Thursday, 1 January, 2004
Saving the Soul of the Internet: The 2004 edition

For the first time in a long while, I am observing the rollover at home, from the comfort of my desk chair. Normally, I spend New Year's Day recovering because I worked New Year's Eve, cleaning up the mess left after other people stayed out late partying. Sometimes it's busy, sometimes it isn't, but I am almost never at home for this event. This year, however, it's different. This year, I'm nursing a pain-in-the-ass cold that slammed into my sinuses around three in the afternoon and made me scurry around looking for something, anything, to make it go away -- including naturopathic remedies. I figure allopathy has nothing to offer the cold sufferer; naturopathy can't possibly be any worse. (There's a rant in here, don't worry.)

Anyway. I'd like to kick this year off on a positive note. Wired has this list of 101 things you can do to save the Internet, but unfortunately, most of the suggestions are for saving an Internet I probably would have preferred to see die. Some of the suggestions are damn stupid, and a few are downright impractical. Some of the ideas aren't very radical, and some smack of ineffectial civil disobedience. And some of them represent exactly everything that is wrong with the net. Be skeptical -- very, very skeptical -- of anything Wired is hawking.

In the same but slightly more pragmatic spirit, Matthew Skala has come up with a very nice list of 52 other things you can do to save the net. I'm going to resolve to try to do more of these things (to the extent that I don't do them already), and since number 51 on his list is to make a similar list, I'm going to offer a few of my own, and the justifications for them. I can't promise you'll agree with them, and some of these ideas are damned impractical for ordinary people to implement, but here goes anyway.

  1. Share your bandwidth, if you can. Sometimes it's not possible. But I'm starting to believe that if you have the capability, you might want to seriously think about sticking an open access point on your network somewhere. Security-conscious users will no doubt immediately spot the hole, but there's a larger principle at work here -- bandwidth is, for the most part, pretty cheap these days and ubiquitous bandwidth is incredibly cool.

    In the same vein, if you come across a wireless network that has disabled SSID broadcasts or enabled WEP, respect the choice of the network owner and don't try to break in.

  2. Start or participate in a metropolitan wireless network. Seattle Wireless is probably the best example I can think of off the top of my head -- it's a neat concept and a great way to build something without necessarily having to expose your own machines or your own bandwidth. I think we sometimes forget that networking can have value even if that network isn't connected to the Internet. I'll let you imagine what kind of uses a metropolitan Intranet might have, but think about the possibility of having ad hoc LAN parties (to take a particularly lame example). This is probably the single neatest and most revolutionary idea I've come across in a long, long time.

  3. Form a bandwidth conspiracy. (Tip of the hat to Abbie Hoffman.) If you can, get together with like-minded folks in the same geographic area, and buy a real Internet connection -- not cable, not DSL, but an honest-to-god commercial-grade connection. Then use it in as many ways as you can see fit. Don't forget the WiFi access.

  4. Run Mozilla. Moz is simply the best browser out there, and will make your life infinitely easier and happier, excessive wait system calls notwithstanding. File bug reports when something doesn't work right. You will wonder how you ever lived without it.

  5. Create a Web site. It doesn't matter what's on it, what matters is that you too can be a content provider. Everyone knows something really well -- figure out what it is that you can teach or tell or show the world, and put it out there. Be fearless -- if you don't want to publish under your own name, you don't have to. But when you write for the Web, a little piece of you goes out there, into the ether, and will live on forever.

  6. Register a domain. Use Dotster or one of the other non-Verisign registries. Matthew suggests getting a geographical domain and that's not a bad idea, but if you can think of a good name in the Big Three that hasn't already been snapped up, you might want to do that before someone beats you to the punch.

  7. Rediscover old network services. If you use the right news provider and hang out in the right groups, Usenet can be a damn interesting place. It's strange, it's eccentric, it's opinionated and frequently loud with little substance -- it's the Internet crack. And it's the only place you'll find some absolutely brilliant people talking about subjects that would make your head spin. gopher servers still exist out there. See if you can find a MUD somewhere. Or, if you can, run one.

  8. Use the right tool for the right job. e-mail is not a bulk binary file transfer mechanism. Neither is NNTP. Stop using them for those purposes.

  9. Understand your platform's security model, and make sure it can't be exploited by malicious people or software. You might, for instance, make sure your virus definitions are up to date, and consider switching to a new mail client if you've been using Outlook/Outlook Express. Or you might decide to hit your box with some security testing software and lock down the unused ports.

  10. Learn to write clean, standards-compliant HTML by hand. If you can't decipher the W3C's specification documents (and I don't know many people who can), at least learn how to write simple HTML by hand. Don't rely on crutches like FrontPage or Dreamweaver.

