COVID-19: A chance to make the internet great again?

The COVID-19 lockdown launched an enormous homesharing experiment. Can it change the way we use the internet?

Artist and Human Hotel host Guy at home with his family in Brooklyn, NYC.
Photo: Ventiko

Thirteen years ago, in 2007, I was in a private apartment in Manhattan with two men I had met online but never seen face-to-face.

 I blindfolded them and told them to undress. Then they exchanged their shirts, pants, keys, wallets, and phones. And went off to live each other’s lives for 24 hours.

 The experiment was called Life Exchange and was a “social sculpture” by my artist collective, an artwork happening during the renowned New York biennial Performa. For a week, people joined via our website to repeat the experiment. Strangers from the internet met up in a Chelsea apartment to swap identities, homes — and even jobs. Sometimes they quit after a few hours. Others continued for several days.

 It was a wild idea with wild outcomes. One gay life-exchanger discovered his bisexuality after he swapped lives (and partners) with a straight man. Several people had spiritual experiences. And by the end of the experiment, dozens of people met in the Chelsea apartment to share wine, food, and the stories they had experienced over the past week.

 Thinking about it now, from the Coronavirus-isolation of my home, their openness and kindness break my heart. What happened to this rich, wild, and diverse internet that I loved?

The new sector that was supposed to make us share more has instead used billions of dollars to develop ever-new digital tools that remove the very human meeting at the core of “sharing” — for the sake of frictionless profits.

A New Era of Sharing

Thirteen years is a long time in a human life-span, but it’s an entire era online. Since 2007 we’ve had “Web 2.0”. Then the “sharing economy” epoch through the 2010s. Eras tend to end with dramatic events. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic gives us the opportunity to reinvent online sharing — and make the internet great again.

The current “sharing economy” landscape led by unicorns like Uber and Airbnb consists almost entirely of incentives for generating the most cash.

In fact, the new sector that was supposed to make us share more has instead used billions of dollars to develop ever-new digital tools that remove the very human meeting at the core of “sharing” — for the sake of frictionless profits.

It’s certainly economical, but there’s not a lot of sharing involved.

This pattern of profit-over-people has crept into all corners of the collective home we call the internet. The rich, creative communities that made the internet a revolutionary place are quickly dying. With a staggering 15% of all internet traffic being consumed by Netflix alone, it seems that we are losing out on the potential of the internet to impact and better our real-world relationships.

In fact, it’s becoming more and more clear that our digital advancements are bringing us further apart.

The internet that had opened the door to so many adventures was stagnating, its dynamism and energy gone. I felt crushed.

The Dehumanized Web

Earlier this year — before Coronavirus hit — I spent several weeks in New York City, meeting with local creatives and inviting them to join our Copenhagen-based co-living community, Human Hotel. As I made my way around town, I noticed a very different New York from the city I knew in 2007. In the subway, no passengers were talking — everyone was engrossed in their phones. People ate alone at restaurants, sharing their meals only with their screens. Even the coffee shops were eerily quiet, except for the clicking of laptop keyboards.

During my visit, I happened to pass by the Life Exchange-apartment in Chelsea, and in a stroke of nostalgia, I buzzed the door. Nobody answered but below the buzzer, I noticed a lockbox. As I walked on, I began noticing them everywhere — the key lockboxes for tourist self-check-ins hanging outside apartment buildings and lofts.

As I sat in the silent subway car on my way home, phone screens flickering all around me, I realized that something had fundamentally changed. New York City, this place of openness, diversity, and exuberant self-expression seemed to have turned inward. The city seemed less open, less engaged. Less social. The internet that had opened the door to so many adventures was stagnating, its dynamism and energy gone. I felt crushed.

Curated communities can make the internet great again

Human Hotel Co-founders Martin and Sixten performing their Life Exchange ritual in Chelsea, NYC – 2007

Together with some friends, I created my first experiment in human sharing in my early twenties. In 2002, we launched an internet community for artistic collaboration. This was before Facebook and MySpace, and we created a social network where artists could meet other artists and take their collaborations offline.

We were far from the only website doing this. All across the internet, people were enticed to meet strangers and live more adventurous lives. Because of online communities like Craigslist, Couchsurfing — or even early Airbnb — you could meet like-hearted locals in cities everywhere. Vibrant communities were thriving online. Gatherings, potlucks (and wacky life-exchange projects) sprung up all the time. The possibilities for human connections seemed endless.

During the past decade, however, tech giants have done their best to remove human friction from our interactions. Once big money entered the equation, unprofitable human interaction went out. Today, dating algorithms will guide you to your ‘most compatible’ partner. People give likes rather than write blogs. And local residents are being replaced by more profitable self-check-in tourism.

