Hello there, traveler. I want you to reminisce with me about a time not too long ago. Envision a gallery of cat pictures and videos, displayed to you in one of the most bland, old-fashioned manner possible. Affix some tacky-looking button icons (you know the ones — close and minimize) to the top, right-hand corner.
It’s a pretty simple scene, right? Simple, functional, and filled with cats. This is the Internet I (more or less) grew up with. I used to boot up the ol’ family Gateway in order to play computer games. We eventually upgraded, and I was then able to peruse what the Internet at the time had to offer an aging elementary-schooler — websites like Neopets, simple Google image searches, and the ability to talk to my friends through the revolutionary concept of AOL’s instant messenger AIM. Good god, am I old.
Life was simple. Funnyjunk and eBaum’s World were two of the most risky websites I had access to (for my own sanity, we will not be mentioning… Quizilla… *shudders*). Content ranged from the ridiculous race car video and cats doing dumb, funny things. Youtube, when it came about, was even more so a collection of cats doing virtually everything and anything. Going through the Internet of old while writing this blog post has reminded me of so many good memories….
Then along came social media.
Oh, god, how I wish I’d hear booing.
Cue the rise of virality, blatant narcissism, misinformation. Mindless sharing. Reposts on reposts. Duplication of information. Algorithmic takeover. “Cancel” culture.
The decrease in privacy, attention spans, value of information and credibility, relevance. Mindfulness and thoughtful engagement. Respect for one another and differing ideas and perspectives.
Yeah, I’m definitely a naysayer. Social media is a nightmare, and I want my cat picture Internet back.
An Algorithmic New World
Algorithms run every single aspect of our lives. SEO and rankings reign supreme. The second page of Google search results has earned the title “dreaded”, and more often than not contains results irrelevant to even the most sophisticated of queries. Reposting, retweeting, and “karma farming” killed originality and authenticity. Clickbait runs rampant, unpunished.
…I’ll throw up if you allow me to go on, traveler.
Despite all this, we’ve eaten it up all the same. And in consuming this content, we’ve created a positive feedback loop that force-feeds us even more content. Algorithms determine what we like based on our engagement. Marketing campaigns also gauge our interest with targeted A-B testing. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram present us with ads and accounts and posts with the same zeal as a child who’s parent told them once they liked something they found. You like this? Here’s more of it, tenfold. It’s like telling an acquaintance a single thing about yourself, and it becomes your sole identity. …Well, it’s actually kind of exactly like that.
“Welcome to the Internet /… / Could I interest you in everything? / All of the time?”
— Bo Burnham, “Welcome to the Internet”
There’s endless content to consume, but social media algorithms determine that we only want to see pieces of it. Furthermore, social media is the curator of said content. We need not, at this point, look past the borders of our timelines. It’s all curated for and fed straight to us as though we were hatchlings receiving meals. How apropos of the Twitter mascot.
As such, we have turned into a population obsessed with the consumption of content. Esquire writer Luke O’Neil likens the Internet to the Great Sphinx of Egypt, devouring all in its wake. We, however, essentially spit back out information as soon as we ingest it, given that nothing truly sticks anymore. Ask me about things I’ve come across on Twitter or Reddit lately. I’m sure I won’t be able to give you specifics. Ingest, spit out, move on, repeat. It’s a wonder we can retain anything at all anymore.
O’Neil attributes the end of an era — or, more pessimistically, the end of the Internet itself — with the breakthrough of viral stories and content. I personally blame Social Media™ for giving viral content an environment to thrive in. And I think social media is the reason we can’t truly have nice things anymore.
Take pause for a moment, traveler, as I’m getting ahead of myself. I want to inject my whole opinion before I continue whining about the Internet’s current state of affairs. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I’m a sucker for Twitter. Twitter’s my “drug of choice”. This stupid bird app allows me to keep in contact with friends whom I no longer live in the same state as, and allows me to follow artists I look up to, admire, and don’t even live in the same continent as. Social media, when harnessed and utilized correctly, can be a huge proponent of change. It can create safe spaces and comfortable environments for those who may otherwise be shunned and unwelcome. Those without influence, wealth, or high privilege have just as much as a right to post and communicate as anyone else, as well as having an equal opportunity and ability to do so. Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding can also be accomplished by means of social media, and artists can thrive and make a living off of commissions that are publicized and circulated throughout social media.
It’s obviously a conduit for connection in its every form, but — like all things — there are both positives and negatives.
So What’s Your Issue with Social Media?
Social Media Killed the Internet…
Well, to be more specific, it killed my Internet.
Hossein Derakhshan, dubbed “blogfather”, explains that social media apps are inward-facing. Like neat little boxes wrapped up in their app packaging, platforms like Facebook and Instagram and Twitter alike function independently of the network of the web. “A blind webpage, one without hyperlinks,” he says, “can’t look or gaze at another webpage”. This omnipotent “gaze” that he refers to breathes life into external pages.
You know that old thought experiment that asks “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound”? Let me modernize it a bit: If no one’s visiting or reading through your webpage, does its existence matter?
Let me answer that riddle with another quote from Derakhshan.
“But apps like Instagram are blind — or almost blind. Their gaze goes nowhere except inwards, reluctant to transfer any of their vast powers to others, leading them into quiet deaths. The consequence is that web pages outside social media are dying.”
