The internet, despite having the same name, is objectively not the same thing as it used to be in the 1990s, the early 2000s, or even around the 2010s.
There was a time when the internet was a chaotic Wild West—entirely inconsequential because the vast majority of people did not live their entire waking periods online via a simulated social space. There were no large mega social media platforms, and even when the first such platforms came online, like MySpace, the internet was still heterogeneous enough to support a million different bizarre and strange subcultures all on their own boards, forums (remember those?), IRC servers, and tons of custom-built web software that don’t fall into any neat categories. The internet was a frontier, and the no-holds-barred content/services/programs produced on the internet during its early years is why it grew explosively.
But with mass internet adoption, you get tendencies towards homogeneity and normality. Reddit, for example, has subsumed almost all internet cultures. And in exchange for a a free, convenient, and recognizable platform, these subcultures have lost a lot of their unique characteristics and now are much closer to Reddit’s native culture. The internet also now looks closer to the analog world because everyone from the analog world is now on the internet.
If you’re an older internet user from the Usenet days and want to track this semantic shift, go ask a Boomer who adopted the internet late, or someone younger who grew up with digital, what the internet means. Don’t be surprised if they don’t mention Usenet boards and IRC. The response I tend to get is that it’s some combination of “email, Google, Facebook, Instagram,” and/or a few other representative apps or websites. For the record, I’ve also been sucked into social media and popular web apps. I, Jonah Bennett, do use Instagram. I do use Medium. I even use Crunchbase because it feels like a less spammy, cleaner, and lighter version of LinkedIn.
For the services that still exist from some of the “earlier,” days of the internet, they have definitely introduced new bells and whistles which can be useful in many ways. But at the same time, the fundamentals often suffer. Take Google, for example. Google searches used to return a host of incredibly interesting results and useful, entertaining, and bizarre niche blogs that had no financial interest driving their content production. This period is long since over. The first page of Google results is now a mixture of sponsored content, poorly rewritten scam content designed to induce you to buy something, garbage Quora knockoffs, industry lobbying, and content that was artificially boosted into that position through various white or black hat SEO strategies. As I’ve noted elsewhere, search results are now so excruciatingly poor that we’re slowly being brought to the point where for any given topic you’re researching, it would almost be better to just “know a guy.”
Google still returns what you want for the basics. And let’s sympathize a little. Scale often makes the fundamentals impossible, even if it doesn’t ultimately hurt cash flow. It’s not Google’s fault that legions of internet users from around the world have dedicated their brain power and time to subverting search algorithms for personal gain with mountains of mediocre and outright false content. No search engine can order low-grade content producers to stop producing low-grade content. And similarly, no search engine can compel high-grade content producers to keep producing content and lots of it. But even if the ratio between low-grade and high-grade content remained constant over time (it hasn’t, not even close), it’s still a cat and mouse game between the algorithm developers and algorithm subverters about how to rank content.
This dynamic necessitates personal connections and personal networks to figure out where the high-grade content exists, since high-grade content producers, especially in the subject area, tend to know about each other and promote each other. And it’s this combination of personal connections and personal networks that comprises the post-internet: high-content producers taking their content production into more private spaces and even offline altogether, in order to facilitate 1) more open, in-depth conversations, 2) higher bandwidth conversations, and 3) to avoid falling prey to bad content production incentives.
The promise of post-internet social spaces is embodiment, real community that transitions particular interests, and high bandwidth that cannot be replicated on text-based platforms.