The Internet Has Gentrified — Here’s What We Can Do About It

Gentrification is a useful idea for understanding the internet’s problems, as well as the need for alternative models that are open and fair.

Carlo Giambaressi

Gentrification is a loaded term. It refers to how an influx of wealthier residents transforms the character of low-income areas, often displacing longtime residents and businesses. Proponents of such shifts see them as a pioneering force for economic growth and revitalization, while opponents see them as encroachment that disrespects and displaces local communities. It’s the gap between these two sides that makes gentrification such an important concept for thinking about the internet.

Gentrification doesn’t just describe struggles for power and authority in urban neighborhoods, it also describes struggles over online communities — and it can help us think more clearly about the politics and possibilities of digital technologies. As the urban studies scholar Sharon Zukin put it, “gentrification makes inequality more visible.” It’s a contest between groups of people with different levels of power and resources.

Over time, it’s become harder for ordinary people to keep personal information private, to experiment with digital technologies, and to control how the web looks and feels. The mainstream internet is increasingly making us less connected, more isolated, and more beholden to corporations and their shareholders. In other words, the internet has gentrified. When I call the internet gentrified, I’m talking about shifts in power and control that limit what we can do online. I’m also calling out an industry that puts corporate profits over public good, and decides what kinds of online behavior are the “right” way to use the web, while everything else gets labeled backwards or out of date.

“We need new narratives of what success looks like in tech.”

How has the internet gentrified? For starters, think of smaller and edgier platforms that have been pushed out by the Facebook juggernaut. Remember Bebo, Formspring, Friendster, PlanetAll, StumbleUpon? At one point, each of these platforms had millions of users. Now they’re all defunct. Businesses come and go in any industry, so why should we care if Bebo and Friendster didn’t make the cut? Big Tech has a vested interest in making users feel powerless, and that the internet we have was inevitable. If we only hear about the biggest companies, we only get their vision of how the internet came to be. If we want to learn about alternative routes that the internet could have taken — and can still take — then we need to think about the platforms and communities that have been pushed out.

In many neighborhoods, gentrification is driven by a small number of powerful developers. Able to operate at scale, raise massive amounts of cash, and negotiate directly with local policy makers, these developers hoard resources and exclude smaller, local players from entering the market. Tech monopolies are similarly dangerous if we want open, democratic markets, not to mention innovative, inclusive technology. 

There’s a very direct link between gentrification and online platforms: digital redlining. At the heart of digital redlining are data brokers. Data brokers are the companies that buy and sell user data, the middlemen between social media companies and advertisers. They segment people into groups based on their identities or where they live. Armed with incredibly detailed data about our likes, dislikes, and social networks, advertisers then target their ads to hyper-specific cohorts of people. Are you a toy company looking to reach new parents aged 28 to 34? Are you a health food store interested in targeting vegetarians who do yoga? There are hundreds of categories for interests and identity markers that advertisers can pin down, such as 13-year-olds who have expressed interest in gambling and smoking. Some people don’t mind data gathering and targeted ads, while others find them creepy and intrusive. But what’s really at stake is how this data can be used unfairly.

In 2019, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sued Facebook over housing discrimination, charging that Facebook lets advertisers push ads to users based on their “ethnic affinities” and gender, in violation of the Fair Housing Act. The 2019 HUD complaint isn’t the first time Facebook has been accused of digital redlining. In 2016, ProPublica found that Facebook let advertisers hide or display ads to users based on different characteristics, including race. As a result, ads for houses or jobs could be deliberately hidden from people of color. Facebook’s advertising tools barred people in certain geographic areas from seeing ads. The tools actually created red lines on a map to target users, a direct parallel to redlining practices that had segregated US housing areas in the 20th century.

Online gentrification goes beyond the platforms we use — it has also transformed the internet’s infrastructure. Since the mid-2000s, online access has come under the control of major communication and media companies. Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and cell phone carriers like Verizon and AT&T operate as monopolies across vast chunks of the US. But there was a time when internet service providers were small and diverse rather than established mega-companies. In 1996, there were 3,000 commercial ISPs in the US. The number doubled two years later, then peaked at just over 7,000 in 2000. This was a time of incredible choice for consumers. In 1998, more than 92 percent of the US population had access to seven or more ISPs. Fewer than five percent lacked ISP access entirely.

Though consumers enjoyed a wide array of choices in the 1990s, by the 2010s options had narrowed dramatically. Regulatory bodies that could have stepped in to protect local ISPs sat back as consumer choices dwindled. A small number of players grew to wield incredible control over the infrastructure of the internet, with minimal interference from the government and decreased benefits for consumers. Today, at least 83 million Americans can only access a single broadband provider. 

The problem with new businesses in gentrified neighborhoods isn’t that they make money — it’s how and for whom. ISPs have become the Walmarts of internet infrastructure. As a result of the consolidated ISP market, we see displacement of local businesses, higher costs, and poorer services. The tech industry faces a similar battle over its corporate strategies. The internet has always attracted business and investment. But over time, the emphasis has shifted from technological creativity to profits and market dominance.

Big Tech’s business model has become pro-monopoly and anti-competition, capturing users and squashing innovation. In the early days of the tech industry, startups hustled in a collective rivalry for funding, talent, and innovation. This produced a bubble of value and hype, but it also produced new technologies. Now the industry is more stable, but less open. When a new product or platform starts competing with Facebook, Facebook simply buys out the upstart company and adds it to its portfolio. Facebook on its own is huge, but combined with Instagram and WhatsApp, it’s a staggering monopoly. Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon have grown similarly massive in the same way, scooping up and absorbing hundreds of upstart companies. In the most recent ethos of Big Tech, the goal isn’t about competing to make the best products and services, it’s to consolidate control and eliminate competitors.

We need new narratives of what success looks like in tech. To get there, we need effective federal regulation, as well as grassroots pressure from users and tech workers. Urban developers might be able to make the most money by selling commercial properties to the highest bidders, but they could also turn a profit by prioritizing locally and POC-owned businesses. We should make similar demands of tech companies, by calling for business models that don’t surveil and exploit users for the sake of maximizing profits and building monopolies.

Digital culture has always been in flux. Technology changes, new platforms arrive, and old ones die out. Change itself isn’t the problem, it’s that digital culture has evolved to support the interests of a few, with a cost for the many. In cities, gentrification reflects a tipping of the scales towards developers and newcomers, and away from longtime residents and their culture. Similarly, big tech platforms are getting bigger while smaller platforms are struggling to survive. 

We can shift the scales and create a more equitable internet, but we need to think of ourselves as activists rather than consumers, and governments need to hold large companies accountable instead of giving them tax breaks. Otherwise we’ll be left with an internet that has replaced creativity and innovation with profiteering monopolies, where communities can only thrive if they can turn a profit, and where disadvantaged users end up more isolated and less diverse.

Artwork By

Carlo Giambaressi

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