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Of Big Tech Jungles and Digital Gardens

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Inspired by 99% Invisible's "The Lost Cities of Geo" and Maggie Appelton's "A Brief History & Ethos of the Digital Garden". Thank you, Lost Letters for the link to the latter.

I like the idea of looking at the internet as a city or cities. There are tiny villages, small towns, big cites. And they each have different neighbourhoods, borroughs, quarters, etc. The internet also has its many and very different areas: There are personal websites, porfessional websites, company websites, websites maintained by governments and political parties, forums, websites to share photos, videos, music, books. There are apps you load on your phone. You can see a doctor via the internet, you can talk to friends and family, have job interviews, online courses, webinars. You can even marry online.

I imagine the internet starting out and growing and changing like cities do. Or did. A settlement forms, often by a river. It's small at first, but it slowly grows. Streets aren't planned in girds, everyting grows to look very organic. Settlements grow into villages grow into cities. Cities burn down in large fires or are destroyed by wars. In those cases the rebuilding may follow "cleaner" lines, streets are streighter, wider (to allow for more lanes for more cars), buildings get taller, and/or are designed after modern standards. It's just how it goes. Decades go by, old buildings are modernised or broken down and rebuilt.

The change is slow, you don't really realise it. But one day you walk through your city, take a wrong turn--and find yourself in an old part of it, where the streets are narrow and winding, the buildings are low and of an older style. And there are poeple there, going about their business and it's looking gorgeous! And you're turning to look at where you just came from and it is like you're seeing your city for the first time. It's only then that you realise how it has all changed, how it no longer is this old, organically grown place it once was, but instead has become this slick and grey place that seems to be owned by huge corporations sitting in their skyscrapers that all look the same. And even though it may be a cold and rainy day, this other place, the one you just discoverd, looks so much more invinting. And you step in and wonder how you never came here. And then it strikes you: You were so caught in the new part of town, all the shiny, modern areas, that you actually forgot it existed. Infact, you wouldn't think it could have survived even if you remembered. And you feel a little ashamed of yourself.

That's how I felt when I found my way back into what's now called the indie web, the internet of before Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The internet of the glittery, pastel coloured, midi infested personal homepages. Glorious times!

The wrong turn that brought me into this world was not a wrong turn at all. It was one I took because I was curious to see what was there behind that corner. Twitter had been bought by Elon Musk and was starting to fall apart, news were talking about alternatives and the name "Mastodon" was mentioned more and more often.

I had two brief stints with Twitter: One very early on that lasted maybe a week or so. And one at the beginning of 2021, when the pandemic was finally starting to pull me down and I had just found my way back into the Star Trek community. I had heard Twitter was where it's at and I joined. But no, both times I couldn't really figure this place out. I had been super into forum boards for many years and many hobbies. So a thing like Twitter, where you shoot short messages out into the void, was not something that made any sense to me.

In a forum every user sees the same layout and set up as everybody else, it's easy and streight forward to navigate, read, and comment. It was something I could grasp. Twitter however felt like a slip box, where your message could be lost easily and forming connections that lasted more than a comment were very rare for me. Maybe I didn't try hard enough, maybe I was just either too early or way too late to that party.

Anyway, the talk about Mastodon made me curious. I sat down, did some reading, watched a video or three, picked a server to join (which took me a couple of days to make my mind up about)--and signed up.

And there I stood, at the edge of that neighbourhood I didn't know existed anymore. I took a couple steps into it and here I am, still exploring this space, its various corners, neighbouring quarters and places outside--and yet within. Mastodon was my entrance into the Fediverse--a big network of different platforms, some similar to, some very different from Mastodon, but all connected and interoperable. And the Fediverse is my portal into the world of the indie web, which led me to neocities.org, to wanting to learn HTML and CSS, and ultimately to making this website.

But it is only the beginning, I feel. I want to see as much of these new old places as possible, find connections, build my own place (this one!), and keep this spirit of the old web alive. Let's leave the big tech jungle and build digital gardens. Neat ones and wild ones. Let's start small. Get out your garden gloves, put some soil in a pot and start planting.

PS, I love the glittery, pastel coloured, midi infested, personal homepages. I really do. Keep them coming! (Even if they hurt my brain.)


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