The human connections sprouting from these long-gone forums of the early internet were so rich because they were unpredictable and full of friction. They brought people together through active, even face-to-face, participation.

Could navigating these websites be cumbersome at times? Definitely. Did they require you to invest more of yourself than simply swiping a few times? Sure. But the internet was not invented to turn human relationships into a set of streamlined transactions.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened. Online human interactions have come to resemble financial transactions: a click, data changes hands, and no need to face another human being. It is passive, predictable, with little or no interpersonal connection.

This is not the internet that broke my heart with its openness and kindness. This is not a web of human relationships. This is a web of data transfers.

People want humans, families, meetings back in the center of their lives. They want interaction, real-life adventure. And the words I keep hearing from them could be translated to“curated communities”

How Curated Communities Can Make The Internet Great Again

You might think I’m remembering the 2000s with rose-colored glasses. Or that the evolution of the so-called “sharing economy” is a natural progression of the web.

But I can’t close my eyes to what is happening to the most radical and powerful technology on earth. A loss of human connection and diversity. And the great potential that is wasted when human interaction is turned into stale lockboxes. Or Netflix staring. The difference these lost human connections could have made in our divisive, partisan times.

It is easy to hide behind a screen. It is easy to let an algorithm find your partner. And it’s certainly easy to spend your next hour on the next flick — because it automatically starts in 10 seconds.

But does easy and quick make you happy? Does it give you a sense of magic, of adventure? 80 years of research shows that being part of thriving communities is what makes us live longer and be happier. After more than a month of Coronavirus lockdown, I personally don’t even need research to understand my deep need for connecting with fellow humans.

Luckily, the tide seems to be turning against the dehumanized web. These days, on video calls with creators and change-makers from Latin America to Scandinavia, I keep hearing that they all believe in real-life, offline interactions. They want humans, families, meetings back in the center of their lives. They want interaction, real-life adventure. And the words I keep hearing from them could be translated to“curated communities”.

The old online communities like Couchsurfing that were open to anyone and everyone are dead or dying. There was too much randomness. Too much wasted time. Those anything-goes-communities will not be coming back.

In a curated community, members come together to share specific passions. It could be climate activism. Documentary film-making. Health Tech. All of the above.

Imagine a two-fold process powered by the best of our technologies. First a global curatorial process of connecting and inviting like-hearted humans online. Community members apply and are screened. They have to contribute something to their community. Lastly, human curators collaborate with technology to connect these purpose-sharing strangers offline in engaging and innovative ways.

Curated, purpose-driven, and internet-powered communities like these are popping up all around the world. One example is the thriving global community surrounding the Oslo-based Katapult Future Fest. Another is the digital family of IAM in Barcelona. The social value contributed by these micro-communities is much greater than that of the non-curated, AI-driven, highly monetized mega-platforms we have come to know as “social networks”. These mega-platforms are not actually social. They are merely exploiting our personal social networks for profit.

When our own micro-community Human Hotel connects a climate-conscious local host with environmental activists in need of housing, they not only exchange some dollars for a spare bedroom — they also exchange tactics and personal experiences on how to make the world a better place.

The artist who stays with a like-hearted scientist not only gets a room to sleep in. She also gets new knowledge, inspiration, ideas — the possibilities are endless.

The World’s Greatest Experiment in Homesharing

Right now, with millions of people forced to stay at home, Coronavirus has launched a world-wide experiment in true homesharing. Not in the “sharing economy” way of the word — a financial transaction regarding short-term property rentals — but actually sharing our homes. Being closely together with our loved ones. Feeling the absence of those who matter but cannot be here. And maybe even remembering that we all share one home planet.

2020 is the beginning of a new decade — and maybe of a new era too. As I’m writing this from my home isolation in Copenhagen, I talk with my colleagues, friends, and members of our community to imagine what this new era could look like.

We are many who believe that the Coronavirus crisis presents a unique opportunity to rethink, reset, and ultimately rekindle the powerful dynamism of the early internet. It all starts with remembering that we can experiment and change anything we want. That we are not bound by any requirements from the Planetary Council of the Milky Way.

I still miss the days when people met up with strangers and exchanged wallets, phones, lives. But I can’t express how excited I am to see that those community-driven days are returning. Only this time, our communities will be curated and driven by smarter and more powerful technology.

We already have the tools available to foster these vibrant, diverse communities and make the internet great again.

Now it’s just about getting to work. I suggest we all turn off Netflix for a bit and reflect on how we would like our next 10 years to look like. And how we would like our first, post-Corona human gathering to feel like.

The wild, vibrant days of the internet are over. The wild, vibrant days of the internet are coming back!

— Martin, co-founder Human Hotel

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