It’s a Wonderful Internet: The 2022 Holiday Special

It's a Wonderful Life movie poster doctored to say "It's a Wonderful Internet"
Reimagining the Internet
Reimagining the Internet
It's a Wonderful Internet: The 2022 Holiday Special
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It’s that time for our favorite tradition here at Reimagining the Internet: the holiday special. This year, Ethan has his finger hovering over a big red button to delete the entire Internet and his guardian angel talks him down.

A very special tanks to lab mates Ryan McGrady, Rebecca Curran, Kevin Zheng, Spencer Lane, Virginia Partridge, and Jasmine Mangat for joining.

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Welcome to Reimagining the Internet from the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. We’re talking to researchers, techies, activists, academics, and journalists about what’s wrong with the internet and how to fix it. I’m your host, Ethan Zuckerman.

Welcome to the 2022 Re-imagining the Internet Holiday Special: It’s A Wonderful Internet. I’m your host, Ethan Zuckerman, and if you’re anything like me, 2022 didn’t feel like a wonderful year for the internet at all. People stopped writing and communicated solely via dance moves on TikTok. People cooked chicken and NyQuil and ate something called pink sauce. Elon Musk got high and bought Twitter and then drove it straight into a ditch. Everyone defrauded everyone else with cryptocurrency up until some curly-haired teenager in The Bahamas conducted the one fraud to rule them all. It’s December. I’m getting over COVID and I think it might finally be time to delete the internet.

Mike Sugarman:

Ethan, as your angel, I have to remind you that Sam Bankman-Fried is not a teenager. He’s 30.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And somehow that makes it better?

Mike Sugarman:

Well, at least it’s not teenagers crashing the economy again this year.

Ethan Zuckerman:

What’s with you? Why’d you stop me from deleting the internet?

Mike Sugarman:

Well, as Mike, your producer/guardian angel, that’s what I was sent down for.

Cosmic Entity:

Hello, Joseph. Trouble?

Joseph:

Looks like we’ll have to send someone down. A lot of people are asking for help for a man named Ethan Zuckerman.

Cosmic Entity:

Yes. Tonight’s his crucial night. You’re right. We’ll have to send someone down immediately. Whose turn is it?

Joseph:

That’s why I came to see you, sir. It’s a clock maker’s turn again.

Cosmic Entity:

Oh producer Mike hasn’t got his wings yet, has he?

Joseph:

We’ve passed him up right along because you know, sir, he’s got the IQ of a rabbit.

Cosmic Entity:

Yes, but he’s got the faith of a child. Simple. Joseph, send for [inaudible 00:02:09].

Producer Mike:

You sent for me, sir?

Cosmic Entity:

Yes. A man down on earth needs our help.

Producer Mike:

Splendid. Is he sick?

Cosmic Entity:

No. Worse, he’s discouraged. At exactly 10:45 PM Earth time, that man will be thinking seriously of throwing away God’s greatest gift. Deleting the entire Internet.

Producer Mike:

Oh dear, dear, then I’ve only an hour to dress. What are they wearing now?

Cosmic Entity:

You’ll spend that hour getting acquainted with Ethan Zuckerman

Producer Mike:

Sir, if I should accomplish this mission, might I perhaps win my wings? I’ve been waiting for over 200 years now, sir, and people are beginning to talk.

Cosmic Entity:

If you do a good job with Ethan and you will get your wings.

Producer Mike:

Oh. Thank you, sir. Thank you.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Hey, Mike, what’s with you? Why’d you stop me from deleting the internet?

Mike Sugarman:

That’s what I was sent down for. I’m your guardian angel.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Well, that figures. A nebbish indie musician would have to be my guardian angel.

Mike Sugarman:

Ridiculous of you to think about shutting down the whole internet.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Now, how do you know that’s what I was trying to do with this big red button?

Mike Sugarman:

I told you, I’m your guardian angel. I know everything about your internet use.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Oh geez. I hope not. But if you’re an angel, why don’t you have any wings?

Mike Sugarman:

Because I haven’t won my wings yet. Won’t you help me get my wings?

