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The Web 2.0 Book Club: Season One
Reevaluating the discourse of the 2000s internet
Reading Lessig’s Free Culture as a senior in high school changed my life.
From a nerdy kid thinking mostly about becoming a software engineer, the book turned me — essentially overnight — into a diehard technology policy wonk.
I did the circuit: worked at the Berkman Center, became a student activist with Students for Free Culture, co-founded ROFLCon, interned at the EFF, interned at Creative Commons, did a stint at the Oxford Internet Institute, dallied with the Mozilla Foundation, and worked at Google.
When I talk to a lot of the folks that I came up with in this cohort, I find we’re all thinking about how to put the last two decades of internet history into some kind of context. That’s not surprising given how the internet of the 2020s has ended up.
Ultimately, it seems useful at this juncture to have a space for thinking deeply and critically about the sweeping rhetoric that characterized the 2000s internet.
As part of that, I’ve wanted to revisit in detail some of the books that I remember being super formative during that early period. This is admittedly in part just an act of nostalgia: a desire to revisit a more hopeful era of feeling around the web. I just think that’d feel good to do, some unavoidable (and tantalizing!) cringe notwithstanding.
But, it’s also an effort to recenter intellectually about the internet. What did we believe about this technology, and what do we still believe? What were the longer-term implications of the values of that period? What looks irretrievably flawed and problematic in the light of 2022? What still looks surprisingly good from these books, or even insightful, if anything?
This exercise has ambitions to be more than just a retrospective. One of the biggest challenges facing anyone thinking about the internet nowadays is, simply, How can you be an optimist and even a partisan for this technology without being an asshole?
It seems to me like getting that right is a big deal.
By revisiting what went right and wrong with the last generation of sunny optimism, the hope is to craft a framework for something better and more robust going forwards. That’s particularly important I think as the debates play out over the acceptance or rejection of “web3” as part of the legacy of the open web. It’s also important as the latest generation of social media seems to have run its course, and we seem to be in a period of norm formation about what comes next.
Run of Show
The Web 2.0 Book Club is a year-long project to reread four books that I recall most strongly from this period. I’ll be doing one book per quarter in order of their publication date, as follows:
Q1 (Jan-Mar): Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture (2004)
Q2 (Apr-Jun): Chris Anderson, The Long Tail (2006)
Q3 (Jul-Sept): Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody (2008)
Q4 (Oct-Dec): Sherry Turkle, Alone Together (2011)
If this interests you, I reckon it’ll be much more fun doing this with a community! That’s the idea for the Web 2.0 Book Club, and I’d love to have you along.
Membership in the Web 2.0 Book Club costs $5 per month, with proceeds going towards defraying the cost of guest speakers and authors (details below).
As part of your membership, you get the following:
At least once a month, a subscribers-only discussion post for the community, tackling a specific aspect of the book for the quarter. These’ll be either written by myself, or a guest author.
At the end of each quarter, we’ll be hosting a subscribers-only live panel event over Zoom to discuss the book along with a guest speaker.
Membership bills monthly, and you’re welcome to join and leave the W2BC at any time.
This is an experiment. Based on whether or not folks are into it and whether the conversation is any good, I might end up extending it into a Season Two.