Gentrification is Coming for the Internet

While the internet often feels like the Wild West, the truth is that it’s becoming more and more consolidated by Big Tech companies—it’s becoming gentrified, argues communications professor Jessa Lingel in her new book, The Gentrification of the Internet. “When Facebook monopolizes someone’s entire experience of being online, their control isn’t just technological, it’s social, cultural, and political,” she writes.

Last month, I spoke with Jessa Lingel about digital gentrification for an interview that aired on community radio. We talked about how Big Tech contributes to both urban and digital gentrification, the practice of digital redlining, and why it’s important to keep imagining another kind of internet. The following interview excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with the big picture that you outline in the book. You use the metaphor of gentrification to explain major shifts in digital spaces. What exactly is gentrification? And what do its champions and critics say about it?

Yellow book cover of The Gentrification of the Internet by Jessa Lingel.

Gentrification is such a loaded term, and anyone who’s lived in a gentrifying neighborhood, or a city that has gentrifying neighborhoods, is probably familiar with both sides. On the one hand, you have real estate developers and wealthy people who think gentrification is awesome—it’s just bringing more money to a neighborhood that didn’t have a lot of money. It’s also bringing new business opportunities, new investment opportunities, and what they mean is, usually a small number of white folks will move into a neighborhood where most residents are people of color or people with fewer economic resources. And the white folks who move in don’t just move in, they also bring new businesses with them and sometimes they demand changes around the quality of life: different relationships with the police, different expectations of how a park might look, for example.

What happens over time is that that neighborhood starts to have less of its original character and takes on the character of these newcomers. And that’s where you get to the other side of gentrification, where longtime residents don’t see things in terms of investment opportunities or economic redevelopment—they see things like being pushed out of their neighborhood because they can no longer afford increasing property taxes. And they also see their neighborhood transformed before their eyes: businesses that had been around a long time suddenly close. Schools close or new charter schools open up. So a neighborhood where folks and their families might have lived for generations suddenly becomes unfamiliar in order to meet the needs of this new crop of residents.

Applying this to the digital space, you identify three ways that the internet is becoming gentrified: displacement, isolation, and commercialization. Can you unpack those for us? How does gentrification go from being in an urban space to being in an online space?

Those three components of gentrification are what emerged for me when I started realizing that gentrification isn’t just something that you see in city streets, it’s also something that you see online. So displacement in urban environments happens when people who have lived in a neighborhood for a long time can’t afford to be there anymore. And that usually happens on an economic level, either because they can no longer afford to live there (due to high rent and property taxes) or it simply becomes more lucrative for them to sell their business or home than it does for them to try and stay there.

When Facebook monopolizes someone’s entire experience of being online, their control isn’t just technological, it’s social, cultural, and political.

Online, people get displaced in two different ways. One is when entire communities without many resources are forced to compete with big platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Platforms like Tumblr, for example, or older platforms like BME (a community for body modification) just can’t survive in a world where users expect the features and technical support that you can get on Facebook. Besides entire platforms getting displaced, people within platforms can get displaced simply because they are outside the norm of what that platform imagines. An example is when women journalists get kicked off Twitter, or kick themselves off Twitter because they are so tired of harassment and the platform doesn’t protect them. Another is when artists or musicians get kicked off Facebook. These are individual cases of displacement where folks don’t meet the standard of what Facebook deems normal user behavior, or they’re using the platform in a way that the designers hadn’t anticipated.

There’s also commercialization. I want to be clear: the internet has always been used to make money from the very early days. But you do see a shift around 2008, after the financial recession, where the number of people in Silicon Valley who were looking to build cool technology first and get rich second has really shifted. Now the idea is let’s see how much money you can make first, and the creativity, the innovation, really does come second. That sort of replicates what you see with gentrification in an urban neighborhood. All these new businesses pop up, and people who felt like their needs were getting met just fine suddenly have to contend with businesses that clearly aren’t meant for them, that are catering to a very different group of people.

The last component is isolation. If you live in a gentrifying neighborhood, you can have neighbors who live side by side but go to different churches, send their kids to different schools, go to different restaurants, shop at different grocery stores, all because gentrification is catering to one group of people (usually people who have more money) over others. We see different kinds of isolation that also happen in online platforms where, because of the business model that social media companies have, which involves targeted advertising, people get labeled and categorized in ways that lead us to become more isolated. It’s like a filter bubble.

Screenshot of YouTube menu displaying "Home" and "Trending" icons
YouTube menu showing “Home” and “Trending” icons. Photo by Christian Wiediger, 2018.

Think of it this way: if I’m genuinely curious about climate change and I happen to stumble on a “climate change is a hoax” video on YouTube, I’m not then going to see a video about how climate change is real—I’m only going to see more videos about climate change being a hoax. These algorithms, which are really meant to keep you on a platform for as long as possible and help advertisers target you, are actually making us more isolated in terms of the kinds of viewpoints and perspectives we encounter.

Sometimes digital gentrification isn’t just a metaphor. Big Tech companies tend to have a major influence on the cities where they set up shop. Can you get into that for us?

