Why This Decade Sucked, Reason #10: Social Media Ruined the Internet


We will, in the closing days of this wretched decade, list the Top Ten reasons why it sucked, starting from the bottom.

Remember back in the 90s, when you loved the internet? When you saw it through a child’s eyes, and clapped with delight at dancing hamsters, cruddy Flash animations, and Everything was shiny and new, and every innovation was a revelation that made you eager to see what the wizards would come up with next.

Now look at the damn thing. It’s TV with an endless number of stations — except the flipper gives you carpal tunnel. It’s an endless time-suck, a global addiction, and a drag.

You say it’s brought many wonders into your life? No doubt. You can shop for cars, books, jobs, etc. You can join communities you never even knew you wanted to join. Porn is free as the wind blows, free as the grass grows. The internet has everything and gives it to you fast. You can’t imagine life without it.

Which is part of why it sucks: it has become depressingly indispensable, like a car or a microwave. It has evolved to the point where it can’t do much more for you. Which is to say, it isn’t going to get any better: it will add features, but will basically remain the same tool: a super TV that you can talk back to.

Ah, talking back — now, there was an innovation: Social Media, the last significant piece in the internet evolution, and beginning of the end of the dream.

In this decade that is winding down, an enormous number of people came to believe that the internet was going to become a conduit of people power that would change life as we know it, as surely as the Internet Bubble was going to make us all millionaires and Urban Fetch was going to be everyone’s butler.

Remember when the big thing was blogs? When people were calling the first social media tool “people’s media,” “we-dia,” and other such self-bestowed honorifics? When Megan McArdle said blogs would turn the internet into “a very advanced, processing brain,” a self-correcting mechanism that would perfect journalism and advance human thought into a golden age?

We should have known from blogging’s early successes what was really going to become of it. Those successes were not about enlightenment — elucidating issues, or spurring debate — but about taking down public figures obnoxious to bloggers.

Online Journalism Review called 2004 “the year bloggers made a difference,” not because it had improved the national discourse, but because it had destroyed the career of Dan Rather. When bloggers helped take down Trent Lott, John Podhoretz called him “The Internet’s First Scalp,” and exulted, “there’s nothing more exciting than watching a new medium mature before your eyes” — as if the ability to ruin a politician, as newspapers had done for decades, were a sign of maturity.

And with the rush to war in Iraq came the phenomenon of “warbloggers” — online belligerents who hollered for invasion and denounced all foot-draggers as traitors. They thought themselves a new breed of patriot, rescuing the nation from post-Vietnam drift, but were merely a useful feeder stream for a new jingoism that enmeshed America in foreign morasses wherein we remain hopelessly bound today.

One of the warblogs OGs, Matt Welch, looked back in 2006 on those heady times and reflected, “Man, was I wrong.” Nonetheless he admitted, “I can’t shake the feeling of nostalgia for a promising cross-partisan moment that just fizzled away.” By “cross-partisan,” of course, he meant that some people joined his bellowing who later grew hoarse and unsure; there were others who disagreed from the start, but they were disregarded, because they were not part of the great new blog thing.

No wonder Welch was nostalgic for those days of heady, righteous certainty. Like William Allan White, who admitted years after his infatuation with the Bull Moose cause, “TR bit me and I went mad,” Welch had been swept up in a movement that promised to change everything, and saw that it had only changed the design template of ancient political instruments.

It turned out that the internet wasn’t an advanced, processing brain, after all, nor an agent of meaningful change. In the political realm, it has revealed it only had one enduring value: as a propaganda tool.

A few people have become better informed about national issues because of it, but far more have been made to know to a certainly that the Congressional health care plan includes “death panels,” that Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya who will turn America socialist, and that his wife is Marie Antoinette. We admit our own part in this, for we would rather focus on the latest batshit crazy thing Michele Bachmann said than on the details of the East Anglia email scandal (which has proved for many that “global warming is a fraud“).

Take, as a small but tellingly insane example, a recent commenter at the Staten Island Advance who lashed out at local congressman Michael McMahon; the commenter had been taught by blogs that McMahon supported “Next Left Notes, a rabid, evil, leftist organization dedicated to the overthrow of America, and it’s reconstuition as a Marxist utopia.” Michael McMahon — as mainstream a party hack as you might find anywhere, an agent of Marxist revolution! Thanks to blogs, our political discourse now reads like Red Channels mixed with an Andrew Breitbart monologue.

And all the social media devices that have emerged since then have added nothing to improve the situation. Did you see the top Twitter “news events” trends of 2009? #1 was #iranelection. Ah, that takes us back. Everyone was turning their icons green and retweeting the latest 140-character samizdat from the streets of Tehran. Keep up the pressure! the optimists cried. The green revolution is within our grasp!

Now see where we are: Iran is still a dictatorship, and Billy Kristol is back to thinking up new reasons to invade it.

Politics isn’t everything, of course. The non-news Top Twitter Trending Topics of the year include Michael Jackson, Harry Potter, and American Idol. Perhaps you feel as if you became better informed on these subjects because of Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and Digg. More likely, you were just more inundated with them; you got more video and audio clips, saw more trailers and red-carpet photos, and read more gossip and reiterations of the same bare facts about them. What did social media teach you about Michael Jackson, besides how big a deal it was that he was dead?

And as for Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, etc, we can hardly tell you anything you haven’t discovered yourself. You have XXX friends; you have XX invitations; so-and-so likes this; view all X comments. These are wonderful tools for shut-ins, of which they have made us all.

That the grand hopes for we-dia and all the crap that came with it would prove a catastrophic bust is no surprise to students of history, who know what became of the Journals-Affiches of the French Revolution, and all the proletarian outlets thereafter.

But it is important to note not only what, but who failed in this case. It is tempting but too easy to lay the blame at the doorstep of one political faction or other. The real force behind blogs, Twitter, and all other social media is its users, which is to say, practically everyone of the internet. And this is the saddest part of the demise of the internet as anything other than a microwave for the mind: we are the ones who killed it. And no matter how feverishly we click and scroll and friend and block, nothing we do can bring it back to life.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 18, 2009

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