I often tell people that the worst thing that happened to the internet was Steve Jobs. When Jobs invented the smartphone, essentially all traffic on the internet shifted from websites – which were often completely unique and substantive, as they require effort to produce – to being mediated by generic, superficial apps that are thoughtlessly produced and maintained. That is the point in time when the electronic void truly became a void. The internet suddenly had gatekeepers and mobs (which, let’s face it, are simply another form of gatekeeper), and they are brutally stupid and dishonest people that favor other brutally stupid and dishonest people.
I have watched something very interesting happen to my online life, such as it is, over the last several months: People stopped talking altogether. My Word Press reader feed is down to two people who make it a point to post daily, and that’s it. Everyone else has stopped writing blog posts. The stuff the company recommends for me to read in the absence of stuff I actually enjoyed reading has nothing to do with my interests or values. They have years of data on the sort of things I am interested in, but instead they are going to push an agenda. The end result is a downward spiral: people walk away, there is less valuable content to read, people walk away.
Likewise, my Facebook account, which I intend to deactivate today, is down to the same handful of people who post relentlessly- and it’s simply people who like to complain about politics all day to the exclusion of everything else in their lives. If I muted them all, my feed would be completely empty. (Interestingly enough, these are the same people who are always threatening to quit Facebook, but they never do, because this activity is their entire life. They can’t survive a single day without complaining about Trump or Biden, the deep state or the fascists-insurrectionists. They will give up every friend they ever knew for one more hit of self-righteous hate delivered to them on a silver platter from the three “news” sources they “trust.”) Everyone else has stopped chattering. Even the younger people have stopped checking in to post baby pictures.
Perhaps some of this is due to perceived censorship or the (accurate) sense that the algorithms these companies use to promote content favor some content over others. You can work very hard at writing something excellent and insightful, but what’s the point? Yet I think the problem is something a lot more basic than that: the internet has mostly become a toxic and vapid place, and there are simply better things to do with your one precious life than add to the digital landfill of whiners, complainers, and people advertising their bad decisions.
I tried returning to Facebook when we moved to a new town, and the platform was somehow even worse than when I deactivated my original account several years earlier. I found myself banned from the app after commenting on a community page that WAP was demeaning to women and that the women who have that view of themselves are engaging in objectively self-destructive behavior. In Zuckerberg’s world, that comment counts as “hate speech.” You don’t see his wife and the mother of his children out there talking about what a whore she is and beseeching you to come sniff her nether regions -she’s a pediatrician – but that is genuinely the world he wants other people to have to live in and you best play along. He doesn’t get to be an elite unless everyone else is rolling in the filth. But it’s not just people who are on the far-left politically that are full of such nonsense. If you are a cultural conservative, the anti-intellectual Trumpian “conservatives” on Facebook are pure hell to interact with as well, trying to bully, harass, and verbally bludgeon anyone who fails their increasingly idiotic purity tests or who doesn’t like their conspiracy and conspiracy-adjacent sites. It’s all just poison. It’s also all there is anymore. No fun, no substance – just poison, all day, every day. You can’t filter it out, because it’s a feature, not a bug, of online life.
Facebook and Google’s drama du jour is indicative of this very problem. Lawmakers in Australia and Canada want these companies to pay publishers (read: the news media) some stipend every time their content is shared online. It’s like the reverse of advertising – you are forced to pay to promote someone else. If people were actually clicking on the articles to read them, making money would not be a problem for publishers, as their traditional advertising model would function just fine. But social media is the land of the vapid, where people simply trade hysterical headlines that are often outright contradicted by the text of the article, which hardly anyone reads. Thus you end up with the perverse situation that news content is ubiquitous yet somehow unprofitable. This is how Facebook and Twitter have trained people to behave, and it’s a large part of why our society has become too stupid for self-governance. A nation of hysterical headline-readers eventually comes to believe some utterly bizarre shit, and they keep layering new bizarre shit on the old bizarre shit like a coral reef of collective insanity. There are people out there who are getting divorced and shunning their own family members because they aggressively reside in a world of fantasy, thanks mostly to their social media habits. I’m so far past wanting “fair” and “unbiased” social media platforms. I wish they would go away altogether.
I would like to think there is space for longform, well-reasoned content in our universe. However, as long as everything on the internet must pass through social media to be seen, there really isn’t.
Instead of spending another minute navigating this idiocy, I am going to focus my efforts on reading more books and educating our daughter as well as possible. Instead of scrolling through the endless, vapid bitchfest and humoring people who really aren’t ad idem at all, I am going to set aside time to pick up the phone and talk to people I love or who make me think. It’s going to be inconvenient, it’s going to take hours out of my schedule in block form, and it’s going to be fantastic.
Thanks to all the strangers out there who did take the time to read my long pieces over the years and who interacted with me on this space.