  11. Don't publish stuff in Word or PDF unless you really have to. If it can be published as straight HTML, it probably should be.

  12. Consider SSH. The security model of the Internet these days is focused on the Web, and that means SSL, but I'm starting to think that SSL was the wrong way to go, and we should have thought about using tunnelled SSH. This won't mean anything to 95% of you out there, but those of you who know what I'm talking about, and have a choice, might want to consider changing.

  13. Send thank-you notes. If you're not inclined to hit the tip jars of your favorite Web sites (and some folks are averse to the whole idea of tip jars), at least send a note thanking the site's author for their hard work and dedication. It's free, and it goes a long way to encouraging people to continue generating content.

  14. Buy original merchandise. If a site sells something original -- not that Cafe Press stuff, but actual original creative work -- and you like it, consider buying it. (hint hint.)

  15. Get a real ISP. Better yet, buy your connectivity from a network provider and run your own Internet services. You can learn a lot from running your own e-mail server (just make sure it's configured properly). At the very least, get off Hotmail/Yahoo or any of the major free Webmail services.

  16. Move your blog to a real domain, and/or new blogging software. It's not hard to roll your own, and Movable Type is really simple to install and ridiculously powerful. Besides, think of how smug you can look when blogspot goes down.

  17. Don't be careless with other people's comment sections. Don't put up with people who are careless with yours.

  18. Praise other people publicly. Send traffic their way. The publicly accessible bookmark list is so 1994, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a good idea.

  19. Learn how to program, even in a basic scripting language. If I can do it, you can, too.

  20. Do not listen to people who believe that an operating system is a moral choice. Yes, Microsoft products suck, technically-speaking, and there may be good reasons to not use them, but at the end of the day, your computer is a tool. What you run on that tool is a very personal choice, and if you like Microsoft, it's nobody's business but your own. I encourage you to experiment and try other tools for yourself, but if you like your OS, and it does what you want, ignore anyone who tries to criticize that position. Running an operating system is not a moral position any more than downloading MP3s from Kazaa is a moral position.

  21. Read up on the network's history. Do not read Where the Wizards Stay Up Late. Read Peter Salus's book instead. Also read Neal Stephenson's amazing story about wires.

  22. Leave ICMP traffic alone. A lot of network operators are turning off ICMP traffic because of its role in DDOS attacks. Unfortunately, a number of valuable debugging tools depend on ICMP. Please leave it on.

  23. Build a Linux distribution. Thanks to tools like syslinux, this is now really easy. Armed with a syslinux-based distribution and an 8 cm CD-R, you can create nifty little toys for your friends to play with.

  24. Read Groklaw. Understand the implications of this case, even if you don't use Linux.

  25. Join the IETF. The Internet Engineering Task Force sounds really cool and scary, but it's really just a bunch of people trying to solve problems. (Sometimes not very successfully.) If you have the patience to wade through mind-numbing technical details, you too can have a say in shaping the technical future of the Internet.

  26. Pay attention to the stuff ICANN does, even if they won't listen to you.

  27. Run a BBS. Practically no one will call it, but that means you don't need to spend any time maintaining it, right? Alternative: Run a telnet/ssh-based BBS.

  28. Have a secret identity. Pseudonymity isn't the same thing as anonymity, but it's a good start. Use your secret identity only for good. Do not use it to pick fights on bboards.

  29. Write so you can be understood. The Internet may just be the most radical and most valuable tool for training people to write well. Your words are the only metric we have for evaluating you as a human being. You cannot be taken seriously if you write like a 14 year-old girl on Instant Messenger, so don't.

  30. Get rid of your IM client or, if you must use IM, use something that isn't made by Microsoft or AOL. Trillian is an excellent alternative.

  31. Find an old 1200 baud modem and spend a day in the slow zone. That goes double for anyone who is a Web designer. Remember that most of the world still looks at the Internet over dial-up connections.

  32. Read cryptography and CRYPTO-GRAM. Use cryptography to keep your private life private.

  33. Join a civil liberties group, and not just the EFF/EFC. There's lots of scary stuff going on out there in the world of politics; civil libertarians are fighting to protect your right to be left alone. The ACLU is an obvious choice, but not all of us are American.

  34. Do not perpetuate the war on straw. To paraphrase Rich Lafferty, the biggest danger to the Internet these days is that all these strawmen lying around might catch fire. Argue with actual positions said by actual people, rather than caricatures of positions held by hypothetical people. (This is a new year's resolution here at Under a Blackened Sky.)

  35. Support your local musicians. Go to local shows and buy their CDs. They'll thank you for it. You'll thank yourself for it when they make it big and you can tell stories about seeing them play at the pub down the street.

  36. Go outside. There's life beyond the network. Have one.

    Epilogue: This is not the snark you were looking for. Move along now.