Ethan Zuckerman:

I mean, I suppose so. How?

Mike Sugarman:

By letting me help you.

Ethan Zuckerman:

By helping me love the internet? Come on. It’s worth more dead than alive. I wish the internet was never born.

Mike Sugarman:

Now, look, you mustn’t talk like that. I won’t get my wings with that attitude. You just don’t know all the joy the internet has brought to the people here at the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure this year. Take Ryan, he found a new love of birding using the bird app, Twitter.

Ryan McGrady:

So bird alerts, bird Twitter, the entire technical ecosystem of tools to help people find cool birds and talk about them and share about them. So Twitter may be a dumpster fire right now but there is a little niche of Twitter where people are talking about where the interesting birds are, sharing photos, sharing information about various species and migration habits, encouraging each other, telling each other where to find things, suggesting techniques to look for certain rare birds based on behavior or songs or field marks and it’s just a wonderful place.

I was introduced to this a few years ago on Twitter when I saw somebody tweet out that there was a woodcock in Bryant Park. Now, for people who don’t live in New York, Bryant Park is very much an urban park. It’s pretty small, just a little square in the middle of around 42nd street in Manhattan. It’s not foresty. It’s not a very natural park, just an open green space with a bunch of vendors and stuff around it and a few gardens.

For whatever reason, every year, these little, plump, long-beaked woodcock birds which looked goofy with the eyes on the sides of their head, go to Bryant Park and somebody shared that with me on Twitter and it blew my mind and I took the subway over there and I saw it for myself. It was the first time I ever seen one of these goofy little birds and it was an incredible experience.

Since then, I’ve become more involved. When the pandemic hit, I got much more into birding and came to appreciate all of the different elements of this community’s usage of the internet. And so, it’s the idea of a bird alert, of people sharing with other people who care about birds where the rare bird is right now is really old, actually. The people used telephone lines for a long time, for decades, where you would call in and there’d be a tape recording of where the sightings were in the last few days and you could call somebody else who might be able to point you to where it is.

The internet completely changed that because now, it’s live. There are still these newsletters and updates but you can share on social media and then gather with a bunch of people. Sometimes, a lot of people in a place like Central Park, you can draw sometimes 50, 60 people to see one rare bird and share in that community. Very wholesome experience, kind of shockingly wholesome for the internet today, of enjoyment of nature through the internet.

You’re also equipped with all of these tools, largely thanks to the ornithology lab at the Cornell which turn it into a citizen science project too. Where you go out and you find these birds, you learn about how to find them, and you document them and it’s all there in a set of apps that’ll help you to identify them, to say what they were doing, and this all goes into this large eBird database of bird population documentation all over the world.

So this year, I became a bit more involved in some of these and you learn that once you’ve been doing it on Twitter for a while, there are actually these secret exclusive bird groups where the people who are really experts and really into it don’t mess around with the public stuff and they just tell each other in this own exclusive group where the really good stuff is.

So I stumbled into some of those and it’s all silly and fluffy and some people take it a little too seriously and some people maybe don’t take it seriously enough like anything else but it is, overall, a very welcoming, friendly education heavy, passionate space that I don’t know that I’ve seen anything like that. There are patches of controversy. If you share where a sensitive species is like an owl which wants to sleep during the day, if you accidentally create a flash mob around an owl, you will get scolded and maybe excluded from those special groups. But ultimately, that’s the exception. All of the rules and the controversy is always about the wellbeing of birds or the nature around them, the environment around them.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Well, that’s maybe the only positive use of Twitter I’ve heard so far this year. I can’t argue with birding, that’s a positive but thank goodness, we were able to do that before the internet.

Mike Sugarman:

Well, before the internet, you wouldn’t have been able to write an elaborate fan fiction for a movie that never existed. Rebecca told us about how she took part in the fanfic community around Martin Scorsese’s Goncharov.

Rebecca Curran:

Over COVID, we’ve spent a lot of time watching movies, digging down through old libraries of stuff that have shown up on Netflix and Hulu and all of those sorts of things. But there was a recent movie that came to light on Tumblr a couple of months ago called Goncharov which is a 1970s mafia movie by Martin Scorsese. I believe it’s like the Sicilian mafia is being infiltrated by the Russian mob and there’s a whole battle that happens with that.

