COVID-19 has ushered in return of a more 'positive' internet culture, says digital expert
Walrus digital director Angela Misri says 'good people on the internet' are taking back online spaces
From Zoom parties and virtual concerts to silent reading sessions, many of us have taken to the web to connect with each other amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
With all this time we're spending online, The Walrus' digital director Angela Misri argues that we're experiencing a sort of return to the golden age of the internet, when the web was open, collaborative and altruistic.
In her essay This Is the Internet We Were Promised, Misri, a former manager for CBC Radio's digital department, writes that in the midst of this global pandemic, the overall tone of the web is becoming more "positive, factual, and supportive."
"I really do feel like the temperature and the general feeling of positivity has come back up," Misri told Spark host Nora Young.
Here is part of their conversation.
Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, imagined it as a collective of ideas shared for the betterment of human knowledge. How have you seen those values reflected during this pandemic?
I was talking to some friends about it, both who are very digital and who aren't, about how you're just seeing so much altruism and so much positivity and so much support on the internet, which very much reminded me of what I thought the beginnings of the internet would be back in the '90s, back in the '80s.
I got onto the internet in the '90s, but I felt like we made a move from a very altruistic, very positive, very share-everything-for-free internet to what we had before the pandemic, which had descended into a space [where] I didn't feel as safe, I didn't feel as welcomed. I really do feel like the temperature and the general feeling of positivity has come back up.
One of the things that we've kind of lost sight of in all the hype about the tech giants and high profile IPOs and so forth is how much of the internet and its tools were created by governments, by research bodies, by individuals doing things open source, not for profit, including the web, actually, in fact.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it was all open source. We did have a united feeling of, "Hey, I could add on to that. Oh I could make that better. Here, have it back." That's what [software development platform] GitHub is about, right? There are so many programming languages that are literally built out of people just adding and popping things on and and handing them back to each other. And it was so collaborative.
I truly believe the majority of people on the internet [who] want to help each other and want to aid and move forward has spoken up again. We ceded the territory. I remember when it happened, like when commenting became horrible and we — basically the good people on the internet — ceded it. We just gave the territory away to the people who wanted to be trolls. We're taking it back, and I love that.
So in your essay for The Walrus you talk about engaged users. So what does it mean to be an engaged user especially now during this pandemic?
To participate, to try to help, to try to talk to each other, to try to move things forward.
I have so many friends of mine who were literally on Twitter just to observe. They just watched what happened in the chaos of Twitter.
And instead, what I'm seeing is that people who are engaging and speaking back are the people who weren't before. They were just observing, now they're participating. They're saying, "Yeah, I am seeing that" or "Yes, I can help with that" or "Hey, I read this thing that might help you."
Not to rain on your parade, but do you think it's possible that that sense of positivity is just because that's what you're choosing to seek out? That the positive content exists alongside a lot of negative stuff, in some ways coming specifically under the pandemic, like Zoom bombing or anti-Chinese racism for example?
You know, if I didn't see Zoom bombing, I would be shocked, because the internet is the internet. At the end of the day, people are going to try to use the technology to do what they want to do.
What I'm suggesting is that we have less tolerance for it as a majority, and we're speaking up as opposed to just walking away as we did in the comment galleries, as we did in forums.
What do you think of the role the commercial side of the internet and what it's played in this pandemic?
Well, I think that Twitter and Facebook were getting all ramped up and ready to deal with fake news, and then this pandemic happened, and they suddenly had a great use case that wasn't as political.
So they didn't have to worry about if they were shutting down people's personal points of view and if they were taking a side. There is no side really to COVID. It's information we need, data. We need information, we need to help each other.
In the conclusion of your essay, you talk about how if the majority of us go back to ignoring the parts of the internet that we find upsetting or uncomfortable and we only share information within our little bubbles, then we're going to lose the progress that we've made. So how do you think we should be reacting to the parts of the online world that you know are difficult — that upset us — that we want to challenge?
I think we should plant flags. I've planted a flag on Reddit. Let's plant a flag. This is now my space, too. You've given it back to me because we're all under the same gun and we're dealing with the same thing. But I'm not giving it back. This is my space now. I will share this space. I think we need to plant flags where we were scared.
Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Written by Althea Manasan. Interview produced by Kent Hoffman.