the internet is local

the internet is local
New York, George Bellows (1911)

Every day I wake up and the first thing I do is check my phone. I know I'm not unique in this. I do it because it's where my friends are; I do it because I'm still waiting for the email that I know will change my life. I do it because that's where life happens — because the boundaries between online and offline don't really exist anymore. Unless you, like a good friend of mine, are smart enough to regularly attend silent retreats.

To be clear I don't think this is a bad thing, necessarily. I grew up online, surfing forums and chatting on AIM in the dark. Back when the boundaries between real life and online life were less porous. I don't miss those days, not really, because I've always been a person who's fascinated by the future; and this present was one of them, once upon a time.

What I do miss is the relative simplicity of life online in the past. The internet ages in dog years; its rock strata are compressed on a very short timeline. Things feel like they're happening quickly, accelerating, even as the pace of life itself stays the same. (A year is a year, etc.) I feel like the present era — the post-Pangea 'net, so to speak — is the start of another geologic age.

As the internet fragments, and as algorithms sort us into insular and more insulated bubbles, it seems like people are angrier and more outraged. Like the stakes are higher, somehow. I think that's partly because of the narcissism of small differences and partly because it's now nearly impossible for one person to dominate the conversation — The capital-d Discourse, or whatever. You can only go viral in smaller and smaller forums.

Returning to those smaller communities, of course, is a return to the past. To remember AIM or MySpace is to remember that popularity was primarily defined locally; you were famous among people you knew and sort of knew, which is to say you were famous within a few degrees of separation. If you made it to the national stage, it was because you'd been recognized by the gatekeepers of national fame — the major label A&Rs, the directors, and the journalists. After social media put us all together on three or four websites, that calculus changed. The gatekeepers disappeared, replaced by algorithmic fame; and the notion arose that you could become nationally and internationally famous just by posting enough stuff that got stuck in the algorithm, on whichever site you preferred.

Even so, eventually things started to change. Some social platforms became less relevant, for one reason or another; downranking news, maybe, or algorithmic change of the sort that's hard for individuals to adapt to. Or even rapid, inscrutable changes by the kind of leadership that can't ever be held accountable by users, advertisers, or governments. Regardless of the cause, there was a splintering. The problem was that all those years without gatekeepers had irreparably damaged the old ways of doing things. Because the rise of the platforms had changed the business models of the institutions that had previously been cultural gatekeepers. Which has meant that it's become impossible for people, ideas, and news to break through — to be nationally or internationally relevant.

It has lead to the internet feeling like a cacophony, all noise and no signal, even as there are legitimately important things happening outside of all the algorithmically-sorted bubbles. People post in the old, global way — deploying strong emotions to maximize engagement — even though that model has gone away. To be a bit less abstract: how long has it been since The Dress? How relevant is Mr Beast, anyway? What happened to PewDiePie?


Of course we've had Couch Guy and Stanley Tumblers in the meantime. But those feel different to me. And I think it might be because those trends, such as they were, were driven by a bunch of individuals who used them to raise their profiles. Regardless, it doesn't particularly matter; things are palpably different now. The vibes feel off because we haven't yet reached a new understanding of how things are different. We're posting globally in local fora. Eventually we'll adapt, as we always do.

I think what I miss the most form the last era of online is the sense that I could see and understand at least a small piece of the wider internet. And I think now that window has shattered.


things i'm consuming this week:

Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry Into the Limits of the Possible, Arthur C. Clarke