Photo: Wolfram Kastl / dpa

Overcoming Social Boundaries? The Myth of a Free Internet

By Nina Scholz

The Net is free and open to all. There, people meet each other who would never meet offline. This is the promise that has been linked to the internet from the outset. On the one hand. On the other hand, social networks are currently under heavy criticism. In so-called filter bubbles” various milieux communicate away with each other without talking to others. What’s going on?

BlackLivesMatter: the internet can strengthen mass protests

News on the Net spreads rapidly and independently of traditional media. Thus an internet video appearing on social networks can bring people together who previously lived side by side without knowing each other. One of the most often mentioned examples of this is Black Lives Matter, a civil rights movement in the United States. In the winter of 2012, a young Afro-American, Trayvon Martin, wearing a black hoodie, was shot by the security employee George Zimmerman. When the police released Zimmermann after a short interrogation, debate boiled over on the social networks. Throughout the country there were demonstrations and protests against racism and police violence, which grew bigger and bigger. Weeks later Zimmermann was arrested; but beyond this, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and a movement were born.

Possible online is only what already exists offline

In the case of Black Lives Matter social networks play a great, but frequently overrated role: police violence was and still is a major problem in America, which has become more acute in recent years. There were therefore already local alliances before that concerned themselves with this and other issues of civil rights. Especially in connection with Occupy Wall Street there were already several similar protests. Black Lives Matter has thus only strengthened what was already there. A similar case is the so-called Arab Spring”, which was described by many media as a Facebook-Revolution”. Arab Spring” refers to a series of protests, uprisings and revolutions against local authoritarian regimes that occurred in the Arab world at the end of 2010. A particular feature of these was that the calls to demonstrations, political demands and subversive news were shared and so spread via Facebook und Twitter. But many of the protesters themselves have objected to the description Facebook-Revolution”: they think it is Eurocentric, because for them the decisive mass protests took place in the streets and the Net had only a small part in them. Here the internet, exactly as with Black Lives Matter, served only for coordination and reinforcement of already existing discontent and unrest. The demonstrations, exactly like the dead in the streets, were altogether real and by no means virtual.

Overcome the online-offline boundaries? Difficult.

The same is true of the myth that the Net can truly and lastingly overcome real social boundaries. Of course, this was easier before. You must imagine how grand those first encounters on the internet were to understand why this myth of openness is still alive today. In the first internet forums, people wrote to each other who had never before met, or didn’t know this with certainty because they were surfing anonymously, using pseudonyms and avatars and disclosing about themselves only what they wanted others to know. Everything seemed possible: to meet and exchange with various people at the other end of the world, adopt a completely new identity or have many at once. Yet even back then you met mainly like-minded people. And back then too cultural codes, common interests and an internet access were essential prerequisites. A preliminary conclusion therefore seems to be that the internet can overcome geographical boundaries, but that it falls flat when it comes to social boundaries.

Facebook and filter bubbles

Today it is even more difficult to escape your filter bubble on the Net than before, and this has to do with commercialization through professional social networks. In the noughties social networks, the so-called Web 2.0”, reached the mainstream and the masses. The first big and well-known platform was Myspace, which was soon supplanted by Facebook. Today there are still other social networks, but Facebook is the undoubted monopolist in this area. Twitter has long been struggling to keep its head above water, and other social networks such as Instagram have been bought up by Facebook. And at Facebook you are always among your own: among friends”. The structure of Facebook is the opposite of the initially open forum structures. And almost nobody communicates anonymously any more: since 2015 Facebook has moved massively against pseudonyms and enforced a real name policy. The days when you could try out new identities online, far away from your offline biography, are for the time being at an end.

The myth of the free internet

All this, however, doesn’t answer the question of why the myth of the open and free internet, where everything is possible, retains such a stubborn hold. This has to do with the founding fathers of the social networks. When at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s the first social networks were founded, they were populated by ex-hippies and California libertarians. They were all adherents of the network idea, of the idea of a free world. They all firmly believed that in virtual space everything is possible. Their stories and pamphlets are still in circulation and continue to have an influence today. But the truth is that an online world is only as good or as bad as its offline counterpart. Only once we have realised this, will we be able to communicate online without overestimating what we are doing, and at last change something offline, where change is really needed.

Photo: Carolin Saage

Nina Scholz works as a journalist in Berlin. She is in charge of audience development” at Deutschlandfunk and Deutschlandfunk Kultur and writes about digital capitalism and resistance for, among others, Taz”, Freitag”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung” and analyse & kritik”. Her book Nerds, Geeks und Piraten. Digital Natives in Kultur und Politik” (Nerds, Geeks and Pirates. Digital Natives in Culture and Politics) was published in 2014 by Bertz + Fischer Verlag”.