Bring Back the Old Internet: Social Media Is Turning Us Into Homogeneous Beings
An online editor laments the internet days of yore, and the absence of algorithmic, branded content.
The internet has changed a lot in the past ten years. No shit.
When I first started posting online, I was maybe eight years old. I began building a GeoCities web page of parody lyrics for top pop songs; I moved onto LiveJournal in middle school, where I made a friend that I am still in touch with to this day; then I tried Flickr in high school, which taught me so much of what I know about photography; and then I created a Tumblr in college. In those early days, Tumblr felt like a plot of personal, digital land, where I could freely express myself and share things. The little community I formed ended up connecting me to the apartment in which I live, every friend I’ve ever made, and even multiple jobs across tech and social media. It felt vast and infinite.
Then came post-college life, and the mass-professionalization of all these platforms. Now we have rules for what and how we can post—not to mention the consolidation of a million niche channels into a handful of dominant megaliths like Instagram and TikTok. It feels like that vast, infinite space is being crushed into nothing.
These days, “community guidelines” inform us what we should post, how often and in what way. They’re meant to help us be our best selves, but they’re rarely or consistently enforced to eradicate poor behavior, and seemingly serve to rigorously homogenize output. TikTok’s infamous “For You” page, which is run by a cracked-out algorithm and considered the “holy grail” of placement for most users, takes multiple factors into consideration when suggesting videos to users, including sounds, hashtags, captions and device types. Leaked internal training documents have also revealed that the company instructed moderators to suppress videos of people who don’t fit a certain ideal (wealthy, attractive, able-bodied). This creates a kind of echo chamber effect: what these platforms highlight goes viral, creates more copycats, creates more virality. They’re always bumper-laned by encouraging product features and smiley language about the importance of “community.”
Online Engagement Shouldn’t Dictate Your Interests
The algorithms all effectively make generic what people make and how they look, creating a dominant visual monoculture optimized for likes. How do you take a selfie? How do you photograph your food? Beneath those questions, how do you tell a story? Today, we know to stand in front of a window or a brightly colored wall, take a photo and post it in the morning, when engagement metrics are highest. We alter the way we share our lives and our interests, which then alters our lives and our interests. And for what? The potential of “blowing up,” so that we can be attractive to advertisers as vessels for their brands? So we can post that caption that says “Thank you so much [insert company name here] for letting me participate on such an incredible campaign” and everybody knows how important you are? Remember when the internet was a place for sharing interests to connect with other people and not just a clout-accumulation machine for us to flex on our friends and strangers? I miss that.
The goal in life isn’t to gain an audience (you’re not entitled to an audience nor should you need an audience for your interests). I’ve worked in social media for five years, in generic creative and editorial roles, and witnessed too much of what's online. I’ve also seen a lot of frustration from colleagues about why their social engagement is low, and then seemingly giving up on their passions because they don’t elicit likes. That seems bad. Just because nobody likes your piano-playing videos doesn’t mean you should simply stop playing the piano. Nor does it mean you should pander to what you think people want to see from you. Do whatever freak shit on the piano that you want to!
I know this isn’t always the case. Recently, a friend showed me the YouTube channel of a user named madcatlady, who uploads freaky animated videos multiple times a week. They average around 300 views per video, and she’s demonetized her channel. I don’t think that in order to be a “true” artist you work for free, but I found it refreshing (and honestly, reinvigorating in my faith in the internet) to find somebody making and sharing videos—regardless of the views or the money—simply for the pleasure it brings.
Don’t Let Your Brand Change Who You Are
Before you say it, I’m not somebody who needs to “take a break” from social media. It doesn’t impact my mental health, I don’t feel jealous and I don’t get FOMO. I just think everything is so fucking corny now. Remix culture runs both ways—sometimes it takes fun stuff and makes it more fun and weirder. Put advertising in the mix, though, and it just ruins it. Look at everyone's favorite cranberry-juice-drinking, Fleetwood-Mac-listening, longboard-riding video, which has now basically (and smartly) been turned into a gigantic ad campaign for both TikTok and Ocean Spray. No shade intended toward its star @420doggface208, who is getting some money and exposure. I’m glad about that. But what does it say about the state of our online selves?
Anything we do is advertising now, whether we like it or not. These platforms have streamlined the presentation of ourselves and created such specific boxes to check that anything we say, share or do inherently becomes “our brand.” The internet promised us frivolity, anonymity and infinite malleability, but hungry advertisers have frozen us in amber. Our profiles feel permanent, without room for growth or exploration—it feels like they own us instead of us owning them. Want to experiment with what you post? Just make a new account, so that you don’t “mess up” the original one, which has a makeup sponsor. Who cares if you used to be into eye shadow and now you’re into baking? This is the least important shit on earth but people agonize over it. Why the fuck are you on a posting schedule? You’re a normal person.
We are allowing these companies to corner us into one iteration of ourselves so that we may one day help fuel the spending they depend on to survive. I wish for us to share with passion, to free ourselves from self-imposed (but really algorithmically and corporately imposed) rules, and to be fucking boundless humans with ever-changing and never-ending creativity.
Bring back the way we used the old internet.