On Saturday evening, after a lovely walk along Regent’s Canal, I found myself at a loose end in Camden. Wonderful, I thought, I’m in one of the liveliest parts of London. There will be lots going on – I might go to an impromptu gig or a comedy night. Let me just google what’s going on tonight.
A good 45 minutes later, I was tired and desperate, and my phone battery was almost dead. Searching the internet for “live music in Camden tonight” had resulted in an overwhelming barrage of content: listings on dodgy-looking websites that screamed pop-ups when clicked; maps lists that insisted on trying to download other apps before loading them; ticket sites for major music venues whose gigs had sold out months in advance; reviews of events that sounded ideal until I realized they had already happened; and of course tons of sponsored posts that are almost indistinguishable from the real thing. I gave up and just wandered into the first pub that had a “live music here” sign on the door.
Since then, I’ve tried and failed to use the internet to: buy artificial flowers that I can use for a costume party (Amazon shows me dozens of nearly identical listings that aren’t what I want but have clearly hacked the keywords); clarify the legal terms of a contract I’ve been asked to sign (I get directed to law firm blogs that make my head spin with legalese and then try to sell me services); and researching Japanese knotweed (apparently it’s a culture war issue now). It was all too much – the pop-ups, the cookies, the sponsored posts, the tracking requests. It’s exhausting and disheartening and upsetting.
It didn’t used to be like this. I know I sound about a hundred years old, but I remember when the internet was useful. Not just useful – magic. Every answer to every question is at your fingertips. Yes, I remember teachers warning us that Wikipedia was not a reliable source of scholarship, but for the everyday, it worked. Recipes, travel guides, instructions for fixing things, recommendations for cool things to read and see and do.
Now it’s a mess. I’m not entirely sure what broke it, but I’ve read quite a few articles and tweets over the past few years about how SEO hacks and machine learning have ruined search engines. Google’s algorithm has basically started eating itself: if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, it can’t help you, and even if you do, it’ll try to push all kinds of irrelevant nonsense down your browser before you find the.
And it’s not just about Google either. Twitter may not have completely collapsed under the weight of Elon Musk’s aggressive revamp, but trolls and spambots are thriving while the algorithm recommends increasingly bizarre posts to me (no, I’m not interested in reviews of reality TV shows I haven’t seen from the media I never heard of unfollowing, or in crypto scams getting DMed to me daily). Facebook is a graveyard of cultivated content and ghostly memories from a time when posting blurry pictures from a night out was considered a central part of the student experience. Instagram is just LinkedIn for wannabe influencers. LinkedIn is… well, LinkedIn.
As for the rest of the internet – the fan communities, the random blogs, the weird little niche sites dedicated to board games or alternatively fashion or snow ocelots – I’m sure some still exist somewhere. It’s just that they’ve become increasingly difficult to find unless you already know exactly where they are.
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I’m not alone in feeling that something, somewhere, has gone wrong. “I have no idea what to do online anymore,” laments the journalist (and New statesman columnist) Marie Le Conte in her latest book Escape: How a Generation Shaped, Destroyed, and Survived the Internet. The boundless serendipity of the early online world has gradually been subordinated to the major social media platforms (you know, the ones that cash in on our outrage and angst). Like me, Le Conte came of age at the same time as the world wide web did, and has seen the anarchic, atomized wild west of the Noughties being overwhelmed by a few giant websites that have tamed it, sanitized it and made it completely unrecognizable. – funny. Everyone who spends time online now hangs out on the same platforms, which has had a detrimental effect on how those platforms feel: “Our spaces make us feel tense because we never feel really safe in them anymore. Our internet is both open and flat , and it’s not a nice place to be.”
My struggles to find a gig in Camden are part of the same trend. Somewhere along the way, the idea that the internet existed to be useful to us has morphed into an understanding that we exist to be useful to it, mostly so that we can be sold to or manipulated in some way. I never minded the saying “if you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product” because I felt like I was at least getting something of value – you can have my details as long as you show me what I’m looking for. Now it’s a different game. We are being datamined and provoked and trolled, and for what? So we can continue to be datamined and provoked and trolled, in the futile hope that at the end of it all there might be someone who can explain what “vacant possession” means in language that doesn’t sound like it came from a legal entity. textbook.
There’s been so much hype that ChatGPT (now six months old) and other chatbots are destroying our jobs and making fact-checking impossible, and now experts are warning that artificial intelligence could lead to human extinction. But I don’t think we need to be so hyperbolic to see how technology is destroying something precious: itself. Or rather the version of yourself that felt like a magic spell back in 2006 when you could ask “what should I do tonight?” and it would tell you. I don’t think it’s coming back – all the incentives are skewed, the tech giants are too powerful, the algorithms have a life of their own and there’s no stopping them. The internet now keeps us on it as long as possible, not by being helpful or engaging but by simply eliminating all options. This is it: the pop-ups and the trolls and the sponsored posts have won.
Oh well. There’s always Wikipedia.
(See also: The Reeves Doctrine: Labour’s plan for power)