The birth of mass Internet communication
December 1997. I’m sitting in a very ugly room. It’s in the bowels of Trinity College's Westland Row buildings. Fluorescent strip-lights throw a harsh light on a dozen pizza-box sized blocks of beige plastic arranged on cheap chipboard tables that run around the edge of the room. Beige keyboards, screens and chairs sit in front of these boxes. They are Sun Unix workstations, powerful computers for the time. It is 4.15am and I am testing a text categorisation engine that I have built. The computers are constructing a decision tree from a large corpus of text that I have fed them. I have to work at this hour because I need all the computing power I can get my hands on. Even with the task distributed between the 12 computers, the job still takes more than 3 hours to complete.
As I wait, I read my email. A new message arrives. It’s from a man in America. He wants to kill me.
“Pick up your gun motherfucker. I’ll fucking show you, running down the road, swinging my AK47, screaming revolution. I’ll blow you away. That’s the revolution, not your dictatorship crap. You think you’re the revolution? I’ll show you who’s the fucking revolution.”
My crime is neglecting to approve an email that he submitted to an email list that I am moderating. The Internet is starting to get user-friendly.
People had been using the internet to communicate for years – bulletin boards, usenet and various other forums had thriving communities long before the web was developed. But, until the late 1990s, access to the internet was mostly limited to researchers and geek-hobbyists. With the launch of web-based free email services, such as Hotmail, the increasing volume of content, and improvements in browsing technology, the Internet became accessible to a much broader swathe of the population. It was still only used by a minority, but the barrier to entry had dropped significantly. From the late 1990’s onwards, anybody who really wanted to use the Internet could do so without needing to know much about the technology.
For me in late 1997, the burgeoning Internet was a revelation and a revolution. Just a couple of years before, in order to find any real life anarchists, I had to travel to Paris. Then, to find an English language anarchist publication, I had to go to London and hunt down obscure left-wing bookshops. Now, all of a sudden, anarchist websites were springing up everywhere. An anarchist computer programmer named Dave, who lived in New York, had set up a server called flag.blackened.net and was offering free hosting and technical support to anarchist groups – several of whom took advantage of his offer. Another server, called tao.ca, run by a counter-cultural collective in Toronto, was hosting an anarchist news service, called A-Infos. Elsewhere, Geocities had started offering free website hosting which made it possible, for the first time, for non-technical users to run their own websites and an Irish anarchist, Andrew Flood, was one of the first to take advantage. He set up a website called the Struggle site, where he published a great, sprawling trove of anarchist history, philosophy and commentary.
In the 1990s, many anarchists were anticipating an upsurge in the fortunes of the movement. On one level this was just a manifestation of the wishful thinking and boundless hope that are required in order to remain in a revolutionary political current that stays stubbornly marginalised for a long period of time. But, in this case there was a reasonably persuasive argument that underpinned the hope. At the start of the 20th century, Anarchism had been a mass movement, with millions of adherents around the world in organisations such as the Spanish CNT, the Italian USI, and the Argentinian FORA. The cold war between the twin super-powers of the USSR and the USA created a bi-polar world which set capitalism against “actually existing socialism” in the popular imagination and removed the space in which more democratic and anti-authoritarian socialist politics could grow. Now, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rapid demise of their Stalinist allies who dominated much of the world’s left, the way was clear for anarchist politics to re-emerge in a big way.
This argument was particularly persuasive for me as it tallied with my personal experience. Starting from a position where I had never heard of anarchism, I had suddenly discovered it and then found myself coming across it increasingly frequently all over the place. Of course, in this case, generalising from my own experience was not wise, as I had gone to considerable effort to hunt anarchists down. In general, it is difficult to disentangle shifts in one’s own beliefs from broad cultural trends: it takes distance and hindsight to tell them apart. Simply by becoming interested in left wing politics, I had started to notice more left wing posters, fliers and meetings; stories about strikes and guerrillas in the newspapers now caught my eye whereas I might have ignored them before. Without anything changing but myself, it looked like the world had changed. Several years later, with experience and distance, I was able to understand this and noticed that a similar affect was common among new adherents (common but not universal, a few impressive individuals managed to become anarchists without losing their level-headedness).
