The end of an Internet age

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The 2010s internet was chaotic, delightful, and most of all, human. What happens to life online as humanity fades away?

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

Chaotically Human

My colleague Charlie Warzel worked BuzzFeed news in the 2010s. Identifies those years as a specific era of internetone who symbolically died yesterday with the news of the closure of the site. Yesterday, Charlie offered a glimpse of what those years felt like for people working in digital media:

i worked at BuzzFeed news for almost six years, from March 2013 to January 2019. For most of that time, it was a bit like being in the eye of a hurricane that is the internet. Glorious chaos was all around you, yet it seemed like the perfect vantage point to watch the growth of the trading network. I don’t mean to sound self-congratulatory, but it’s legitimately difficult to capture the cultural relevance of buzz feed to the media landscape of the mid-2010s and the excitement and centrality of organizations’ approach to news. There was The Dress, a little bit of internet ephemera that went so viral, we joked that that day might have been the last good on the internet.

Charlie continues, and his entire essay is worth reading, but today I’d like to focus on where he concludes: The 2010s Internet was human in a way that is not today. Charlie doesn’t just mean human in the sense of not generated by a machine. It refers to the chaos, the unpredictability, the pleasure, all of which have made spending time on the internet fun.

Charlie explains how BuzzFeed news ethos emphasized attention to the joyful and personal elements of life online:

BuzzFeed news it was mission-oriented to find, celebrate, and chronicle the indelible humanity that spills out of every nook and cranny of the internet, so it makes sense that any subsequent iteration will be more concerned with employing machines to create content. THE buzz feed The media age is officially over. What comes next in the ChatGPT era is likely to be just as disruptive, but I doubt it will be as joyous and chaotic. And I guarantee it will look less human.

The dehumanization of the internet is something Charlie has been thinking about for a while. Last year, he wrote about why many observers believe Google Search isn’t as efficient as it once was, some arguing that the tool returns drier and less useful results than it once was. Charlie learned in his report that some of the changes the search tool implemented are likely the result of Google’s crackdown on misinformation and low-quality content. But these changes could 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 looks more like a government form or textbook than a novel. The internet that many people know and love is the opposite: it’s messy, chaotic, unpredictable. It’s exhausting, endless and always a little dangerous. It is deeply human.

The downsides of this humanity are also worth mentioning, Charlie notes: The unpredictability that some people yearn for has also given way to conspiracy theories and hate speech in Google search results.

The Google Search example raises a number 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 way it’s changing are further proof that many people yearn for an old internet that now feels lost.

If the internet is becoming less humane, then something related is happening to social media in particular: it is becoming less familiar. Social media platforms like Friendster and Myspace, and later Facebook and Instagram, were created primarily to connect users with friends and family. But in recent years, that focus has given way to an era of average performance, as internet writer Kate Lindsay put it in a Atlantic article from last year. Now, she wrote, we create online primarily to reach the people we do Not to know instead of the people we know.

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 media performance, we also lose some humanity. There is no longer an online equivalent of the local coffee shop or cafĂ©: a place to meet friends and family and find a person-to-person connection, Lindsay wrote.

I came of age in the Tumblr era of the mid-2010s, and while I was too shy to show anything of myself, I found joy hiding out for hours online. Now those of us looking for a place to have some low-stakes fun on the internet are struggling to find one. The future of social media platforms may surprise us: iOS downloads of the Tumblr app jumped 62% the week after Elon Musk took over Twitter, suggesting 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 my online experiences haven’t since. It’s hard to find words for the feeling, but maybe that’s the point: as the internet grows, we won’t know what we’ve lost until it’s gone.


Today’s news

  1. Less than a year after the rollover Roe versus WadeThe Supreme Court is expected to decide tonight on whether the mifepristone abortion pill should remain widely available as litigation against the drug’s FDA approval continues.
  2. The Russian military said one of its fighter jets accidentally bombed Belgorod, a Russian city near the Ukrainian border.
  3. Dominic Raab has resigned from his posts as Britain’s deputy prime minister and justice secretary after an official inquiry found he had engaged in intimidatory behavior on multiple occasions, one of which involved an abuse of power.


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Evening reading

Painting of a woman looking down on a hanging scale she is holding between her fingers
National Gallery of Art, Widener Collection

Vermeer’s Revelations

By Susan Tallmann

Of all the great painters of the Golden Age, when the sodden little Netherlands arose as an unlikely global power, Johannes Vermeer is the most beloved and the most disarming. Rembrandt gives us greatness and human frailty, Frans Hals gives us panache, Pieter de Hooch gives us busy bourgeois, but Vermeer issues an invitation. The trompe l’oeil curtain is drawn back, and if the people on the other side don’t turn to greet us, it’s only because we’re always expected.

Vermeer’s paintings are few and far between on three continents, and they rarely travel. The 28 assembled in Amsterdam for the current, dazzling Rijksmuseum exhibition represent about three-quarters of the surviving work, more than the artist could ever have seen together himself, notes a co-curator, Pieter Roelofs, and make this the largest Vermeer exhibition in history. The previous record holder took place 27 years ago at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, and at the Mauritshuis, The Hague. Before that, the only chance to see anything up close would have been the Amsterdam auction in May 1696 which dispersed perhaps half of everything he painted in his lifetime.

Read the full article.

More from The Atlantic

Cultural break

A reading between parents and children
Brian Shumway / Gallery Stock

Light. Voyage, a wordless picture book, is about shipping a girl with a magical red crayon. It is one of seven books that you should read as a family.

Clock. Ari Aster’s new movie, Beau is scaredinvites you into the director’s anxious fantasies.

Play our daily crossword puzzle.

While you’re on Charlie’s Galaxy Brain page, check out the November newsletter where he proposes a great term for our evolving internet age: geriatric social media. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing.)


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Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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