The End of an Internet Era
Life online is losing chaos, unpredictability, and delight—all of the things that made it fun.
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The internet of the 2010s was chaotic, delightful, and, most of all, human. What happens to life online as that humanity fades away?
First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:
My colleague Charlie Warzel worked at BuzzFeed News in the 2010s. He identifies those years as a specific era of the internet—one that symbolically died yesterday with the news of the website shutting down. Yesterday, Charlie offered a glimpse of what those years felt like for people working in digital media:
I worked at BuzzFeed News for nearly six years—from March 2013 until January 2019. For most of that time, it felt a bit like standing in the eye of the hurricane that is the internet. Glorious chaos was everywhere around you, yet it felt like the perfect vantage to observe the commercial web grow up. I don’t mean to sound self-aggrandizing, but it is legitimately hard to capture the cultural relevance of BuzzFeed to the media landscape of the mid-2010s, and the excitement and centrality of the organization’s approach to news. There was “The Dress,” a bit of internet ephemera that went so viral, we joked that that day might have been the last good one on the internet.
Charlie goes on, and his essay is worth reading in full, but today I’d like to focus on the point he ends on: that the internet of the 2010s was human in a way that today’s is not. Charlie doesn’t just mean human in the sense of not generated by a machine. He’s referring to chaos, unpredictability, delight—all of the things that made spending time on the internet fun.
Charlie explains how Buzzfeed News’ ethos emphasized paying attention to the joyful and personal elements of life online:
BuzzFeed News was oriented around the mission of finding, celebrating, and chronicling the indelible humanity pouring out of every nook and cranny of the internet, so it makes sense that any iteration that comes next will be more interested in employing machines to create content. The BuzzFeed era of media is now officially over. What comes next in the ChatGPT era is likely to be just as disruptive, but I doubt it’ll be as joyous and chaotic. And I guarantee it’ll feel less human.
The shrinking humanity of the internet is a theme that Charlie’s been thinking about for a while. Last year, he wrote about why many observers feel that Google Search is not as efficient as it used to be—some argue that the tool returns results that are both drier and less useful than they once were. Charlie learned in his reporting that some of the changes the Search tool has rolled out are likely the result of Google’s crackdowns on misinformation and low-quality content. But these changes might also mean that Google Search has stopped delivering interesting results, he argues:
In theory, we crave authoritative information, but authoritative information can be dry and boring. It reads more like a government form or a textbook than a novel. The internet that many people know and love is the opposite—it is messy, chaotic, unpredictable. It is exhausting, unending, and always a little bit dangerous. It is profoundly human.
It’s also worth remembering the downsides of this humanity, Charlie notes: The unpredictability that some people are nostalgic for also gave way to conspiracy theories and hate speech in Google Search results.
The Google Search example raises its own set of complex questions, and I encourage those interested to read Charlie’s essay and the corresponding edition of his newsletter, Galaxy Brain. But the strong reactions to Google Search and the ways it is changing are further evidence that many people crave an old internet that now feels lost.
If the internet is becoming less human, then something related is happening to social media in particular: It’s becoming less familiar. Social-media platforms such as Friendster and Myspace, and then Facebook and Instagram, were built primarily to connect users with friends and family. But in recent years, this goal has given way to an era of “performance” media, as the internet writer Kate Lindsay put it in an Atlantic article last year. Now, she wrote, “we create online primarily to reach people we don’t know instead of the people we do.”
Facebook and Instagram are struggling to attract and retain a younger generation of users, Lindsay notes, because younger users prefer video. They’re on TikTok now, most likely watching content created by people they don’t know. And in this new phase of “performance” media, we lose some humanity too. “There is no longer an online equivalent of the local bar or coffee shop: a place to encounter friends and family and find person-to-person connection,” Lindsay wrote.
I came of age in the Tumblr era of the mid-2010s, and although I was too shy to put anything of myself on display, I found joy in lurking for hours online. Now those of us looking for a place to have low-stakes fun on the internet are struggling to find one. The future of social-media platforms could surprise us: IOS downloads of the Tumblr app were up by 62 percent the week after Elon Musk took control of Twitter, suggesting that the somewhat forgotten platform could see a resurgence as some users leave Twitter.
I may not have personally known the bloggers I was keeping up with on Tumblr, but my time there still felt human in a way that my experiences online have not since. The feeling is tough to find words for, but maybe that’s the point: As the internet grows up, we won’t know what we’ve lost until it’s gone.
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- The Russian military stated that one of its fighter jets accidentally bombed Belgorod, a Russian city near the Ukrainian border.
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- Work in Progress: America has failed the civilization test, writes Derek Thompson.
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- Up for Debate: Conor Friedersdorf explores how the gender debate veered off track.
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By Susan Tallman
Of all the great painters of the golden age when the small, soggy Netherlands arose as an improbable global power, Johannes Vermeer is the most beloved and the most disarming. Rembrandt gives us grandeur and human frailty, Frans Hals gives us brio, Pieter de Hooch gives us busy burghers, but Vermeer issues an invitation. The trompe l’oeil curtain is pulled back, and if the people on the other side don’t turn to greet us, it’s only because we are always expected.
Vermeer’s paintings are few in number and scattered over three continents, and they rarely travel. The 28 gathered in Amsterdam for the Rijksmuseum’s current, dazzling exhibition represent about three-quarters of the surviving work—“a greater number than the artist might have ever seen together himself,” a co-curator, Pieter Roelofs, notes—and make this the largest Vermeer show in history. The previous record holder took place 27 years ago at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and at the Mauritshuis, in The Hague. Prior to that, the only chance to see anything close would have been the Amsterdam auction in May 1696 that dispersed perhaps half of everything he’d painted in his life.
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While you’re over on Charlie’s Galaxy Brain page, check out the November newsletter in which he comes up with a great term for our evolving internet age: geriatric social media. (It’s not necessarily a bad thing.)
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Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.