The Year The Internet Began; or, www.nostalgia.com

February 4, 2024


the following is a somewhat scattered attempt to connect some recent writing on the internet. I’ve not been comprehensive, and I’ve largely followed my personal preference. I also don’t think I’m saying anything wholly new, but hopefully a bit of messy synthetic work will provide useful rephrasing. Anyway, this is something that I, like everybody else, will continue to think about.

Now that it’s gone, we can finally know what we had. In the past year, with the turmoil on twitter, the shifting terrain of platforms, and the flurry of books documenting it all, it seems like people, at least people my age and a bit older, have finally started to look at what the internet is and was. It’s “the year,” Max Read declared, “millennials aged out of the internet.” And so the internet, or at least what we thought it was, might as well be dead.

The internet has always, in part, been something imagined. Physically, it’s basically tubes, but digitally, it’s anything and everything. We experience a baffling range of emotions online: giddiness, heartbreak, rage, confusion. And we imagine these experiences as occurring in a space called the internet. Because if we feel all these things and if they feel oh so real, how could they not take place somewhere? But with the death of the internet or the revelation that the internet wasn’t what we thought it was or that it is no longer ours, we finally have to look too at how have imagined it.

Death and revelation provoke emotional responses. And for me at least, these emotions appear as a hunger to read anything and everything on the topic—I seek out endless explainers, such as Read’s above, about why the internet has changed irrevocably. The ability to read and consume and skim and catch up and stay informed forestalls the sense that the internet is over. The need to know the internet, the place we’ve lived for years now, can be nothing but an act of catching up. We look at the way it works, the people who made it, those who profit from it, and the steps necessary to finally fix it.

None of this is new. Because the internet is dead, the only place to look is its past. Or maybe, the place where we find “the internet” is in a past that is nostalgically and sentimentally imagined only after the fact.

The process of narrating what the internet was requires a shared set of cases, and I want to touch on three below. From these cases, we tend to extrapolate ever larger conclusions about what the internet was. Dave Karpf recently outlined “four genres of futurism”—the modes that people take on when discussing technology’s future in terms of doom or promise—but what are our genres of technological historicism? How have people begun to figure the internet as historical and how does that sense of being historical in turn shape what they project for the present and future of the internet?

I’m an avid reader of all the people I’ve mentioned, gestured at, or linked to here. They handle their dual roles as historians and prophets of the internet with varying degrees of irony. For all of them, a kind of visceral experience is central to their ability to chronicle the internet. To get at history we must document firsthand, felt, intimate experience, these accounts suggest. The wires and tubes and code don’t tell us anything; we need to understand not the way things were but the way things seemed.

This thirst for experience shapes Mark Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha, in which a post-apocalyptic journalist must document the humor that circulated on the internet prior to a Trump-fueled nuclear armageddon. “I’m trying to route around the damage, trying to remember,” Doten’s journalist writes, “How the internet worked, how we used it.” Line break: “What was cool.” The thing we call the internet, Doten discerns, is inextricable from how it’s used. This fact shapes the way that people have begun to chronicle the internet. It is not really a place or a time but a set of behaviors, behaviors that one way or another you have to experience, and that congeal into something like coolness. It’s somewhat of a misnomer to claim that we can define what the internet “was” because it never was anything. We just did many things that start to look solid after the fact.

It’s this aspect of the internet that can let Doten invent a meme that begins as ridiculous before becoming oddly moving in its iterations:

Key line, I wrote.
The sheriff of sucking u off is made of fire.


Gawker

One case: I am somewhat baffled by how many accounts of the rise and fall and rise and fall of Gawker I have read over the past six months (and nothing against Gawker, i like(d) Gawker!). The point is not that Gawker didn’t matter; it did. But the sheer volume of my reading suggests the narrative of that website has become larger than itself. Gawker is an emblem of a certain vision of the internet. What do we make of this shift to taking stock and making a record? And what do we do with the fact that Gawker has become the emblem through which we narrativize so much change?