Still, it wasn't just my subjective perceptions that persuaded me. I was seeing an explosion of anarchism on the Internet before my eyes and I took this as empirical confirmation of the upsurge that I was hoping for. A-Infos carried news stories published by anarchist groups all over the world: each month would bring news of a hitherto unheard of group in a city or country in which nobody knew that anarchists existed. Reports of protests, strikes and demonstrations flowed in from all over the world. Something was moving.
I was already in touch with Andrew Flood by email and once I revealed my ability to programme computers, I was quickly – and willingly, – recruited to help with A-Infos. I was delighted to finally find some practical way in which I could help out. An old Israeli anarchist named Ilan Shalif was in charge. He had no computer training but had taught himself enough to run a reasonably impressive news distribution system. It consisted of a couple of dozen email lists, each covering a different language or region, with a website where all the news was archived. I tried to help out on the technical side, but Ilan’s mailing list configurations were beyond me, so I ended up mostly working on editing the news feed: copying submitted news stories to the right language lists, filtering out spam and making sure the messages were formatted correctly. And this is where the man with the AK-47 came in. Because, in practice, a large portion of our time and energy was spent dealing with assholes.
A-Infos was an open news service with a very simple moderation policy. Any submitted stories that were “about or of interest to anarchists” would be circulated to subscribers on the mailing lists without any editing. The problems with this policy were manifold. What exactly constituted an anarchist was not explicitly defined. During the early years of the Internet, it was common for free-market individualist libertarians to describe themselves as anarcho-capitalists and, whereas they were obviously way outside of what the A-Infos moderators considered to be anarchists, they didn’t always agree and were frequently willing to argue in favour of their interpretation at great length. Worse still, virtually anything could be considered to be “of interest” to anarchists, leaving all editorial decisions open to debate, which duly filled the editorial lists. This wouldn’t have been a problem in itself – there’s nothing that your average anarchist enjoys more than a good debate – if it wasn’t for the fact that so many of the participants behaved like outrageous assholes.
The AK-47 guy was a good example. He was a man in his early twenties from some small town in Arizona and he had started posting articles from the British Guardian newspaper to the lists. We rejected them. He complained, immediately accusing us of oppressing him and abusing our power. We patiently explained that the list was intended for news that was specifically anarchist-related and that, while the Guardian might seem like an extremely radical source compared to his local news channels, to most of us it was just an ordinary mainstream newspaper. If we distributed every news story that everybody who called themselves an anarchist thought was interesting, the news that dealt with actual anarchists would be swamped. This prompted an escalating spiral of abuse and accusations which culminated in the generalised death threats with him running down the road, swinging his gun, bringing revolution to our bureaucrat asses.
This was a manifestation of the double-edged sword that is the Internet. On one hand, it has allowed people with reasonably few resources to set up information distribution channels which allow ordinary people to communicate with broad audiences. Simultaneously, for anybody who manages such a channel, it serves as an efficient asshole-delivery-mechanism.
Nowadays, in the era of Youtube comment flame-wars and twitter storms, most people probably take it for granted that open Internet communication channels attracts lots of bad behaviour that is rare in the real world. This was not obvious in advance. In the last 15 years, access to open communication channels has expanded in waves: from email lists to comments to forums, blogs, social network all the way to twitter and micro-blogs. Each wave has spawned a burst of enthusiasm in the newly empowered users, a burst of enthusiasm that quickly becomes deflated once they realise that the technology has unleashed a whole new wave of assholes to share their opinions with the world.
On one level, the anti-social behaviour unleashed by Internet communication is a result of anonymity and the lack of social-feedback signals that serve to enforce social norms. There are few people who are big enough assholes that they will stand up in a real world meeting and unleash a long stream of cruel insults against somebody who is present in person, and remain oblivious to the fact that their target is crying and the audience is looking on them with appalled disapproval. Many people are big enough assholes to do so on the Internet. Because there had never before been a form of mass communication which allowed the general public to communicate anonymously and without social feedback, nobody really knew that this darkness lurked in the psyche of such a significant cohort of the population. Until the Internet, the editors of newspapers' letters pages were probably the only people who had any real contact with this dark side of human nature and even then it was on a small scale and could be easily written off as a few obsessed cranks. The Internet allowed it to come pouring out. We were ideologically unprepared for it. It was a shock to me at least.
