Note — May 29, 2022

Why We Need a Public Internet and How to Get One

Adi Robertson interviews Ben Tarnoff about his upcoming book Internet for the people. I won’t go into detail but some of the specifics of what Tarnoff proposes didn’t click for me. However, it did resonate on a few fronts, first with his mention of Darius Kazemi’s idea that libraries could run local social networks, which I love on its own. It does also connect to Claire L. Evans’ idea of “mother nodes”, as well as the ideals of Fab Cities to act locally and connect globally, and fits perfectly with Mastodon instances, some of which are local geographically while some are chosen global communities.

When talking about decentralized projects, the issue of who does the work of maintaining and evolving such platforms, who makes the effort of supporting large instances, regularly comes up. Seems to me like putting the emphasis on an even greater multiplication of such nodes, to keep them small, would require more people but each making a much smaller effort, not something I see mentioned all that often. Keeping an instance up for 50 people seems quite a bit easier than one for 500 or 5000. Of course the actual development is a whole other thing, which brings us to…

The libraries idea once again. What if each branch in a given public network (someplace that actually invests in them, like Finland, could perhaps try this) had the budget to pay two people to work on ‘digital commons’? Programmers, designers, writers, community managers, etc. The network, city, or country sets some parameters, perhaps a (long) list of eligible projects, but each individual can work on whatever projects they like (it could be a lot more structured, I just like the hiring boost of freedom). It’s a way of financing the commons, and I locate them in branches to spread the work geographically and as a ‘budget anchor’ to also assign money to support local servers. One programmer might decide to spend 50/50 of her time on Mastodon and a chat app, one historian might decide to work on locally-relevant Wikipedia content and Creative Commons outreach, a designer could work on usability for 2-3 other projects, etc.

Libraries, museums, and even the postal service, are great achievements of social infrastructure from back when politicians cared about those things, we might as well leverage them for new needs… with proper budgets!

[I]t’s not local to the exclusion of the regional or the national — it’s local as a promising site of governance because of the richness of the interpersonal interaction that it promotes. […]

[T]he appeal of having local structures is that I want to be able to put two or three dozen people in a room and have them debate, discuss, and argue about what to do about a certain thing. That type of democratic decision-making works best in a smaller, in-person context. […]

What I would like to see, above all, is an internet that is populated by spaces that are truly designed, developed, implemented, and governed by their users. That’s my North Star.