I won’t rehash the Gawker story here (Ben Smith offers a thorough account in Traffic; there are also whole books on this topic, such as Ryan Holiday’s Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue). But one thing does strike me about its original death, at the hands of Thiel. The story of digital media now is the serial murder of publications by VC funding. Pick your favorite example. The reason the story of Gawker’s original demise is so interesting is that Thiel didn’t own the magazine yet still managed to kill it. It provided an uncanny prediction of stories that are now common, but with that one exception. Something about Thiel’s ability to destroy a magazine he had no financial stake in (tragedy) foreshadows the future of digital publishing and its funding woes, including the second death of Gawker, which we can chalk up to the VC goon that did own the magazine (farce). The malice at play in round two is so much less extraordinary than the insidious conspiracy that killed it the first time around, yet the more ordinary version of this death seems to be the future we expect for the rest of the internet.

Pitchfork

Two Case: Pitchfork, too, has been thoroughly eulogized. One thing about its death is that Pitchfork was, for the most part, improving in recent memory, documenting not just a specific wedge of indie rock but introducing me not just to the best of pop but also making space for strange work that veers off the beaten path (but still not as strange as the kind of things I used to go to tinymixtapes to read or whatever). And these changes didn’t threaten its editorial heart and integrity, from what I could tell. Casey Newton has suggested that, at a certain point, Spotify eliminated the need for the service that Pitchfork once provided: “highlighting music that was actually worth spending money on.” In a world where it costs nothing (extra) to play whatever on Spotify (and each click sends fractions of pennies to “support” these artists), we no longer need the discerning taste of Pitchfork.

Is this true? Beyond the insights of its reviews, music blogs and writers still regularly introduce me to music that surprises and enriches me, even if I then queue those recommendations in my “To Listen” Spotify playlist. Pitchfork wasn’t even the best of these (Bandcamp Daily continues to be great, as are a variety of music newsletters and blogs), but I almost never regretted checking out their best new music or their Friday newsletter listing “7 Albums Out Today.” Yes, this taste usually orbits a specific kind of indie rock that has Radiohead as its gravitational center, but this is also the music that I grew up on, that shaped me, at least partly because of Pitchfork’s influence.

Spotify, on the other hand, regularly tries to feed me music that provokes rage at how bad it is. I am certain that their algorithm privileges some labels with which they have financial relationships due to the way that it tries to spoon-feed me the same set of mediocre artists over and over again. Relying on Spotify’s daily mixes or discovers weekly usually gives me a stultifying taste, where I have the same things on repeat, not because I am hooked but because Spotify is. And its discovery features are often limited. Spotify knows that I will probably not skip Dinosaur Jr. if the algorithm picks it, but it does not know that because I like Dinosaur Jr. so much, I would probably be interested in checking out a new album by someone called J Mascis. You know who lets me know that I’m the kind of nerd who will press play on a new J Mascis record? Pitchfork.1 (6.4 seems about right.)

A couple years ago, I had the privilege of coediting this essay by Mitch Therieau, in which he skewers the infamous Pitchfork review of Kid A. Mitch is right about the vagaries of the personal-critical essay and its repackaging of the narrative “I” into a consumable product. But I almost miss the sense that someone somewhere was at least trying to “deliver an unforgettable experience,” that I could be as moved by Kid A as Brian DiCresenzo, rather than reduce the range of my aesthetic and personal experience to whatever is algorithmically queued up on what a friend once called “Big Thief Radio.”

Twitter

Red case, blue case: This year, we also lost things that I forgot were still around. Social media has solidly shifted from the microblogging text basis of Twitter (now, as you have heard, X) to the short-form videos of TikTok, Instagram Reels, and Youtube Shorts. Even the rise of Substack has been shaken recently, what with many of the people I follow there moving to alternatives such as Ghost.io and Buttondown. I’m not big on video (he writes on his blog), so I’ve filled my Twitter void with the kinds of platforms that won’t ever really take off, such as Bluesky.

