Internet Imperialism: the Colonial Age

WorldI came across a post on the 'verse recently that referenced Microsoft's business strategy of "embrace and extend" in reference to Twitter's future. The idea was that Twitter should embrace the Fediverse (and ActivityPub) as a standard, and extend their features to become a viable and positively contributing member of the social web.

However, the post did not mention all three legs of Microsoft's business platform.

Embrace, Extend, Extinguish

As a business strategy, this was highly effective. Microsoft started off by embracing BASIC and DOS as the distributed standards in personal computing at the time. They then extended the features in their own versions of these standards in developing MS-DOS and building Windows on top of it. Eventually, as they added more features and grew their user base, they extinguished other variants of these standards by making their products non-functional on other platforms.

This remains an effective business strategy today. Facebook did the exact same thing, by embracing interoperable standards like RSS and XMPP to build news feeds and chat. They extended these standards by adding new features such as Groups and Pages, the cross-site Like and Share buttons, etc. As their user base grew exponentially, there was less of a business interest in maintaining interoperability with the standards, so they simply stopped supporting them. Extinguished.

Google did the same thing with email and search. Amazon did it with e-commerce and web hosting. And Twitter effectively did it with RSS the same way that Facebook did. Now, we're in a hellscape where a handful of companies control and dictate what happens on the internet. In some countries, "Facebook" and "Internet" are interchangeable terms, and that is downright horrifying.

What these companies can't change is this simple fact:

Open systems are better.

It's the reason these tech companies were drawn to these systems in the first place. When Tim Berners-Lee created the HTTP and HTML standards, he specifically made them open to all, recognizing that making these standards proprietary and closed meant that access to their benefits would be scuttled. It's the same reason why open source software thrives: collectively building something for the benefit of all means that everyone benefits.

Even outside of the technological context, distributed and interoperable systems are robust and resilient. All over nature, the interconnectedness of species gives rise to healthy ecosystems. In our culture, interdependent networks of peoples have achieved amazing things through science and the humanities. Even on the scale of our own personal lives, interconnected social circles give rise to healthy and happy lives.

We all have experience with federated systems and can recognize their virtues on a fundamental level. It's been said that the internet is not a force for good or evil, but it's a force multiplier. It has the ability to empower people and to contribute to humanity's progress on an exponential scale.

This is why these tech monopolies are so insidious - they've stolen that power from us. Instead of easing access to the water and seed and soil of the Internet for us all to grow, they've taken it for their own profit-driven purposes, and we all suffer as a result. The Embrace, Extend, Extinguish philosophy is simply a catchy way to refer to a very old, very destructive practice that throughout history has proven to be detrimental for both humanity and the planet.

Tech monopolies are colonizers.

To be absolutely clear, I am very much aware that the use of the term "colonizer" carries some heavy context, especially for BIPOC folks who have had the colonial boot on their necks for generations. By no means do I intend to minimize the true horrors that colonial and imperialist forces have wrought throughout the world, and whose malevolence continues to this day.

As a force multiplier, the Internet has done incredible things by empowering marginalized communities to kick Power in the teeth. It's done more than enable shedding light on injustice; it's put a 10-megawatt spotlight on it. It's done more than just speak Truth to Power; it's given Truth a stack of amplifiers that would rival any arena rock show. And that power, natively inherent in the Internet, has been colonized by a handful of modern-day empires, who see the masses starving for connection and empowerment as nothing more than fodder for their bloated coffers. Then they tell us to eat cake.

We are currently living in the Colonial Age of the Internet, on the verge of revolution. Twitter's impending collpase is the first burning of an invading empire's palace. The marginalized communities that have built things like the Fediverse are the ones who lit the fuse. We should all be thanking them for it by helping to build a better online world, starting here and now.

The revolution is here. Humanity is deciding to overthrow the Empire, and you need to ask yourself:

Which side are you on?