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The Right to Community

When it comes to preservation — and I’d like to focus specifically on digital preservation — we focus on the preservation of cultural items, like works of art or commentary. Of course, their preservation is essential. It doesn’t even make sense to preserve a culture without preserving the products of that culture’s participants’ labour. But no product of a culture has been created in a vacuum. Everyone in a culture necessarily interacts with the culture, influences the culture, and is influenced by the culture. This can be as simple as motivation. It can be the memeplex the individual tropes of their works occupy. The culture provides the context that is essential in the production of the work, and upon completion, the interpretation and the enjoyment of the work. The culture is the breeding grounds for new works.

A culture is a network, and preserving its products is like preserving its nodes. Even if you preserved all of the nodes, it’s the connections between them that form the network. It’s the social interactions people between them. It’s the standards and mores that they have formed. That’s what it means to be a culture. To preserve the culture fully, you must also preserve the connections, which is much more difficult to do, because in the worst case it becomes a coordination problem.

If you’ve been on the internet for any amount of time, you know this and have seen it numerous times. When geocities died, some part of the internet died — permanently. Even if all the old sites were preserved, the design language, the participation, the subjective experience did not. There are other ways to host a static website — some are even more popular than geocities was — but it is not the same because the network is not the same, so the culture is not the same. That aspect of the internet has been lost.

Our societies have not been able to provide a good model for digital communities. Like geocities, every website has a culture — perhaps even many cultures — because every website is a community. Tumblr has communities. But who owns communities ? Who has the right to command them ? In real life, communities organise themselves, and when external parties try to force them to change, we call that oppression or even cultural genocide.

Yahoo, Tumblr, or whatever, obviously own their servers and their software — they paid for it. Do they also own the community ? The networks people create on their websites use their servers and software as tools to form them. But it’s the people who put in the labour to create and preserve the networks. It’s the people who create the culture, using the tools provided to them for culture-creation. Tumblr does not own the friends you’ve made, or the community you’ve fostered. However, they can set it all ablaze and make you disappear forever.

It doesn’t matter how many pics or gifs you’ve personally saved. To preserve the culture, you must preserve a living, breathing, evolving thing ; its content are snapshots of time, photographs of a person versus the person. It doesn’t matter if you have a legal right to say whatever you want, when every time anyone listens to you, the connection between you is severed. It doesn’t matter if you can create whatever you want, when the people who appreciate your work are purposefully excluded and barred entry. It doesn’t matter that you live in an open society when all infrastructure and institutions are closed off.

We need to move beyond the myopic notion of merely preserving individual works, and that a private company on the internet can do whatever it damn well pleases with their users and their network. As a first step, we need to take matters into our own hands and foster communities with tools that we own and we control : it is much easier to censor discord than all of IRC. But after doing that, we need to start working towards a framework that acknowledges the boundaries of public spheres and private spheres aren’t so clear on the internet : that the servers you are using may be privately-owned, but you still have universal and actionable human rights when using them. The right to speak your mind, the right to create, the right to socialise, the right to establish your own boundaries and your own standards without the manipulation of a dictatorial entity. That you have the right to a community.