One Nation Under Internet

‘The Internet’ Doesn’t Do Anything

Is the Internet a constituency?
internet billboard The Internet Doesnt Do Anything

(Photo: Twitter.com/iamweswilson)

Today a group of academics, entrepreneurs and other interested parties published something they call the “Declaration of Internet Freedom” prompted by recent attempts to legislate the series of tubes. The Declaration has the virtue of brevity with just five points: expression, access, openness, innovation and privacy. It also boasts a long list of name-brand supporters including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Cheezburger network, the Harry Potter Alliance, TechStars and the NY Tech Meetup.

“Our goal is to spark a global discussion among Internet users and communities about the Internet and our role in it,” Sascha Meinrath and Craig Aaron of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute and Free Press wrote in a manifesto published by Slate today.

It’s funny to see things like Declarations and Bills of Rights being written with the Internet in mind, because people have long referred to the network as if it were a nation-state. Never mind that the Internet’s users and communities include governments, household appliances, hedge funds and citizens of developing countries; Americans who work and play in the knowledge economy have long been guilty of the fallacy of grouping Internet users into one constituency, one group of united interests, one hivemind. The Internet hates rich people. The Web killed SOPA. The Internet rallied to help a verbally-abused bus monitor

This trope of referring to the Nation of Internet manifests in many ways. Sometimes, something good or bad will happen that provokes a significant number of people to publicly react using the Internet, and this is referred to as “breaking the Internet.” Or remember the anthropological analysis of “black people Twitter,” in which a few bloggers stumbled across another group of people using a part of the Internet in a totally different way?

When Rachel Sterne was named Chief Digital Officer of New York City, the announcement created “something of a stir on the Internet” according to the New York Times. In this case, “the Internet” referred to a few dozen people using Twitter in New York on that day, who mentioned the words “Rachel Sterne” enough to crack the local trending topics.

When journalism professor Jeff Howe proposed everyone on the Internet read the same book, “the Internet” referred to Twitter users, and really just to those who would have any interest in participating in the process of democratically selecting a book and then reading and discussing it together online. When he writes, “Hey Internet,” he really means, “hey you, person reading this, because it is on the Internet and therefore you are probably on the Internet, very likely in a room full of other people who look like you who are also on the Internet; and also the other people you assume are using the Internet in similar ways and whom you can therefore identify with.”

Often, “hey Internet” just refers to Jonah Peretti’s “Bored at Work Network,” which encompasses the People on Reddit and People on Twitter and Tumblr who direct much of the meta “talking about the Internet on the Internet” conversation. Sometimes, as in Aaron Sorkin’s “hey, Internet girl,” it refers to people who started using the Internet at a young, impressionistic age.

Nothing against reductivist headlines, and we’re certainly guilty of employing them here. But despite its power to unite people in remote locations, the Internet does not do things. Very tiny and loud fractions of Internet users will sometimes do things. Yes, lots of people contributed when Matthew Inman, creator of The Oatmeal, started raising money for charity online in response to a legal threat from a boneheaded lawyer. More than 14,000 people contributed money, actually. That’s a lot of people! More than 3,000 text comments were left on The Oatmeal’s blog post alone, and countless people wrote text comments about it on other various web sites. But that group is not “the Internet.”

That’s not to say that the Declaration of Internet Freedom doesn’t represent the interests of most people who use the Internet. It probably does. Its creators bent over backwards to be inclusive and leave specific policy to be determined.

But this “hey Internet” synecdoche is getting out of control.

Follow Adrianne Jeffries on Twitter or via RSS. ajeffries@observer.com