Tumblr hitched onto it really hardcore because they decided there was some homoeroticism between the main character Goncharov and one of the other guys in the film and there was this huge wave of fan art and fan fiction. Goncharov officially has more entries in the most popular fan fiction website than the Avatar movie does. The funny thing is, that movie doesn’t exist. Goncharov is not real. Goncharov never existed.

Someone found a shoe with a tag on it that said, “Michael Scorsese’s Goncharov,” that was clearly a misprint or some knockoff fashion label thing that they decided to put on there and the internet ran with it. It was so cool. You don’t see mass creativity about something where people weren’t getting in fights about it. Everyone was talking literary criticism and themes about something that didn’t exist. But the joy of seeing people talk about the themes of revenge and cycling back into old habits or all of these sorts of in-depth essays that people are writing about something that doesn’t exist.

I’m a librarian. I get sad when I see people watch movies and clearly not understand anything that happened. So hearing people use the cognizant language to talk about something that isn’t real was fun. It was this really big, joyful, creative activity. Tumblr has always liked talking about things that weren’t real and I think some of the early fan art was really compelling. You can look at some of the movie posters for it and it’s a movie that you want to watch.

I think the fact that somebody latched on really early, that there was going to be this angst, clock motif as time is ticking down and all of these characters are going to die, people really attach themselves to that idea and there’s a love triangle between Goncharov, his wife, and another man that are all stuck in this house together. So there’s a lot of fan art opportunities from that.

So having the freedom to work with a loose set of themes and characters without any chance of high drama or fights, I think in a lot of fandom communities, there’s a tendency for people to say like, “Oh, I don’t ship that. That’s wrong,” and you didn’t have to do that with Goncharov. It was just joyful. It was just interesting and I think that sort of mass creativity is just a fun game for people to play.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Ah, Goncharov. It’s evidence that William Gibson has been writing the plot for the internet all the way through. Maybe we could actually have an internet not run by a dystopian science fiction author.

Mike Sugarman:

Well, how about an internet run by a dystopian ticketing company? Kevin told us that, weirdly, one of the things that gave him hope for the internet this year was that Taylor Swift fans might lead to Ticketmaster being broken up.

Kevin Zheng:

I think the thing that brought me the most joy this year was seeing the fallout of everyone trying to buy Taylor Swift tickets all at once a few weeks ago. I personally did not try to buy tickets because I knew that it would be a little tough but seeing people talk about it online on Twitter, those that did get it so that they survived the Great War in a reference to the Taylor Swift lyrics. It was just really cool to see everyone come together over this and people, of course, love Taylor Swift very much as do I but maybe not as much as some of her biggest fans.

It was very interesting to see Twitter being really active and Ticketmaster not working as designed and people slowly also realizing that the ticketing industry is pretty messed up, pretty corrupt with their high fees. People began to ask questions about where are these fees going and why they would have to pay all these fees, why there aren’t any alternatives.

So one interesting thing that’s come out of all of the drama is that some fans are suing Ticketmaster for anti-competitive practices which is pretty awesome and it’s great that there is a spark that could lead to some amount of change in the music industry that I depend on for a lot of my joy. I love to go to concerts and I would love to pay a lot less on fees for my tickets. I think in an ideal world, ticketing and venue operations and artist management, all of these would be separate industries whereas right now, that’s one company that runs all of it all at once. So they’re able to pretty much make the markets and manage the markets however they want and it’s clearly creating a less than ideal experience for artists that have to deal with the fallback or with the repercussions of the system.

But then also, fans can’t have the experiences that they want to pay for and they want to experience, they want to support the artists that are doing the work. So ideally, there’s some change. It could be from the FTC going back on their… I think it was a no action back when Live Nation and Ticketmaster merged. Maybe there could be a fan based or a homegrown ticketing system, something that actually is serving the fans in a same way that AO3 was created by people that are engaged in that community, there could be a ticketing system that comes out of the music community. So something like that could be really interesting as well.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I can’t think of anything more 2022 than that. Only in a year like this and only a company as miserable as Ticketmaster could somehow make people upset about Taylor Swift.