Toward the end of last year, The Verge put together a mega feature on “The Year Twitter Died,” with dissections of the best and worst parts of the platform and a Great Flaming Trashcan of Alexandria to document the funniest and weirdest tweets on the site. I scrolled through this list until the page crashed on my phone and it felt something like mourning. The death of Twitter, the birth of X, has had all manner of important political and economic impacts, but I also experience it as something of a personal loss. I don’t think I’m alone in this. And what I’m circling around with these examples—and with my point that, to understand the internet, we need to capture a “kind of visceral experience”—is that the personal experience we encounter on the internet might be a symptom of something rather than the key to elucidating what the internet really was, all along.


Gawker, Pitchfork, and Twitter all seem indicative of a certain moment in the internet for a certain kind of person. The kind of person who not only watched Girls but imagined being one of its protagonists. I’m talking, I guess, about millennials, and a specific subset of millennials. And here, again, I’m following Read. As he wrote more recently in a review of Kyle Chayka’s Filterworld:

it’s hard to tell exactly how much to care that millennial yuppies like us all do basically the same stuff, whether or not we’re compelled to by the algorithm. If me and all my friends show up to the natural wine bar (no, not that one–the one down the block from that one) wearing identical Sambas, 15 years after we all showed up to the speakeasy cocktail bar wearing identical desert boots, is that a problem for anyone but us? Is it even really a problem for us?

There’s a slippage between claiming that the internet is dead and that the internet is dead (for a certain subset of a certain generation). I recently happened upon the twitter account of someone I went to high school with; it is not apparent that Twitter’s death was something he mourned, let alone noticed.

We can take a second and think through the internet’s insistence that we experience it personally. Just because it’s foregrounded, personal experience is not all there is. The internet seems immediate and visceral. It is not: that is one way that it appears. The internet that died is the internet that we nostalgically constructed. In an essay called “Nostalgia for the Present,” Frederic Jameson2 offers the startling speculation “that at an outer limit the sense people have of themselves and their own moment of history may ultimately have nothing whatsoever to do with its reality.” The sense that the internet is dead says more about those of us feeling that way than it does about the internet as tubes, which, for better or worse, will probably never die…but one can hope.3

Along with this sense of the internet’s demise, though, there is also an accumulating sense that we might be able to do something, or at least handle it differently. The contest for the future of the internet is far from over, but Ben Tarnoff, among others, points the way. On a more minor scale, a growing number of people are quitting twitter, getting interested in things like federation, building new collectives, abandoning their smart phones for “dumb phones.” None of these are solutions—things are still fucked!—but they point to a growing awareness of the way the internet works, the systems that shape it, and the people who profit from them. The internet, for a while now, has been an overwhelming experience—we experience “the algorithm” like a whirlpool, “tossing us around and dragging us down.” But there is no all-powerful algorithm, as much as some people would like you to think it is at once the sole explanation for our current misery. And nevertheless, we’ve made a lot of this internet, both good and bad, but my point here is that our experience of powerlessness in front of “the internet” has itself shaped what we’ve done with it. Now that that internet is dead, though, the internet, as something separate from our experience of it, might be able to begin.

  1. If you saw my joke title and decided to visit nostalgia.com, you can coincidentally buy the new J. Mascis album on vinyl on that website, which seems to redirect to some kind of record label/comics publisher. 

  2. Because apparently I’m just going to keep writing about Jameson on this blog. “Nostalgia for the Present” may be found in South Atlantic Quarterly 88, no. 2, pages 517–37. 

  3. The Houthi threats against the underwater cables that run the internet seem, at best, unsubstantiated. I am mostly interested in the reports of these threats as a sort of wish fulfillment by someone somewhere along this editorial pipeline. 


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