Anil Dash is trying to save the soul of the internet

24 May 2019

Anil Dash speaking at Inspirefest 2019. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

At Inspirefest 2019, Anil Dash outlined how the internet has lost its way since its inception, and how it can return to the light.

The internet has experienced a sort of moral decline. Or at least, that is the impression that Glitch CEO Anil Dash has.

He would know; Dash could be described as an early adopter of the internet, having waded into the world of blogging 20 years ago, before its impact and influence began to truly boom.

“It was the early days of social media; there were a small number of people doing it. I live in New York City and we had a get-together called a ‘blogger’s dinner’,” he told the Inspirefest audience.

The amount of serious participants in social media in New York City at that time could fit around two tables in a Mexican restaurant.

It was a smaller, simpler time, when the digital avatars had names and faces behind them that were warmly familiar to each other. Yet as anyone reading this likely knows, if you play the tape forward, the situation transforms.

Dash credits this community spirit as being one of the founding visions behind his platform, Glitch, a company that builds tools to help people create apps together online.

He believes that this vision has been lost in the annals of time. The internet, like the ocean, has no memory, or at least the memory of this initial community seems to have been eroded with time.

“In technology, we’re so often focused on what’s next and what’s new that we lose a little bit of our perspective about where we come from.”

Another contributing factor to the lack of memory, Dash soberly explained, is the fact that some of the wonderful creators he met when the world was young “aren’t here to tell their stories any more. It’s people we’ve lost along the way.”

Brad Graham, for example, once had a website called ‘The Bradlands’. Though he is not a household name, his impact can be felt to this day – he created, albeit entirely in jest, the term ‘blogosphere’, never anticipating that it would eventually be integrated into the digital lexicon.

He was, Dash said, “one of the very earliest bloggers”. He started blogging in 1998, detailing human interest stories with characteristic incisive wit. He reflected on the world and on the brighter parts of its social consciousness, and he endeavoured to bring that to the web.

“He planted this seed which was really, really important, which is that we could use these tools to advance causes that we care about, that we could talk about issues that matter. We could highlight sometimes painful messages that needed to be getting attention. But also we could take communities – in this case the LGBT community – and centre them at the heart of what social media was being used for.”

Aaron Hawkins had a similar sense of humour to Graham. He is also, unfortunately, no longer with us. He is still remembered, however, as one of the first black male bloggers on the internet. He used his writing abilities and early internet savvy to create narratives that were challenging. He wanted to confront the general perception of the black man in America. He would look at pop culture and events in the world and reframe them through his unique lens of experience.

Dash also reflected on humorist, web pioneer, and (most importantly for the purposes of this talk) old friend and inspiration, Leslie Harpold. Harpold, Dash explained, was truly a trailblazer of the idea of putting your personal self on to the internet and using digital ephemera to express who you are.

Dash evidently regrets that they aren’t here. Yet he is determined to not only keep their memory alive, but to keep alive the spirit that they brought to the nascent days of the digital age. One challenge to that happened in the wake of Harpold’s death: her digital work was scrubbed from the internet.

The family chose not to keep it there, which is, of course, their right, Dash stressed. Yet it spurned an additional layer of grief to the grief people in that community were already experiencing at the loss of a friend. “[There is] a sense of grief in not just losing these friends, but that the values they espoused faded as well. The idea of how we would use these empowering technologies, of how we would use social media, of what the internet was for, faded.”

He recognises that the web today has veered away from this founding vision at a sharp angle. In a way, Dash feels grateful they didn’t have to personally witness what happened to the internet. “I don’t think I need to tell you that it got worse.”

The internet has now become so big that it is a seemingly unassailable machine into which we, as users, feed our lives, experiences, photos and data.

Much of this is due to the monopoly that many modern internet companies, some of which are now the biggest companies in the world, have over the internet. As the CEO of a company, Dash appreciates the nature of running a business. This does not mean he approves of the fact that these firms make money out of “surveillance and coercion”.

The situation is bad, as he said. Yet there is a solution. To hear what Dash thinks needs to happen to return to the earlier, brighter days of the internet, check out his talk in full above.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2020 are available now.

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic