The Internet City
A metaphor for participating in the online world
Little Saalik would jump with glee as the Windows XP logo blossomed on screen. Impatient, I’d shake my leg as the PC fans whirred to life. The nondescript metallic box was a gate to troves of knowledge, games based in alternate dimensions, and conversations with friends who lived far away.
Nestled in my childhood home, my Dad’s desktop was a portal to digital discovery.
Tech for Grown Ups
As I grew, so did my relationship with the internet. I felt the childhood spark fade, giving way to “grown-up responsibilities.”
In high school, I had naive designs to be a high-tech-super-smart-very-impactful-making-the-world-a-better-place startup founder. I had a sense that the internet could shape realities in inexplicably powerful ways. I wanted to be a shaper.
Being a shaper meant that the internet became a place to extract value. Every post and interaction was linked to perceived success. “How do I sell a million subscriptions to this rando on LinkedIn???”
There was a performative aspect that was decidedly high pressure. No wonder Twitter felt more like an arena than a playground.1
I laugh at my boyish ambitions now, but not because they weren’t serious. I still want to make a difference, but I’ve found a better version of the game. My mental model of the internet has changed — and it all relates to collaboration, generosity, and citizenship in The Internet City.
A Playful Metropolis
The internet is a connective technology. Ultimately, it’s a bunch of computers that send messages to each other. The internet’s entire existence reflects the natural human need to be social.
This reflection can’t be overlooked. The internet world is not separate from our physical reality. The two worlds carry into and out of each other. The line between them continues to blur.2
In the most innocuous way, we bring our values and energy from the physical world into online spaces. We collaborate with others over vast distances, timezones, and cultures.
The internet is a giant city. Playful elements abound.
Like New York, Tokyo, London, and Mumbai — The Internet City can be overwhelming and noisy.
Like New York, Tokyo, London, and Mumbai — The Internet City is full of secret, quiet corners.
Busy Squares and Construction Sites
I’ve started to think of each website I visit (and build) as a physical place. A website is a whole neighborhood, and each page is like an apartment building, or a shop. When I’m mindfully browsing the web, I like to look around and question: what kind of place is this? Is it a chic storefront? Is it a comfortable meeting spot?
To comprehend the scale of the internet, imagine that websites (neighborhoods) can be roughly grouped together into a city district. Here are a few of the districts, with AI art renderings of what they might look like.
Social Media Square is bustling. Connections are being made. Occasionally, shady business dealers throw pamphlets around. The noise is intense, and fights can break out. There are corners where uproarious laughter blossoms, and it’s easy to meet lots of people. (Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn)
Community Central has a bunch of cozy coffee shops and tea houses where friends or almost-friends gather to discuss deeply. These places might be quiet, and they might be buzzing. (Circle, Discourse)
Groupchat Corner is where collaborators huddle and friends chatter noisily. They’re sitting streetside, on plastic chairs, commiserating and laughing at some inside joke. (Telegram, WhatsApp, Signal)
Blog Base is a district with a collection of museums and art studios where people visit to have meaningful learning experiences, sometimes even getting to speak with the artists themselves. (Substack, WordPress sites)
Experiment Alley is stuffed with active construction. People here play with new ways to connect and share, reveling in the ability to build from scratch. (Bluesky, Mastodon, Farcaster)
There are far more districts in this vast metropolis: Work Street (Notion, Basecamp, Trello) and Mega Bazaar (Amazon, Walmart, Etsy) among them. I’m sure you’ve frequented others that I’ve missed.
Running The Internet City
Internet City’s got a couple features that make it totally different than cities in the physical world.
The distance between buildings and districts don’t matter here. You can pop in and out of them at will. All you need to know is the address. There are lots of companies dedicated to finding and presenting the best addresses to visit.
There’s also no mayor for the whole of The Internet City. Different districts operate with different protocols. Individual neighborhoods (websites) enforce their own standards, rules, and abilities.3
Each neighborhood powers itself, and keeps itself connected (or walled off) to the rest of the city. Server administrators and cloud hosting providers create connective highways and generate power to keep it running.
We, the City Builders
As you read this on your device connected to the internet, recognize that you are both a builder and participant of The Internet City.
You may be a developer, constructing towers or transit systems. You may be in sales, ushering people into boutique stores or a newly opened roller coaster. You might be a teacher, hosting a tai chi class in the park.
You may frequent a couple districts or hang out in all of them! Every word, song, or video that gives you delight is a moment of presence in the sprawl of digital humanity.
The Internet City is a more tangible place than “the web.” Within it, we notice how our contributions add to the fabric of humanity. Within it, we’re invited to experiment. Its happenings matter, not just within itself, but to the mental, emotional, and material worlds beyond.
Write that essay. Publish that podcast. Ship that software. I’ll see you on the city streets.
Thank you to Kaamil,, and Jackie for their invaluable feedback on this piece.
LET’S JAM IN THE COMMENTS 👇
Does this metaphor resonate with you? What district of The Internet City do you hang out in the most?
Recent product announcement makes this blurring of digital and physical worlds especially apparent.
Of course, governments in the physical world can block, restrict, and govern access to The Internet City. That’s usually blocking entry at a neighborhood (website) level. But no one has to ask a central authority to put something online.