By | November 13, 2023
Why the Internet Isn't Fun Anymore

Lately on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, my timeline is filled with silly posts revolving around the same few topics as water swirling down a drain. Last week, for example, chat time was dominated by talk of Taylor Swift’s romance with football player Travis Kelce. If you tried to talk about anything else, the platform’s algorithmic flow seemed to sweep you into irrelevance. Users paying for Elon Musk’s blue-check verification system now dominate the platform, often with far-right comments and outright misinformation; Musk rewards these users monetarily based on the engagement their posts drive, regardless of their veracity. The system’s decay is evident in the spread of fake news and misbranded videos related to Hamas’ attack on Israel.

Elsewhere on the web, it’s just as bleak. Instagram’s feed powers months-old posts and product ads instead of photos from friends. Google search is cluttered with junk results, and SEO hackers have wreaked havoc fool to add “Reddit” to searches to find human-generated answers. Meanwhile, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, in its latest bid for relevance, is reportedly developing artificial intelligence chatbots with various “cool” personalities that will be added to its apps, including a D. & D. Dungeon Master role-playing game based on Snoop Dogg. The prospect of interacting with such a character sounds about as appealing as texting one of those spambots asking you if they have the right number.

The social media web as we knew it, a place where we consumed our fellow man’s posts and posted in return, seems to be over. X’s precipitous decline ushers in a new era of the Internet that just feels less fun than it used to be. Do you remember having fun online? It meant stumbling onto a website you never imagined existed, getting a meme you hadn’t already seen a dozen times back, and maybe even playing a little video game in your browser. These experiences don’t seem to be as readily available now as they were a decade ago. In large part, this is because a handful of giant social networks have taken over the open space of the Internet, centralizing and homogenizing our experiences through their own opaque and shifting content sorting systems. When these platforms expire, as Twitter has done under Elon Musk, there is no other comparable platform in the ecosystem that can replace them. Some alternative sites, including Bluesky and Discord, have tried to absorb disgruntled Twitter users. But sprouting on the rainforest floor, blocked by the canopy, online spaces that offer new experiences lack much room to grow.

A Twitter friend told me about the platform’s current state, “I’ve actually experienced quite a bit of grief over it.” It may seem strange to feel such longing over a website that users commonly refer to as a “hell site”. But I’ve heard the same from many others who once considered Twitter, for all its flaws, a vital social landscape. Some of them still tweet regularly, but their messages are less likely to show up in my Swift-heavy feed. Musk tweeted recently that the company’s algorithm “attempts to optimize time spent on X” by, for example, increasing response chains and deprecating links that might send people off the platform. The new paradigm favors tech industry “thread guys,” quick “what’s your favorite Marvel movie” posts, and one-topic commenters like Derek Guy, who tweets endlessly about menswear. Algorithmic recommendations make already popular accounts and topics even more so, shutting out the smaller, more magpie-like voices that made the old version of Twitter such a lively destination. (Guy, meanwhile, has gotten so much algorithmic promotion under Musk that he’s amassed more than half a million followers.)

The Internet today feels emptier, like an echoing hall, even though it is filled with more content than ever. It also feels less casually informative. Twitter in its heyday was a source of real-time information, the first place to catch news of developments that were only later reported in the press. Blog posts and TV news channels collected tweets to show prevailing cultural trends or debates. Today, they do the same with TikTok posts — see the many local news reports about dangerous and possibly fake “TikTok trends” — but the TikTok feed actively suppresses news and political content, in part because its parent company is beholden to the Chinese government’s censorship policies . Instead, the app pushes us to scroll through another dozen videos of cooking demonstrations or funny animals. In the guise of promoting social community and user-generated creativity, it prevents direct interaction and discovery.

According to Eleanor Stern, a TikTok video essayist with nearly a hundred thousand followers, part of the problem is that social media is more hierarchical than it used to be. “There’s this divide that wasn’t there before, between audiences and creators,” Stern said. The platforms that have the most traction with young users today – YouTube, TikTok and Twitch – act as broadcast stations, with a creator posting a video to their millions of followers; what followers have to say to each other doesn’t matter the way it did on old Facebook or Twitter. Social media “used to be more of a place for conversation and reciprocity,” Stern said. Now talking is not strictly necessary, just watching and listening.

Posting on social media can also be a less casual act these days, as we’ve seen the consequences of blurring the line between physical and digital lives. Instagram ushered in an age of online self-commodification — it was the platform for the selfie — but TikTok and Twitch have turbocharged it. Selfies are no longer enough; video-based platforms showcase your body, your speech and demeanor, and the room you’re in, perhaps even in real time. Everyone is forced to perform the role of influencer. The entry barrier is higher and the pressure to adapt stronger. It’s no surprise, in this environment, that fewer people are taking the risk of posting and more are settling into passive consumer roles.

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