INTERNET HISTORIES II
As observed by Brügger et al. (2017) in their essay inaugurating the new journal, Internet Histories, the first AoIR conference, held in 2000, was hardly replete with historical studies; as they pithily put it, “there simply was not that much history to write about” (Brügger et al., 2017). Over two decades later, this is clearly no longer the case: indeed, Brügger et al. describe the growing interest in historical scholarship of the internet, and make explicit their desire to contribute to “fostering the history of the Internet as a field of study in its own right”. It is in this spirit that we propose this panel, one of a pair of panels (that we have organized; there may be more of which we are unaware) dedicated to historical studies of people, practices, artifacts and technologies related to the internet.
The topics taken up by the contributing authors to this panel are, on the face of it, diverse. They include the history of consent online, as told through the cookie; the history of online influencers in South East Asia; the history of features for digital tie breaking; and the history of online commenting technologies. What brings these contributions together is their focus on an important and widespread contemporary online practice or technology, which is subjected to systematic historical analysis. The histories presented in this panel are all worth telling in their own right. In addition, of course, by reaching back to the end of the 20th century, they enhance our present-day understanding of their subject matter in topic-specific ways.
The panel opens with a history of digital consent, as told through the lens of the cookie. Inspired by Hacking’s Making Up People (1986), the author tells the history of digital consent through three Computer Characters. Each character is central to the three areas of law that regulate cookies: the Data Subject from data protection law, the Anonymous User from communication privacy law, and the Privacy Consumer from consumer protection law. The flawed system of digital consent today is shown to have its origins in the problematic conflation of these three Characters.
The second paper traces the phenomenon of online influencers back in time, with a focus on the context of South East Asia. Offering a history of “elsewhere”, this paper builds on 177 interviews conducted in five countries. Observing that current histories of the influencer industry focus their beginnings on (a) devices, (b) demographics, (c) genres, and (d) platforms, data from this study foregrounds another loci centered on (e) governance.
The third paper offers an archive-based study of the evolution of features for online tie breaking from the days of the earliest social network sites (SNSs) through to the present. Taking as their starting point the observations that (1) latent in every social tie is the possibility that it can be broken, and (2) the internet affords the creation of more social ties than has ever before been possible, the authors ask how social media platforms and other services for digital connectivity have shaped the features they offer for breaking the ties they allow their users to create, features such as unfriending, unfollowing, blocking, muting, and more.
The fourth paper examines the history of online commenting technologies on news websites. In collaboration with the Internet Archive and the Archives Unleashed Project, the authors created three longitudinal data sets consisting of the top 50 international, German, and Dutch archived news websites between 1996–2021. In their paper, the authors present a methodology based on the source code analysis of archived websites, to trace the dynamics of news websites implementing, modifying, and shutting down their commenting systems. This work enables a better understanding of the evolution of online discourse.
As a whole, the panel showcases different methodological and conceptual approaches to the study of internet history: legal, computational, and archival. It offers a reaffirmation of the importance of historical research for deepening our understanding of concepts, technologies and practices that are powerfully resonant in the present day.
The panel itself is comprised of scholars who come from and study different social and cultural contexts.
Brügger, N., Goggin, G., Milligan, I., & Schafer, V. (2017). Introduction: Internet histories. Internet Histories, 1(1–2), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1080/24701475.2017.1317128
Hacking, I. (1986). Making Up People. In T. C. Heller, M. Sosna, & D. E. Wellbery (Eds.), Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy, Individuality, and the Self in Western Thought (pp. 222–236). Stanford University Press.