The other day, I found myself looking at a blinking cursor in a blank address bar in a new tab of my web browser. I was bored. I didn’t really feel like doing work, but I felt some distant compulsion to sit at my computer in a kind of work-simulacrum, so that at least at the end of the day I would feel gross and tired in the manner of someone who had worked. What I really wanted to do was waste some time.
But … I didn’t know how. I did not know what to type into the address bar of my browser. I stared at the cursor. Eventually, I typed “nytimes.com” and hit enter. Like a freaking dad. The entire world of the internet, one that used to boast so many ways to waste time, and here I was, reading the news. It was even worse than working.
In high school, I took a computer class. I have no idea what I was supposed to be learning. Instead I browsed Fark (user-submitted links from around the web, sort of a proto-Reddit) and eBaum’s World (a mix of early memes, stolen content, and ads for hard-core porn), and printed guitar tabs that would turn out to be wildly incorrect. In college, I hung out on forums like Something Awful, a gigantic repository of jokes (some good), advice (mostly bad), and aimless chatter among thousands of also bored teens, experimenting and working within the staccato confines of the Bulletin Board System. There were writers, too; I read Seanbaby and Old Man Murray and other anarchic internet writers, posting irregularly and with zero professionalism on garish websites. Red text on black backgrounds, broken navigations. I wrote a LiveJournal, badly, and read the LiveJournals of my friends and friends of friends. Everyone said too much and said it poorly. It was incredibly entertaining.
Facebook came in my first year of college. Just as eBaum’s World’s videos gave me a welcome excuse to ignore my computer class, albums of strangely similar photos taken on digicams in dimly lit house parties became my preferred time waster. There’s Steve, from high school, in a spectacularly unflattering shot in someone’s dirty living room in a college town in Virginia, lit by a nuclear flash from someone’s Nikon Coolpix. Sick. Hey, what happened to that girl Steve dated? (She’s also in someone’s dirty living room, her eyes neon red, drinking right out of an $8 bottle of wine.)
This world — of blogs and forums and weird personal sites and early, college-era Facebook — was made for dicking around. After college, when I had a real job, with health insurance and a Keurig machine, I would read blogs, funny people talking about nothing in particular with no goal besides being entertaining for a three- to eight-minute block. These were evolutions of the Seanbaby type of writers. Their websites were comparatively elegant, set up for ease of reading. Gawker, Videogum, the Awl, the A.V. Club, Wonkette, various blogs even less commercial than those. There was one that just made fun of Saved by the Bell episodes. I never even watched Saved by the Bell, but I loved that one.
I started a Twitter account, and fell into a world of good, dumb, weird jokes, links to new sites and interesting ideas. It was such an excellent place to waste time that I almost didn’t notice that the blogs and link-sharing sites I’d once spent hours on had become less and less viable. Where once we’d had a rich ecosystem of extremely stupid and funny sites on which we might procrastinate, we now had only Twitter and Facebook.
And then, one day, I think in 2013, Twitter and Facebook were not really very fun anymore. And worse, the fun things they had supplanted were never coming back. Forums were depopulated; blogs were shut down. Twitter, one agent of their death, became completely worthless: a water-drop-torture feed of performative outrage, self-promotion, and discussion of Twitter itself. Facebook had become, well … you’ve been on Facebook.
In the decade since I took that computer class, the web browser has taken over the entire computing experience. There is nothing to “learn” about computers, really, except how to use a browser; everything you might want to do is done from that stupid empty address bar. Today, through that web browser, there are movies and TV shows and every song ever recorded; it’s where I do my writing and chatting and messaging; it’s where my notes and calendars and social networks live. It’s everything except fun.
There is an argument that this my fault. I followed the wrong people; I am too nostalgic about bad blogs; I am in my 30s and what I used to think was fun time-killing is now deadly. But I don’t think so. What happened is that the internet stopped being something you went to in order to separate from the real world — from your job and your work and your obligations and responsibilities. It’s not the place you seek to waste time, but the place you go to so that you’ll someday have time to waste. The internet is a utility world for me now. It is efficient and all-encompassing. It is not very much fun.