It’s not just the asshole-liberating anonymity and lack of social signalling that makes running an Internet communication channel difficult. There is something inherently anxiety-inducing in submitting articles for editorial review and people have a tendency to take such decisions personally. Lots of people turn into ardent narcissists when it comes to submitting material for publication. When a moderator rejects an off-topic article that somebody has cut and pasted from the Internet, it is not uncommon for their action to be treated as equivalent to the Catholic Church suppressing Copernicus or Stalin airbrushing his opponents from history. This problem was greatly exacerbated in the early days of the web by the lack of established publishing norms, the general unfamiliarity of the public with the technology and the reliance on technical formatting rules and detailed policy documents. Successful modern Internet publishing ventures have managed to deal with such problems by abandoning the assumption that users will read the documentation, instead adapting their systems to reflect users’ expectations.
These basic problems of Internet publishing manifest themselves in all domains. However, among the anarchist movement, such problems are exacerbated by a number of factors. Firstly, a large proportion of modern anarchist commentary, following from Chomsky’s Propaganda Model of the media, focuses on the way in which the media shapes the news to suit the agendas of the powerful. This analysis presents the editorial role as primarily a filter which suppresses certain points of view. Hence, the overwhelmingly dominant attitude towards editorial decisions is one of suspicion, which accentuates the general tendency to see rejections as being manifestations of Stalinist suppression. Secondly, anarchists are fairly suspicious of bureaucracy in general and are often inclined to think that rules and regulations are restrictions which only serve to prevent spontaneous order from emerging. Thus, a fair proportion of the community are instinctively hostile to following procedures. Thirdly, angry young men who are desirous of conflict and action are greatly over-represented among those who identify as anarchists and that demographic tends towards the intemperate when dealing with frustrating situations.
The net result was that running A-Infos was like participating in a great big open-ended pitched battle, with huge flame-wars regularly erupting on the email lists. As soon as one battle was quelled, the Internet would reliably deliver a fresh batch of angry assholes to our inboxes. It wasn’t just the ordinary users that were the problem. Even within the A-Infos collective, huge battles were common. On one occasion one of the technical administrators went off in a huff and took his ball with him – deleting the mailing list scripts that he had developed and shutting the service down for a few days. Ilan was the rock against which most of the disgruntlement crashed. He was well suited to the task: a life-long anarchist who learned his politics in the Kibbutzim – egalitarian communes which were an important component of early Jewish settlement of Israel. He later went onto help found Anarchists Against the Wall, a group which grew to some prominence by bringing Palestinians and Israelis together to protest against the construction of Israel’s ‘security wall’ that cut off the West bank. He remains active to this day and is still one of the more sensible and thoughtful anarchists that you can find in the world, but when it came to moderating A-infos, his special skill was grouchiness – he did not suffer fools gladly and was willing to stick to his guns in the face of a constant stream of threats and insults. The rest of us generally hid behind him.
A-infos was my first real introduction to the practical side of running Internet communication systems. I stuck around helping out for a couple of years until I was worn down by Ilan’s demanding nature. I went onto work on a succession of similar Internet communication projects over the next 12 years. Technically capable people were rare within the anarchist and anti-globalisation movements and my services were always in demand. This had it's pros and cons. On the plus side, I gained invaluable experience in setting up and running Internet services with very few resources, often in high-pressure situations. I also got to see how these networks actually worked from the inside: who actually did the work and made the decisions, without any of the rhetoric that surrounded their public faces. On the other hand, I ploughed countless hours into this voluntary technical work and this labour was, as I experienced it, very little appreciated. The radically egalitarian nature of these movements was such that the possessors of scarce technical skills were almost seen as exercising an unjust privilege over those who did not possess such skills. This was particularly the case when it came to any exercise of editorial or moderation function. It was much more common for people to express disgruntlement than appreciation. Such is the cross that technical volunteers must carry. I don’t miss it at all.