Mike Sugarman:

If you still want to delete the internet, don’t forget that it’s a great place to get together and hang out with friends when say, there’s a simultaneous flu, COVID, and cold season where like Spencer, you’re a father of two very young kids. He played Among Us with some strangers online this year and got a lot closer to them.

Spencer Lane:

One thing that’s really brought me joy on the internet this year is social deduction and murder games. By that, I’m referring specifically to a video game called Among Us. I was part of a online community, online discussion community, and we decided we wanted to do a little bit of community building and someone suggested playing some games together.

One thing that came to mind was, at the time, this trend for a video game called Among Us. In the game, you’ve got a set of players that are all playing crew members on a spaceship trying to do some tasks so that the spaceship stays functional but it turns out one of them is an imposter and the goal of the game for the crew mates is to figure out who the imposter is and vote them out and the goal of the imposter is to kill the crew mates before they can succeed in completing those tasks.

This has provided an interesting way of doing community building. It’s something that people can get very excited about and somewhat competitive about and that can be a good way to build communities. So we had a lot of fun playing this game and then that led to discussions around the game. And then, that led to more of a sense of community even outside of discussions about the game specifically.

The Discord server that we made to play this game has taken on a life of its own and we’re discussing all kinds of things, politics, history, daily life, weird internet things, programming, SQL, the pros and cons of various programming languages. Really, just any topic that comes to mind, it’s probably come up on this server.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Yeah, sure. You can play Among Us and hang out in a paranoid fantasy world, debate which of your friends to chuck out the airlock, that’s 2022 in a nutshell.

Mike Sugarman:

Well, Virginia found another way to hang out with friends and that was just using Discord to get together and watch movies with them.

Virginia Partridge:

I’m interested in what is going to happen as people start moving away from Twitter because I think what’s going on with Twitter has raised a lot of conversation and thoughts about how much control people have over spaces online. I’m not a big social media user but I think that’s because I haven’t felt like I’ve had a lot of control over those spaces.

Ever since the pandemic started, I’ve been having movie nights via Discord with my college friends, all Mystery Science Theater 2000. So at first, it started as a cathartic way to get out all our emotions. We called it Serious Feelings movie night and we would watch very heartfelt indie flicks and sometimes just really stupid, goofy movies like Airplane, sort of the classic comedies. I think a lot of video games streamers do it this way. You can just stream your screen so one person will play the movie and everyone can watch it in the Discord room and then you can chat back and forth in the channel.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Hey Mike, it’s a great place to watch movies? My couch which still hasn’t been connected to the Internet of Things, thank God.

Mike Sugarman:

Okay. So I see we still want to delete the internet but maybe, Ethan, what you really want to do is delete social media. I’ll remind you that there’s more to the internet than that. Jasmine found out that instead of just scrolling on Instagram, she could get really into playing Tetris.

Jasmine Mangat:

So something I’ve been doing on the internet a lot this year is going on tetris.com and playing their classic Tetris game. So Tetris, I mean, I think a lot of people know what it is but it’s basically you try to fit in these… I think there are seven different types of blocks into horizontal lines to eliminate each complete horizontal line.

Each block is made up of four mini blocks that are reconfigured in different ways and I think it’s been around since the ’80s. I got into it because I was listening to my new favorite podcast called The Anthropocene Reviewed which is by John Green. Basically, in that podcast, he goes through different aspects of the human-centered world and reviews them out of a five star rating.

So one of the episodes was about Tetris and he went through the history of it. It was created in the Soviet Union by a guy who was just bored at his job and really liked puzzles. After the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union fell, it came to America and it became just this huge phenomenon. Now, my personal history with Tetris was that I used to always watch kids play in class because the way the lecture halls are set up is like you can see down and I think Tetris is probably one of the main games that a lot of students play in class if they’re bored or something like that.

