Illustration by Paolo Beghini / Icon Images
On Saturday evening, after a nice walk along the Regent’s Canal, I found myself in a loose state in Camden. Wonderful I thought, I’m in one of the liveliest parts of London. It will be busy – I may go to an impromptu gig or a comedy night. Just let me google what’s going on tonight.
A good 45 minutes later I was fed up and discouraged and my phone battery was almost dead. Searching the internet for “live music in Camden tonight” had resulted in an overwhelming deluge of content: listicles on dodgy looking websites that screamed with pop-ups when clicked; Map entries that insisted on downloading other apps before loading; Ticket sites for major music venues whose concerts have sold out months in advance; reviews of events that sounded ideal until I realized they had already happened; and of course loads of sponsored posts that are almost indistinguishable from the real ones. I gave up and just strolled into the first pub that had a sign on the door that said Live Music Here.
Since then I’ve tried unsuccessfully to use the internet to: Buy artificial flowers to use for a costume party (Amazon shows me dozens of near-identical listings that aren’t what I want but clearly hacked the keywords) ; Get clarity on the legal terms of a contract I’m supposed to sign (I get directed to blogs from law firms that screw me over with legal expertise and then try to sell me services); and research 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, discouraging and angry.
It wasn’t like that before. I know this sounds like I’m about a hundred years old, but I remember the days when the internet was usable. Not just usable – magic. Every answer to every question always at hand. Yes, I remember teachers warning us that Wikipedia wasn’t a reliable source for science, but for everyday things it worked. Recipes, travel guides, guides to fixing things, recommendations for cool things to read, watch and do.
Now it’s a mess. I’m not exactly 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 destroyed search engines. The Google algorithm has practically started to eat itself: if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, it can’t help you, and even if you do, it will try to shove all sorts of irrelevant nonsense into your browser before you find it
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And it’s not just about Google either. Twitter may not have completely collapsed under the weight of Elon Musk’s aggressive redesign, but trolls and spambots thrive as the algorithm recommends increasingly bizarre posts to me (no, I’m not interested in reviews of reality TV shows I’ve seen in the media have not seen). I have never heard of unfollowing or the crypto scams that are DMed to me daily. Facebook is a graveyard of fake content and ghostly memories of a time when posting blurry photos of a night out was considered a central part of the student experience. Instagram is only 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, alternative fashion, or snow ocelots—I’m sure there are still some out there somewhere. It’s just that unless you already know exactly where they are, they’ve gotten increasingly difficult to find.
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I’m not the only one who feels like something went wrong somewhere. “I have no idea what to do online anymore,” laments journalist (and New Statesman columnist) Marie Le Conte in her recent book Escape: How One Generation Shaped, Destroyed, and Survived the Internet. The boundless randomness of the early online world was gradually subordinated to the big social media platforms (you know, the ones that monetize our outrage and fear). Like me, Le Conte came of age at the same time as the World Wide Web and saw the anarchic, atomized Wild West of the noughties overwhelmed by a couple of huge websites that have tamed it, cleaned it up, and made it totally unobtrusively-fun. Everyone who spends time online now spends time on the same platforms, which has had a detrimental impact on how those platforms feel: “Our spaces make us feel tight because we never really feel safe in them again.” Our internet is both open and flat, and it’s not a pretty place to live.”
My difficulties finding a gig in Camden are part of the same trend. Eventually, the notion that the internet exists to be useful to us has morphed into the acknowledgment that we exist to be useful to it, primarily so that we can be sold or manipulated in some way. I didn’t mind the saying “if you don’t pay for the product, you are the product” because I felt like I was at least getting something of value – you can have my dates as long as you show me what I’m looking for. It’s a different game now. Our data is evaluated, we are provoked and trolled, and for what? So we can keep collecting, provoking, and trolling data in the vain hope that maybe in the end there’ll be someone who can explain what “empty possession” means, in a language that doesn’t sound like it comes out a legal field textbook.
There was so much hype about ChatGPT (now six months old) and other chatbots 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 over the top to see technology destroying something precious: itself. Or rather, the version of itself that felt like a magic spell in 2006 when you could ask, ” What should I do tonight?” and it would tell you. I don’t think that’s coming back – the incentives are all skewed, the tech giants are too powerful, the algorithms have a mind of their own and there’s no stopping them. The internet is now keeping us informed for as long as possible, not by being helpful or appealing, but by simply ruling out all alternatives. That’s it: the pop-ups, the trolls, and the sponsored posts won.
Ah great. There’s always Wikipedia.
[See also: The Reeves doctrine: Labour’s plan for power]