Absolutely. I’m from Northern California, which is not just ground zero for Silicon Valley but offers a front-row seat for gentrification in urban areas. My friends who still live there talk about how impossible it is for them to buy a house. One of the reasons is that anyone from the tech industry who wants to buy a house in San Francisco has just upped the game for everyone else. So there are these ripple effects for working-class people, and even what we would consider middle-class Californians have to contend with rising property values. You really can lay that at the feet of Big Tech, you really can say, “Big Tech workers have made San Francisco unaffordable for entire groups of people who used to be able to live and work and raise families there.”

Gentrification is not just a metaphor, it is actually a thing that the tech industry is contributing to, and they do that by setting up headquarters in a city or by making it very easy for their employees to work in a city. For example, there was a famous case of Google sending its private buses to San Francisco to pick up employees and then drive them directly to Google headquarters. These buses were using public infrastructure, but they were only available to a tiny segment of the population. And so that’s an instance where big companies like Google have made a real impact on the cities where they have set up shop. And they haven’t given back nearly as much as they have taken when it comes to local resources and infrastructure. 

People in yellow traffic vests stand in front of a bus with a sign that reads "Warning: illegal use of public infrastructure."
San Francisco activists protest privately-owned shuttle buses that transport workers for tech companies such as Google from their homes in San Francisco and Oakland to corporate campuses in Silicon Valley. Photo by Chris Martin, 2013.

That’s one example I offer to people who aren’t sure if this gentrification metaphor really holds up for digital culture. In that case, there was a very direct correlation between tech and gentrification, not just in terms of the prices and who can afford to live there but also in terms of the culture of the city. So when it comes to new businesses springing up, or the kinds of jobs that people can expect to get in the city, let alone the rents that people can expect to pay, we can really look at Big Tech and say that they played a huge role in transforming major cities not just in Northern California but elsewhere in the United States and in other countries as well.

You talk about forms of digital surveillance, such as platforms or internet service providers (ISPs) collecting data about you to share with the government or with advertising agencies. Some people hear “surveillance” and it raises immediate alarm bells. But there are other people who think, “Well, so what? I’m not up to anything suspicious online. So why does it matter?” Can you explain what’s at stake when it comes to digital privacy?

I was very influenced by a book by Daniel Solove called Nothing to Hide where he talks about this idea, like “I’m not doing anything weird or kooky on the internet. So why is it a problem? Why would I mind surveillance if I’m not doing anything outside the norm?” He argues that privacy is really something that we’re all a part of. What I like to say in these moments is, yes, you might be fine with the amount of privacy that Facebook takes away from you, you might be fine with the surveillance that mainstream platforms do—you might even think it’s convenient. But you have to ask yourself, Is this surveillance harming the same people who are usually harmed in our society? What I mean by that are people of color, LGBTQ folks, poor folks. 

Gentrification isn’t just something you see in city streets, it’s also something you see online.

So another very direct line between gentrification in city streets and gentrification on the internet has to do with something called digital redlining. Redlining originally was a set of banking practices where whole groups of people were excluded from being able to own or rent property. They were sort of like maps that banks and realtors drew, saying, we’re not going to lend here. We’re not going to lend to people of color here. It’s a very clear system of racist exclusion from wealth. Digital redlining is when people of color, or poor folks, or people without a college education are excluded from seeing certain kinds of ads about banking or about education or about housing. And that’s effectively doing the same thing as redlining, only using the tools of digital surveillance to collect information about people and then exclude them from seeing certain ads. So even if we individually think that our online privacy isn’t that important to us, if we’re participating in a system that harms the same people who are so often harmed in our society, then we have to ask these questions. This isn’t a relationship between one individual and the platform, it’s a relationship between the platform and all of us.

The subtitle of your book is “How to Reclaim Our Digital Freedom.” So what does digital freedom look like to you? Why does this all matter?

Protester dressed as Spiderman in front of U.S. Capitol holds a sign that reads "Warning! Delete Facebook"
A protester dressed as Spiderman holds a sign that says “Warning! Delete Facebook” in Washington, DC. Photo by Lorie Shaull, 2018.

To me, digital freedom means being able to see yourself in the platforms that you use and feeling like there’s a path for you to speak back to these companies that have such an outsized influence on our online lives. So there are a couple steps that people can take that I outline in the book, including very small steps like diversifying your online content and resisting the algorithm by deliberately following people. I also provide a long list of the different organizations that are doing amazing work fighting back in urban gentrification as well as online gentrification.

I believe it’s important to learn about the internet’s past for the same reason that I believe it’s important to learn how smaller, non-dominant platforms do things. Otherwise, the Facebook model of what the internet should look and feel like, or, you know, the Comcast version of what the internet should look and feel like, those are always going to win. They foreclose our imaginations and make it impossible to see other versions of the internet. This matters because otherwise we are going to learn what the internet is supposed to do from the people who are going to gain the most from it.

Featured image: Orange reflective architecture. Photo by Alex Wong, 2015.

Jessa Lingel is an associate professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. She is the author of Digital Countercultures and the Struggle for Community (MIT Press, 2017), An Internet for the People: The Politics and Promise of Craigslist (Princeton University Press, 2020), and The Gentrification of the Internet: How to Reclaim Our Digital Freedom (University of California Press, 2021). Website. Contact.

Richelle Wilson is the managing editor of Edge Effects and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She also works as a talk producer at community radio station WORT 89.9 FM. TwitterContact.