It’s something that I never played before, listening to the podcast but then I just decided to check it out and it’s just been an addiction ever since. I think now, instead of going on my phone and scrolling on Instagram, I just go and play Tetris instead. I feel like it’s more satisfying than going on social media and it makes me feel happier but I definitely need to cut down on that. But yeah, I want to play with friends because I do remember in high school, there are a lot of my friends who would, again, play Tetris in class and I’m going to see them over winter break so I’m thinking of asking them while we hang out, just let’s play Tetris. But yeah, I haven’t done it yet with anyone.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I will say, hearing Jasmine waste her precious college years playing Tetris takes me back 30 years to wasting my own precious college years playing Tetris. I’m glad to hear at least that the internet allows us to experience some of those pleasures of youth.

Mike Sugarman:

Well, Ethan, there are much worse things to waste your college years on than playing Tetris. I mean, I guess you could be a 50-year-old man watching TikTok. I don’t know. Did anything give you joy online this year? I’m really trying to get us to save the internet.

Ethan Zuckerman:

49, Mike. I’m 49 until January 4th and yes, I have fallen into a TikTok hole. TikTok has been my release from social media which got really terribly awful in 2022. Obviously, I’m not the only person to bemoan what’s happened to Twitter in 2022 but I’ve increasingly found myself watching TikTok which is a social media space in which I am in no way a participant. In fact, the only thing I do with it is try to treat it like algorithmic television and try to curate it to show me unexpectedly delightful things to distract me from the misery of the world for a few minutes at a time.

Honestly, probably the thing I’ve enjoyed the most is Organ TikTok. Anna Lapwood, who is the director of music at Pembroke College Cambridge posts these just remarkable TikTok videos of her playing organs all over the UK and showing people these remarkable 100, 200, 300 year old instruments and they’re just gorgeous and she so clearly loves what she’s doing. People are so fascinated and in love with the organ and somehow, we’ve gotten to the point where a 27-yea- old organist can become a TikTok influencer and have 100,000 other geeks following her.

To me, it actually feels a little bit like some of the wonders of the very early internet where people could geek out on topics that they alone cared about. But now, there’s this sense that somehow there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who want to geek out on the same topics. I don’t love the fact that it’s an opaque algorithm that’s trying to manipulate me and steal more of my time. I don’t love the fact that I feel like I have no control over it. But it’s a little bit like the internet used to be in the early 1990s of I don’t understand this thing, I don’t have any control over it but I’m marveling at it and frankly, it may be one of the things that has brought me some hope about the internet in 2022.

Mike Sugarman:

Ethan, if it weren’t for the internet, you could never watch those organ videos, Jasmine could never play Tetris online, Virginia couldn’t watch movies with her friends, Ryan might not even know that birds exist. You really want to delete the internet?

Ethan Zuckerman:

I’m not sure I really want to delete the internet, Mike. I just want it to be so much better. I just want it to be so much less awful than it’s been for most of 2022. So no, I don’t want to delete the internet. I guess I want you to bring back the internet. I guess I want to live my life online again. I guess I want to log on again. Oh, please, Mike, please turn the internet back on.

Mike Sugarman:

Okay, Ethan, I’ll turn the internet back on just like you want me to. I’ll finally get my wings. Thank you.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Wait, are wings like those random karma points on Reddit that aren’t actually good for anything or can you actually use them for something?

Mike Sugarman:

Oh, Ethan, they’re not real wings. They were issued by the Angels DAO. I’ve got them in my Ethereum wallet and I think their value is going to soar as high as heaven.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Yeah. That figures.

Mike Sugarman:

Thank you for listening to the 2022 Reimagining the Internet Holiday Special: It’s A Wonderful Internet. I just want to thank everyone from the lab who joined us for this. So that’s Ryan McGrady, Rebecca Curran, Kevin Zheng, Spencer Lane, Virginia Partridge, and Jasmine Mangat, and of course, the host of this podcast, Ethan Zuckerman who decided to keep the internet alive for one more year. I just want to thank you for listening to Reimagining the Internet. We really hope you enjoyed it this year and we think you’re going to like it a lot next year also. So from everyone here at IDPI, happy holidays.