The gentrification of the internet

This is an essay about technology, power relations and basic dignity.  It is about the commercialization of online platforms and the difficulties of retaining individual power and autonomy online.  It is about the gentrification of the internet. When I call the internet gentrified, I’m describing shifts in power and control that limit what we can do online. I’m also calling out an economy and industry that prioritize corporate profits over public good, and pointing to the ways that some forms of online behavior have become the “right” way to use the Web, while other forms of behavior get labeled backwards or out of date. In the early days, the Web was driven by experiments in technology, DIY community building and curiosity around connecting with strangers from across the world. The Web we have now is guided by different principles, like business models that rely on a constant transfer of data from people to marketers, social norms of consumption and self-promotion, and black boxing the algorithms that structure the platforms we use. The internet is increasingly making us more isolated, less democratic, and beholden to major corporations and their shareholders. In other words, the internet is increasingly gentrified.

I’m painting in broad strokes here—of course corporations have always shaped the internet’s look and feel and of course DIY communities are still an important part of online life. But there’s no denying the fact that a small number of high-powered corporations have come to have significant control over what the web looks and feels like. As Siva Vaidhyanathan has pointed out, a single company, Facebook, dominates the market for social media users, shifting a huge amount of economic and political power to one corporation.  Meanwhile, Google dominates online searching with 75% of the global market. The next most popular search engine, Bing, doesn’t even come close. Amazon’s marketplace has redefined what normal online shopping looks likepredicting our interests and changing our expectations about buying and sellingPower is so concentrated that living without the Big five tech companies isn’t just inconvenient, it’s almost impossible, leading some people to call for trust-busting shake ups of the industry (call, call, call). Corporations with almost unlimited resources have monopolized digital culture, pushing out smaller companies and platforms, and in the process, defining what online interactions are possible. Condensing this much control goes beyond a reduction of consumer choice, it’s a form of technological gentrification. 

When people connect gentrification to the internet, it’s usually about the tech industry’s role in reshaping neighborhoods that host their company headquarters. These (very realvery important) problems are more about how the industry has created inequalities in the spaces and communities surrounding their corporate headquarters. I see a connected but separate set of issues in the kinds of online spaces and relationships that are increasingly encouraged or restricted online. By calling the contemporary internet gentrified, my goal is both to diagnose a set of problems and lay out what internet activists can do to carve out more protections and spaces of freedom.

Before I get there, it’s important to be clear about what gentrification is and how it helps describe the modern, mainstream web. The term gentrification is divisive, with some seeing opportunities for economic development and others a deathknell for the social and cultural histories of local communities. To make things more complicated, it’s not like there’s One Thing called gentrification – instead there’s a bunch of processes tangled up in competing stakeholders and institutions. As a starting point, in urban studies gentrification is defined as,

an economic and social process whereby private capital (real estate firms, developers) and individual homeowners and renters reinvest in fiscally neglected neighborhoods through housing rehabilitation, loft conversions, and the construction of new housing stock. Unlike urban renewal, gentrification is a gradual process, occurring one building or block at a time, slowly reconfiguring the neighborhood landscape of consumption and residence by displacing poor and working-class residents unable to afford to live in ‘revitalized’ neighborhoods with rising rents, property taxes, and new businesses catering to an upscale clientele.

Perez, 2004, p. 139

People who see gentrification as a good thing tend to emphasize opportunities for new businesses and real estate development. But these benefits aren’t evenly distributed – they usually go to people who already have wealth and resources. Gentrification changes the physical spaces in a neighborhood, bringing in new architectural aesthetics and new kinds of business. Existing houses seem smaller and more dated, and old businesses lose customers as new residents bring demands for cosmopolitan perks. Gentrification also changes the social norms in a neighborhood, with the potential for clashes over noiseparenting styles, and even pets.

Across different cities and neighborhoods, gentrification exacerbates inequality and normalizes certain social values while excluding others. With these tensions in mind, what exactly characterizes a gentrified internet? How can we map conditions of urban gentrification onto digital platforms?  I see three key characteristics of gentrification in the contemporary web, all of which limit online freedoms for individuals in order to support the interests of major tech companies. 

Isolation. Gentrification results in pockets of isolation where longtime residents are boxed in by new neighbors with different income levels and (often) social or cultural expectations of neighborhood behavior. Neighbors can wind up deeply segregated, living next door but going to different churches, sending their kids to different school and shopping at different stores. Compare this to online filter bubbles. Before social media, forming communities online mostly meant meeting new people with a shared interest. No algorithms, no platform-based recommendations of friends or content, just showing up at a message board or in a chatroom and seeing who else was around. (Of course, who showed up was driven largely by who could afford a modem and the time to learn how to use it.) Platforms like reddit and 4chan still operate this way, but most social media platforms use existing IRL personal networks to link users and push content. Overtime, it’s become the norm to push content based on likes and personal affinity, resulting in what Eli Pariser has called filter bubbles. Rather than being exposed to diverse people and content, people are increasingly segregated. What’s particularly troubling about online isolation is that offline, most people are already filter-bubbled in terms of their social networks, meaning we tend to have friends from the same racial and class background. The promise of early online communities was getting ourselves outside those bubbles, a possibility that mainstream social media platforms increasingly deprioritize.

