both Burnham and that reviewer imagine: the medium-is-the-message Oldies and the everything-is-a-meme Youth. The false dichotomy, however, misses the point that our experience of the internet has never been universal: welcome to the Splinternet — something to both accept and guard against.
The idea of a splintered net dates back to the prehistoric late 1990s when internet relay chat (IRC) channels and other dinosaurs populated the earth’s networks. This was when we still clung to the great ideal of an unregulated, multidirectional flow of information across a world wide web built on top of a decentralised and interconnected network, AKA the internet.
fate of the #BlackLivesMatter movement if
city or national governments were able to shut down sharing of the George Floyd murder video
Let’s remember that many of the early pioneers of the protocols that mean your machine can talk to mine were academics and idealists, or cyberutopians who held this unrestricted and equal information sharing as fundamental to what they were building and using.
Even now I find myself torn between my inner hippie and pragmatist selves. The latter swears the splinternet is here already, and has been for a while, that the ongoing debate about the state of the net is probably a sign of its very health. After all, just differentiating between Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk means you are having a regionally specific experience. Our actual access is also limited by — among other things — language, geography, speed, devices, data costs and literacy.
And then there is the way we are actively painting ourselves into social media corners. Facebook, for example, works like this, building up what is called a personal social graph based on your likes and interactions. It tends towards serving us stuff from people exactly like us, which is also how it has become a tool of radicalisation.
Perhaps that’s why the “magic” of the Tik-Tok algorithm has been such a revelation for some. TikTok works on interests and attention. So the videos that catch you, that you watch for three more seconds than others, position you on a map of interests. This, plus an incredible scale of data points means if you are really into CrossFit you will be served burpees and whatnot from buff creators in Mexico, Finland or Cape Town. If you like parody and social commentary, the app is serving you Bo Burnham songs or the like. This is when fragmentation works for us.
On the other hand, the “Balkanisation” of the internet — harsh regional regulation, state censorship, the Great Firewall of China, or states such as Eswatini turning off access as control — means widening gaps in knowledge, in communication, in our ability to organise and protest. Imagine the fate of the #BlackLivesMatter movement if city or national governments were able to shut down sharing of the George Floyd murder video. We are walking a fine line here, where disaster looms whether we let presidents or CEOs dictate what we see online.
Our experiences of the internet exist on a spectrum of less open (North Korea, China, Russia, India) to more open (Germany, France, the UK and — traditionally — the US), and analysts are warning that there has been a shift by many states in recent years towards the less open. That is the option I fear: the narrowing of worlds, digital and otherwise, where we will never get to hear sarcastic critics sounding the warning, “Welcome to the Splinternet. You’ll get what we decide to serve ...”
• Thompson Davy, a freelance journalist, is an impactAFRICA fellow and WanaData member.
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