The Decade the Internet Lost Its Joy

What began as cheerful anarchy was devoured by vulture capital and ruthless consolidation

At the beginning of 2015, Alex Balk, then-editor of the now-defunct website the Awl, wrote a post of advice for young people in which he supplied three laws about the internet. The first: “Everything you hate about The Internet is actually everything you hate about people.” The second: “The worst thing is knowing what everyone thinks about anything.” But Balk’s third law was most prescient, especially as we end this miserable decade: “If you think The Internet is terrible now, just wait a while.” He went on: “The moment you were just in was as good as it got. The stuff you shake your head about now will seem like fucking Shakespeare in 2016.” Reader, we’ve waited a while, and today it seems indisputable that Balk’s law has held: The 2010s is the decade when the internet lost its joy.

The internet was always bad, but at least it used to be fun. At the start of this decade, being online still had less of the feeling of chaotic good than the years preceding it, but it wasn’t yet consumed by the monolithic forces that rule today’s web. Since the turn of the millennium, we’ve been used to the flood of emerging platforms — Myspace, Xanga, Friendster, Napster, Flickr, Tumblr, Neopets — each vying to be a better version of the last.

As user experience became more seamless, we began to miss the internet’s seams

By 2010, personal blogs were thriving, Tumblr was still in its prime, and meme-makers were revolutionizing with form. Snapchat was created in 2011 and Vine, the beloved six-second video app, was born in 2012. People still spent time posting to forums, reading daily entries on sites like FML, and watching Shiba Inus grow up on 24-hour puppy cams. On February 26, 2015—a day that now feels like an iconic marker of the decade — millions of people on the internet argued about whether a dress was blue or gold, and watched live video of two llamas on the lam in suburban Arizona. Sites like Gawker, the AwlRookie, the Hairpin, and Deadspin still existed. Until they didn’t. One by one, they were destroyed by an increasingly unsustainable media ecosystem built for the wealthy.

As user experience became more seamless, we began to miss the internet’s seams. We used to begrudgingly click through individual pages and archives — now everything has an infinite scroll. Where we once felt in control of the amount of a site we wanted to see, feeds now pull us down and down into the ever-widening abyss. Uh oh! Our phones tell us like the babies we are, You’ve reached your time limit! Insatiable and hungry for the next tok, we crush the hourglass with one tap of the “ignore” button.

Ten years ago, niche platforms prioritizing user-generated content were still able to flourish. But people could also enjoy themselves on the bigger, more wretched sites like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. In its early years, Twitter had Weird Twitter, a new home of sorts for the inside joke-filled-forum Something Awful. Now it is best known as the platform that refuses to moderate its white supremacists.

In 2010, Facebook had 500 million users. Today, that number has risen to an unfathomable 2.4 billion, and the company has hoovered up other major platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp. Before influencers existed, teens of yore — the best and worst users of each internet era — could go viral thoughtlessly. Now, they are pressured to market themselves, whether they want to or not.

As someone best described it to me recently, the internet has moved from a flat ecosystem — with a multitude of smaller, trusted communities — to a vertical one, with everyone being pushed together into the same few platforms (investor parlance termed it FAANG — Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google), all in the pursuit of data collection and ad revenue. Yahoo purchased Tumblr in 2013 and promised “not to screw it up.” Both companies were later scooped up by Verizon who later passed Tumblr off to WordPress. Vine was acquired by Twitter ahead of its launch in 2013, which subsequently shut the platform down in 2016. The fact that being online feels less fun is a serious matter. Today, Democratic presidential candidates incorporate breaking up big tech as central parts of their platforms, and the general public has finally come to understand that these monopolies only know how to do one thing: eat hot chip and lie.

Where we once felt in control of the amount of a site we wanted to see, feeds now pull us down and down into the ever-widening abyss. Uh oh! Our phones tell us like the babies we are, You’ve reached your time limit!

The internet still contains fragments of joy, because people still do. (They did surgery on a grape!) Weird videos continue to proliferate on apps like Tik Tok, which New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino recently described as “the last sunny corner on the Internet.” But on a systemic level, it’s impossible to ignore the immense effect of capitalistic forces on how we experience the internet today. The pockets of fun will continue to erode until we are all flattened into a single pancake of behavioral data. To rediscover joy on the internet will mean reforming it entirely. When Deadspin was shuttered by its private equity-instilled bosses earlier this year, I blogged that instead of looking backward, we needed to imagine something entirely different. The same goes for the internet as a whole — we need a digital world that is built to take care of us instead of profit from us.

It’s true that every generation is too easily fleeced by the nostalgia of the Good Internet of yesteryear. But if every new moment of the internet feels like the worst one, it’s because it is. Just take, for example, myFacebook from the beginning of this decade. In the pursuit of truth for this piece, I recently scoured my posts going nearly 10 years back, where I found this status update: “We’re all just babies with internet access.” Now that, my good bitch, is Shakespeare indeed.

All Rights Reserved for Clio Chang

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