Increasing costs. Gentrification is fundamentally about space, but it’s a process that unfolds over time. Gradually, new neighbors raise property values and taxes. Rising costs make previous communities unlivable in the long term for original residents and people of the same demographic. Online, gentrification happens as older platforms struggle to compete with the resources and values of newer platforms. In my research on digital countercultures, I found that communities on the margins struggle to make mainstream technologies meet their needs. For communities that had been online a long time, competing with new platforms like Facebook and Instagram was a losing battle because they were outspent and out-coded by the seemingly-endless resources of big tech.  

Uneven commercialization. Gentrification isn’t just about who lives where, it’s about the kinds of businesses that can be sustained by the surrounding community. Gentrification often means the destruction of local businesses that supported existing communities in order to make way for new businesses that appeal to newcomers. In my neighborhood in South Philly, I’ve seen locally owned bodegas, diners and community centers turned into yoga studios, gastropubs and brunch spots. A perverse cruelty of gentrification is a shifting of otherness from newcomers to old timers. Neighborhoods with rich histories and community culture are read against the competing expectations and values of new arrivals. With more resources and influences, it’s often newcomers whose values and interests win out. Crucial changes in social norms also happen on the gentrified internet. For example, I’ve been writing a social history of craigslist, and over and over again, I heard people describe the site as out of date. In interviews, I heard phrases like “the poor people’s internet” and “a website for the working class” to describe a platform that was viewed as elite and visionary when it first went online in 1996. But as new sites emerged with more features and a newer aesthetic, craigslist began to seem shabbier and shadier, and even as it continued to provide the same services, most people saw the site as backwards, outdated and on the brink of obsolescence. The risk here is of actively leaving people and platforms behind, not because they’ve stopped working or being useful but because they’ve stopped looking or feeling like the rest of the web.

What to do?

Working to combat gentrification doesn’t mean an end game of toppling Facebook or rendering the mainstream web irrelevant.  A more immediate goal is simply to diagnose a set of problems and suggest steps for demanding change.  Here are a couple ideas to get us started.

Be your own algorithm. Rather than passively accepting the networks and content that platforms feed us, we need to take more ownership over what our networks look like so that we can diversify that content that comes our way. Platforms like Facebook and YouTube are tweaking their algorithms for recommended videos because they’ve been pressured over facilitating the spread of viral news and extreme content.  But as platforms work on this problem, we can take steps to be our own algorithms and deliberately diversify our networks and the content we see. On a practical level, this means doing a casual audit of the people we follow and asking, how can I diversify these voices and perspectives?  This might mean seeking out more POCs, women, queer folk, differently abled people or neuro-atypical people, or it might mean trying to expose ourselves to content from people living in rural areas or other countries. Shaking up our networks can create more awareness about how platforms operate and perhaps reclaim some of the early web hype about learning new perspectives by encountering new people.

In the city as online, we need regulation. Just as cities are struggling to find workable interventions from local government, it’s become depressingly clear that politicians in the U.S. are ill-informed and unlikely to intervene when it comes to big tech. But demanding action from legislators at every level can make a big difference. Just like attending local zoning meetings can help new residents understand neighborhood tensions, learning the basics of web platform policies isn’t hard, it just takes a little time. How many ISPs are there in your neighborhood? Are there small providers or mesh network alternatives? How many of your local representatives accept donations from major internet providers like Comcast?  Start with your congressperson or city council rep, both of whom will likely have staffers who answer the phone rather than kicking you to a message machine. Ask about their position on net neutrality, about internet penetration, about local support for digital media literacy. Being informed is a crucial step in understanding the barriers to radical change.

But it isn’t just about learning the politics of the internet’s infrastructure, it’s also about learning the politics of platforms. Platforms love to create documents like “community guidelines” but these texts are hard to read and can change at will. Moreover, they’re always top down rather than bottom up. Just learning these guidelines is an important step, a parallel to learning how local tax codes shape neighborhood gentrification. Platforms canchange their policies if enough users make demands. In 2014, Facebook can changed its “real” name policy through concerted efforts of queer, trans and indigenous activism. We can demand change from our platforms, but it takes overcoming a sense of powerlesness, learning the stakes and stakeholders, and being thoughtful about how and with whom we spend our time online.