His opinion piece is titled “The Web We Have to Save“. My post’s title shows that I’m clearly convinced it’s already ruined. Social media is the reason I have to beg people “IRL” (in real life) to visit my websites.
…And Our Intelligence
I’d love for a study to be performed on that notion. There’s always a rivalry amongst generations, and the older generation always accuses the younger generation of “getting dumber”. I’d love to say I wasn’t a statistic in that notion.
Perhaps I should rephrase. Social media has killed our attention spans, our ability to function without distraction, and has also made us inward-facing. We are constantly bombarded by notification after notification. Post by post. Shiny new morsels of information flood our eyeballs every five seconds as we scroll on forever and ever, into oblivion. We are constantly stuck in the present, and we are constantly consuming. Open up, baby bird. To paraphrase Bo Burnham, “Daddy made your favorite“.
Oh, look! Another cat.
To make matters worse, this algorithm-curated content that’s shoved down our throats is fed to us in a crafted, purposeful way. “Reverse chronological” order has been utilized by every platform, feeding us updates second by second as they come in like hot cross buns fresh out of the oven. What’s current and present now is what’s relevant; nothing else. Older content quite literally gets pushed out of sight, requiring manual effort and labor on our parts to flick a scroll wheel or swipe a thumb to be un- or recovered.
This type of cognition is what Clive Thompson refers to as “present-mindedness” — and it’s keeping us stunted. “A culture that is stuck in the present,” he warns, “is one that can’t solve big problems”.
Jonathan Haidt and Tobais Rose-Stockwell argue that social media and “reverse chron” reduce the sharing of older information and wisdoms passed on by generations. We’re so focused on what’s viral, what’s funny, what’s outrageous, that these wisdoms are being forgotten. This ability to be insightful and ponder the past to better prepare for the future has been replaced with “ha ha funny meme” mentalities. Haidt and Rose-Stockwell warn that the younger generations will have “less opportunity to acquire older ideas and information before plugging themsleves into the social-media stream”.
Perhaps we are getting dumber.
Nostalgia for Nice Things
Traveler, I have admittedly done a great deal of ranting and raving. I apologize. Allow me the opportunity to thank you for navigating this mindset with me. I can’t help but yearn for a time where relevancy wasn’t tied to things like “currentness”, “presentness”, and algorithmically calculated “rankings”. When I know exactly what I’m looking for and can’t find it due to the irrelevant results Google or Reddit or Twitter thinks might best serve me, I can’t help but become frustrated and reluctant for a time since passed.
Reverse chron has made us complacent with dwelling in the present. Platforms have become pedestals for anyone who wants to broadcast any concept, idea, or thought. Virality numbs the brain. Sometimes I wonder if we as a whole control our phones, or if we’ve devolved into mindless zombies whose phones do all the thinking and functioning for us.
But, as I mentioned, social media can be — and has been — used for “good”. Rather, it’s been used productively. We can keep in contact with people we’d otherwise never necessarily get in touch with. Ideas can be shared and collaboration can happen across the globe. Causes can gain traction and support. Support systems can be cultivated and safe spaces nurtured for those that might need them. Every time I log into my art Twitter I’m reminded of all the “good” things social media can accomplish, and part of my steel-clad heart melts just a little bit.
Perhaps my assessment that social media is the reason we can’t have nice things is a little harsh. The thing I always come back to is nostalgia for simplicity. Talking on AIM. Watching a handful of stupid videos from time to time — with absolutely no context, and no incentive behind them. We were just a collection of fun-loving idiots posting ridiculous things into an abstract collection of wires, datasets, proxies, and electricity. I miss being able to find things in a single set of keystrokes. That, and not needing to insert “-pinterest” to the end of every query for Pinterest results to still(!) come through and ruin the quality of my query results. Ugh.
Incidentally, I still keep tangible artifacts due to my nostalgia for the “old-fashioned”. Today I came across an ID card for PAX East 2019. I have a box dedicated to artifacts like playbills, concert passes, movie tickets, and the like. I put it with the rest of my memorabilia, and am now wondering to myself when those things will also be digitized. Moreover, I wonder what the implications of purchasing a digital badge will entail in the future. I can’t say I’m too optimistic about it.
My biggest fear is that one day this notion of “no nice things” will turn into “social media is the reason we no longer have nice things”. Give me that one luxury, traveler, and allow me to whisper on my dying breath as I succumb to reality of things the following words:
“I told you so.”
Some Personal Solace
In writing this blog post, I wanted to check in on the integrity of a Google images search I’m… quite fond of (meaning this is a query near and dear to both my heart and childhood). I am please to report the maintained accuracy of this query, which both warmed my heart to note — and warmed my heart… to gaze upon this beautiful man that I love. (Fight me, he’s fictional and that’s that makes him *perfect*.) There are virtually no Pinterest links, and there aren’t hundreds of results of a singular image duplicated hundreds of times across a myriad of websites (which would all be of varying quality). No, the status of this Images query has remained intact, and I’m proud to say that even some of my own contributionsSlide 2Slide 3 have been added to the results.
It was a nice surprise checking in on this during the writing of this blog post. It feels as though a piece of my childhood Internet has remained intact, which satiates my nostalgia for a the current moment.
Too bad no one but me is performing this query.