Already this (very) brief history of digital media shows that many different groups of people have worked on the development, roll-out, application, and regulation of digital media over time. This includes the military and the security apparatus of states, scientists, coders, counter-culture figures, business people, and enthusiasts. The influence of these groups waxes and wanes over time depending on external events, new innovations, or shifts in societal, economic, or political power balances. Each of these groups shares specific interests, sensibilities, and concerns making it distinct from the others. As a consequence, they see digital media, its promises, and associated dangers differently from each other.
It is only natural for military or security specialists to emphasize security threats and demand better tools allowing for greater control of digital communication. It is just as natural for libertarians to shy away from control and instead emphasize opportunities emerging from free and open communication. Business entrepreneurs and economists see the good new business opportunities on digital media bring, while those critical of capitalism in general will chafe at what they perceive as exploitation. There is truth in many of these positions, while each one on its own is limiting and risks misrepresenting digital media and its role in politics and society.
One could tell the (very) brief history of digital media and the shift from enthusiasm to fear in public perception as a story of shifting influence between different societal groups and the respective prominence of their view of digital media. According to this reading, the diagnoses of the role and impact of digital media in society and politics did not change, only the influence of groups and accordingly the prominence of their view of digital media.
The theoretician of the early internet Manuel Castells identifies in a dated but illustrative section of his 2001 book The Internet Galaxy four cultures shaping the history of digital media:
"(...) the techno-meritocratic culture, the hacker culture, the virtual communitarian culture, and the entrepreneurial culture. Together they contribute to an ideology of freedom that is widespread in the Internet world."
[Castells, 2001] p. 37.
For Castells, internet culture takes it techno-meritocratic element from the engineering and academic roots of the developers and users of the early internet. This element brings the valuation of reputation, openness of arguments to challenge through public exchange, and credit given for originators of ideas or arguments. This culture is currently probably most visible in developer communities around the internet encyclopedia Wikipedia and open source software development.
To the techno-meritocratic element, he adds the culture of hacking. This refers to a culture of continuous tinkering and improving of software within a decentralized community of practice contributing to the development of technological standards and software. It also refers to a culture of challenging authorities by finding, exploiting, or making public weaknesses within software, systems, or processes.
The communitarian influence adds another layer to these highly meritocratic but also competitive and sometimes harsh elements driven by academic, engineering, and hacking influences. The communitarian element is driven by the normative counter cultural influences that were so important among the early adopters of the internet outside of academia. For Castells, this layer of internet culture is formed by the valuation of hierarchy-free, horizontal communication among users, free speech independent of potential censorship by governments or mass media, and the chance for free participation of users contributing to the shared community space.
In addition to these layers that sometimes overlap and sometimes are in conflict, there comes the entrepreneurial and commercial layer of internet culture. For Castells, this represents the expectation of participants in the development of digital technology to be financially rewarded. Here, technological development is not just about the free sharing of technology and insights, as for scientists or hackers, and not about enabling free speech, exchange, and participation for users, as for communitarians, it is about monetizing the development of tools and services.
At different points in time, the tensions between these different layers become evident. In the early naughts, enthusiasm around the social web, or the Web 2.0, seemed to offer a surprising harmony between these elements. Engineers and hackers were working hand in hand to develop new technology, services, and features for digital media. Those, increasing ease of use, and dropping costs of connectivity added new attractions to an ever increasing base of internet users which were drawn online. Entrepreneurs funded by venture capital and driven by the hopes of future riches, were happy to offer their tools and services apparently free of charge. At the same time, they rhetorically aligning themselves with the values of communitarians, emphasizing the importance of dialogue among equal users, conversations, and the participatory power of using digital tools and services in shaking up commercial, social, and political hierarchies. These declarations have been subsequently criticized as hollow gestures with the term Californian Ideology. Yet, this critique largely remained academic until a series of shocks made the inherent contradictions among the layers of internet culture apparent to all.
The NSA spying scandal and the involvement of important players in the digital industry made painfully visible the ongoing interconnection between the military /espionage / industrial complex and the internet economy that was inherent from the start of the development of digital technology financed by the US military. The widespread coverage of the scandal led to a sudden increase in public awareness of digital technology allowing for widespread mass surveillance. This raised a painful contradiction to the claims of personal empowerment and free speech routinely associated with the use of digital media.
In early 2018, there emerged another controversy that illustrated the tension between the commercial interests of digital entrepreneurs and the users of their services. The scandal surrounding the massive collection of information on users on Facebook by the consultancy company Cambridge Analytica made the public suddenly aware of the amounts of access online platforms routinely allowed third parties to the data of their users. While Facebook’s business model had been no secret, the details surrounding Cambridge Analytica illustrated for many for the first time the breadth and scale of data third parties were able to access. The emerging controversy made painfully clear that the commercial interests of entrepreneurs did not necessarily align with the communitarian values of early user communities allowing for free expression and exchange. Although continuously present in public statements and press releases these values were apparently mattered little in the business decisions guiding the monetization of digital platforms and tools.
This goes to show that even in the early days, there was not only one way of looking at digital media. Instead there were multiple approaches, multiple groups of people, multiple goals, and multiple norms. Sometimes, these approaches aligned, sometimes they contradicted each other. At times some approaches dominated but then were replaced by others. The way of seeing digital media depends on conditions of the time and which group with their view of digital media currently dominates. More than likely, this also holds for the currently dominante negative view on digital media and its impact on society and politics.