In the years since I first got involved in A-Infos, I have come to better understand the cultural impact of the Internet. My initial impressions of a burgeoning anarchist movement turned out to be accurate – up to a point – but my explanation for the phenomenon was mistaken. It did not represent a reawakening of the great anarchist current of the early 20th century. Instead it was a manifestation of a much more general cultural change brought about by the Internet, the elimination of population-density thresholds for sub-cultural formation. Let me explain.
It is obvious from observation of today’s Internet, that people are fairly varied in terms of their cultural interests. Once can find active communities devoted to virtually any conceivable subject. Some of these are large and concerned with relatively broad cultural interests: parenting forums, sports forums and so on. Others are highly specialised and appeal to narrow slices of the population: for example, there are multiple communities of freegans, otherkin and every imaginable variety of sexual fetishist on the Internet. In order for a a community or sub-culture to form around a niche-interest there are several basic requirements. Not only must there be members, committed enthusiasts are also needed – people who are engaged enough to put lots of volunteer effort into doing the organising and administrative work that is needed to transform the niche interest into a functioning cultural community. A conservative approximation is that there must be 50 people who are interested enough in the cultural niche to devote a significant chunk of their time to the community and 5 of these must be enthusiastic and devoted enough to spend the majority of their free time and energy on organising the community. If any cultural niche falls far short of this threshold, it will not be viable over any length of time.
Today there are approximately 2.5 billion people connected to the Internet. That means, that assuming a threshold of 50 members for sub-cultural viability, then any cultural interest which has a prevalence of 1 in 50 million can give birth to a sub-culture on the Internet. Hence the internet contains all manner of niches that are considered extremely weird to most people (as jokingly codified in the Internet's rule 34, rule 43, rule 88, etc).
Before the Internet, sub-cultural formation was bounded by population density. Thus, for example, if a niche interest had a prevalence of 1 in 10,000, then it was only in towns with populations of greater than 500,000 that this niche could form into a viable and visible sub-culture. Anarchism had a prevalence in most of the developed world of somewhere between 1 in 10,000 and 1 in 100,000 – which meant that it only really existed as an identifiable cultural niche in large cities (which is why I had to travel to Paris and London to find my first anarchists).
One of the most significant cultural impacts of the mass adoption of the Internet was to effectively remove all such population density thresholds. Those niches which had the most dedicated and ardent enthusiasts and which were spread out widely among the global population but were beneath the population density threshold in most areas were the ones that were able to take advantage of the opportunities the quickest and anarchism fit that bill exactly – it was a niche that existed internationally and a high proportion of the adherents were extremely committed to the cause. Thus as soon as cheap mass-communication technology became available on the Internet, anarchism coalesced into a much larger movement, without much change in prevalence. People who had been utterly isolated, outside the major global urban centres were able to find, for the first time in a century, a movement of like-minded people that they could join.
This process was not particular to anarchism. Anarchists were early adopters of Internet communication due to its particular distribution profile, but they were not the first. By the time they had started to run emailing lists and websites, the technical-geek community had thoroughly established itself with sophisticated web-based community websites such as slashdot.org. This had a similar galvanising effect on those communities, opening them up to a highly distributed interest base. I recall a friend and colleague, James Griffiths, bemoaning the fact that he had missed out on this effect during his upbringing. He had grown up in the 1980s in the small town of Killorglin in County Kerry, a place with very little cultural variety, and was isolated and generally considered to be weird due to his interest in computers. Had he grown up a few years later a vast online geek community would have been a few keystrokes away.
Although the surge in anarchism in the late 1990s was largely caused by the Internet breaking down sub-cultural population-density thresholds, rather than any great spread among the population, it was still a real surge and it served to galvanise and encourage its adherents such as myself. That surge in confidence went on to play a big part in the coming rise of the anti-globalisation movement.