Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Internet Has Lost Its Joy

Alex Balk, in the Awl in 2015:

I have previously shared with you Balk’s Law (“Everything you hate about The Internet is actually everything you hate about people”) and Balk’s Second Law (“The worst thing is knowing what everyone thinks about anything”). Here I will impart to you Balk’s Third Law: “If you think The Internet is terrible now, just wait a while.” 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. I like to think of myself as an optimist, but I have a hard time seeing a future where anything gets better. Do you know why? Because everything is terrible and only getting worse. We won’t all be dead in twenty years, but we’ll all wish we were. I used to have hopes that once the Internet got completely unbearable some of the smart people would peel off and start something new, but with each passing day it seems ever less likely. (If anyone peels off to start something new it’s going to be teens, and we know what idiots they are.) No, the Internet is going to keep getting worse and there will be no chance for escape. It’s a massive torrent of sewage blasted at you at all hours and you pay handsomely for the privilege of having a hand-held cannon you carry with you at all times to spray more shit-sludge at yourself whenever you’re bored or anxious. Some of you sleep with it right next to your head in case you wake in the middle of the night and need to deliver another turgid shot to your wide-open mouth.

Clio Chang referenced Balk in a piece for Gen:

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 Awl, Rookie, 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.

There may be an element of rosy retrospection to Chang’s piece, but the thesis of the argument fully summarizes a decade-long shift: the internet really has lost joy — lightness and vibrancy have been upended and replaced by gravitas. A veneer of marketing coats surfaces already soaked in cynicism. It becomes increasingly difficult to choose our own web adventure as it is more frequently dictated by opaque recommendations.

I am an optimistic person; this stuff can be changed. I’ve been writing about the misplaced trust of an advertising-driven techno-utopia for most of this decade, and I’m encouraged by the increasing awareness of its faults. Correcting these problems doesn’t require us to entirely give up on social media, or advertising, or smartphone apps, or any of that stuff. The 2020s should be marked by a conscientious effort to bring the fun back. It will be a slow process, but I think it has already begun.