The Gentrification of the Internet: How to Reclaim Our Digital Freedom

by Jessa Lingel, University of California Press, 2021, 168 pp.
Hardcover $19.95, eBook $19.95, ISBN: 978-0-5203-4490-7

The Gentrification of the Internet by Jessa LingelThere are plenty of metaphors to describe the Internet and its implications. We have heard that ‘data is the new oil’ and it is stored in the ‘cloud.’ Some say former U.S Vice-President Al Gore dubbed the Internet an ‘information highway.’ And it is not uncommon for one to say that social media is like a ‘town square.’ As with most things, some metaphors are better than others, and some are straight out misleading. Once in a while, though, we stumble upon a metaphor that is not only functional, but also intriguing and compelling. In this new book, Jessa Lingel explains through the gentrification metaphor how we got the Internet that we have now, what is bad about it, and what could be different. 

Lingel recognizes that urban gentrification can be many things. What is constant is the power dispute whenever a previously affordable neighborhood becomes out of reach for the communities that once nurtured it. Similarly, in this new book, the author lays down the shifts in power and control online that led the Internet to be gentrified. The book is straightforward in its goals. It is not a book for academics, although many will surely like it. It is a book for activists, educators, and ordinary Internet users who want to think critically about the Internet.  

Throughout the book, Lingel describes how three features —digital culture, the tech industry, and digital infrastructure— are gentrified. These examples are starting points to a broader discussion about what it takes to create a less commercial and more diverse Internet.  In the first chapter, Gentrification Online and Off, the author explains what she means by gentrification and how it relates to the Internet. According to them, just like in cities, gentrification on the Internet exaggerates inequalities and excludes certain values to the detriment of others, affecting people through three key features: displacement, isolation, and commercialization. First, Big Tech displaces its minor counterparts and their communities, which diminishes diversity and creativity online. Second, the tech industry encourages users’ isolation, keeping them in filter bubbles. Finally, the tech industry claims it nourishes commercial opportunities but fails to recognize that successful stories that are less corporate profit-oriented exist.  

The second chapter, The People and Platforms Facebook Left Behind, focuses on the gentrification of digital culture. Lingel explains that digital culture can gentrify in two ways: by creating inequality between platforms and by creating inequality within platforms. Big Tech dominates the online landscape, displacing competing platforms. It also welcomes some groups more than others, commercializing discrimination between users through biased advertising. Noticeably, throughout the chapter, Lingel gives palpable examples of vibrant online communities. Thus, the reader is never left out thinking that the book’s description of the Internet that could be is too good to ever exist. 

In the third chapter, The Big Problems of Big Tech, Lingel turns to the role of the tech industry in gentrifying processes. The author describes how Big Tech literally contributes to gentrification when a headquarters is built in a local neighborhood. Beyond that, Lingel explores how the tech industry gentrifies through a lack of diversity in its workforce, which leads to homogeneous products and a preference for profits over people.  

The Fight for Fiber, chapter four, focuses on gentrification through infrastructure. Lingel demonstrates that the Internet infrastructure has been gentrified in a process in which smaller community-based Internet Service Providers (ISPs) got pushed out by national conglomerates. Through the ISPs example, Lingel efficiently summarizes power disputes within the Internet infrastructure. She demonstrates how technical aspects of the Internet directly affect online communities (e.g., through government surveillance). The chapter is full of hands-on examples of things one can do to change the Internet through its infrastructure, from mesh networks to the appropriation of unused fiber cables. 

The final chapter, Resistance, is a strong call to action. First and foremost, it is a call to action for the gentrifiers, for Big Tech and people of privilege. About the latter, the author recognizes her own contribution to gentrification both off and online. This acknowledgement invites readers to examine their own practices and role in the gentrification of the Internet. The chapter is also a call to action on multiple levels, including regulation, corporate pressure, and legal and direct action. Lingel lists successful tactics from real world anti-gentrification movements that could be used in the fight to reclaim alternative paths to the Internet. She also lists activist groups engaged in the fight against urban gentrification and in favor of a fairer Internet, a convenient go-to source of information for those readers who will want to support the fight. 

Many of the issues raised in the book appeared in Lingel’s previous works. For example, in her 2020 book, An Internet for the People, the author introduced the notion of a gentrified Internet, contrasting social media giants with Craigslist, arguing that the latter favors democratic access over corporate profit.1 In Digital Countercultures and the Struggle for Community (2017), she demonstrated how online counterculture communities circumvent technology to achieve their own goals.2 The new book builds from previous ones, but with a broader audience in mind. By drawing from examples already explored in her more academic-oriented books, the author successfully diagnoses the problems of the current Internet and advocates for hands-on solutions.  

Overall, this book presents a practical guide of various actions that can make the Internet more about the people and less about business. Some are very specific (e.g., change job attributions of tech companies’ ‘community managers’), others are old demands (e.g., government regulation). However, even when the author mentions demands and criticisms that we have heard before, analyzing them through the gentrification metaphor feels novel. It helps the reader fully understand the tangible negative impacts of the current Internet. The book presents an accurate and accessible description of the current power imbalances taking place online. It pushes activists and users alike to start acting now and provides realistic examples and suggestions moving forward. 
 

Note
Lingel, Jessa, An Internet for the People: The Politics and Promise of Craigslist, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).
2 Lingel, Jessa. Digital Countercultures and the Struggle for Community, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017). 

Kimberly Anastácio, American University