2016: The Year the Internet Became Real

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Photo: Marco Rullkoetter/Getty Images/Hemera

Imagine being rid of the internet. Doesn’t some part of you knot up with rash, intimate desire? Some of us have begun to voice the fantasy, muttering in low whispers: I need to get off, like it’s a ride that’s stopped being fun. Wouldn’t it be amazing if Twitter just fell into the sea? In these times, more and more people dare to wish for conscientious boundaries about social media, Wikipedia black holes, and the endless cycle of refreshing and clearing notifications. We want it to stop, because we can’t seem to stop it ourselves.

For the past several months, regardless of your political leaning, you would probably admit that every device you’ve touched has been a direct window to heaps of very bad news. There’ll be an argument in the comments. Or someone will post a misinformed or insulting assertion, backed by some disreputable link. And then you get the exciting chance to make whatever case you desire in reply, blessed as you are these days with a veritable orchard of search results, memes, Storifys, and whatever else to pick from and assemble the version of the world you most deeply believe in.

The internet before the election was already intrusive, overstimulating. The hand-wringing about our “filter bubbles” had already begun, as had the earnest warnings against assuming tech environments were neutral, when they are not. But few really expected the American presidential election to go the way it did, and the actual result launched an upheaval of all trust in our information sources of choice, and in the culture around those sources. In a recent New Yorker piece, Jia Tolentino describes the distinct ésprit du temps of having “played ourselves” — the new and virulent shock of being forced to reevaluate the value, intent, and result of everything we can remember typing into blank fields on internet-connected computers for years.

Since then, “going online” has been imbued with a fresh anxiety, like an unboiled pot: all the arguments we might never win, all the truths we fear we can never prove, all the enemies we fear we may never win over. The strident and placating calls for ‘unity’; the well-intentioned cat videos shoved in at every juncture to quell sedition, to act as an antacid. Even the bizarre agita of the right — the Nazi frog cartoons, the unending march of plaintive Japanese anime teen memes — is sentimental noise of the same kind, a truth that’s pure to the poster and ridiculous outside of their own vocabulary.

It wasn’t always like this. Remember when Twitter was a place to make new, real-world friends? That feels like a lifetime ago. And long before that, when I was a kid, the internet was a place you could go for the truth. It was a window to reality, or at least to a slice of it, that felt realer than your hometown or your school “computer lab.” At 13, I was just as likely to stumble across pictures of real dead bodies or illicit acts as I was to unearth beloved 20-second Sailor Moon transformation clips straight from Japan. I felt like I was peeking through the keyhole of humanity, at a world whose scope I would never truly know. Back then, there was no other way to watch Sailor Moon.

My memories of that time, camped out in front of the earnest molasses crawl of a black-on-white progress bar as my email slowly downloaded, are precious. There would always be one or two — three if I was really lucky — mysterious missives from strangers I met on message boards about books and music and anarchy. I never knew much about the people I was talking to, but I didn’t need to. That wasn’t the point. Back then, I lived in a small town where I couldn’t be myself, and the internet was, above all things, a place you could go and be yourself. Or anyone but yourself.

In the Madeleine L’Engle book Many Waters, the protagonists carelessly mash a mysterious computer keyboard, and end up transported back into Biblical times, right before Noah’s flood. There they faced all the hardships of a primitive desert society, but to me it was a dream: I wished every day for the computer to beam me away from pep rallies, the mall, suburban life. Everything strange I found online, I clicked. Anyone mysterious, I messaged. I was gratified by the opportunity to be scandalized by things the other kids, the normal ones, did not yet know how to find. Television in the late ‘90s was crazy-paved with “reality” TV McMansion serials, but I knew where the real world was.

Today, almost everyone I know has seen these political assassination photos, whether they had sought them or not. Can you imagine, today, being excited about checking your email? Try to envision opening your email client and feeling nothing but pure excitement at the potential of human connection. Remember that alien ululation: a modem howling down a phone line, once you’d unplugged the household landline and redirected it? Back when talking to strangers online was breathless and new and full of possibility, wide-eyed TV anchors would fumble dryly over buzzwords like “emoticon” and “netiquette” as if skeptical it all would last. The “@” symbol suddenly marched across glossy magazine covers like a newly minted coin, and it might as well have been a jet pack. In that brave new world I forged a private life, years on years of private lives, and I guarded them zealously.

A few years ago I had to erase all of those digital ghosts. I had to destroy the vestiges of ancient America Online accounts, “Deadjournals,” the flaky grottos of a youth in madness. I had to delete third-party email accounts held by obsolete service providers, and with them all the letters to my very first internet boyfriend, who lived in a different state. All my aliases, all my child-times, all the hoary moods that I had howled into the black ether, had to be silently jettisoned into an oubliette. It made me sad, but I had to do it: I was being intensively targeted online by an internet mob to do with my feminist writing on video games, and one thing these guys like to do is dig into your digital footprint, excavate your private life, and march conveniently pruned excerpts into the service of whatever narrative they want to create about you. They want to humiliate or silence you, or to get you fired, or to isolate you from people who would otherwise support you — by making you appear to deserve it.

That’s the playbook now. The guys we used to call “Gamergate” now seem to call themselves something else, and they won the election. Anything that is on the internet can be distorted into the service of someone else’s new reality. They can make a news story from anything, just to get under your skin. Anything you say can be used against you by conservative agitators — or surveilled by the state. Even people you think are on your side will occasionally be complicit: Just look how the media gleefully mined Ken Bone’s Reddit accounts and similar, cobbling together a public-property story based in his digital life, just because he dared to step forward and take part in the political process on television. Nor was it only “the media” —Twitter users, Redditors, Facebookers, all were right along for the ride. Those who would have condemned that kind of exposure and memefication from “the other side” reveled in the chance to caricaturize this non-consenting outlier in the nubby red sweater, and to evaluate whether they thought he deserved it. “Sharing,” once purportedly the ultimate thing to do online, has become unwise now that we have the whole internet to wield against one another. The safest tack is to serve as little personal information, or as few identifying details to public platforms as possible. To be silent.

You will now need to think about what you’ve digitized or shared — your nudes, a kinky email to an ex you now hate, your medical correspondence — that they could dig up and rub in your face if the spotlight should ever, for some reason, fall on you. Somehow things have reversed, and now the internet is a place for your buttoned-up self, with the untidy entrails of your real life shoved under the bed, lurking outside the edges of your normal-looking Instagrams.

The internet has transformed from a place you could safely hide certain feelings and appetites into a place where you can get in trouble for them. This feels like a loss to me. Like the death of my country, twice. And maybe I’ve just got Stockholm syndrome now, but I think this is a large part of what the so-called “alt-right” on Reddit and on image boards and places like that has also so deeply feared: the very idea that they might have to be judged by the darker threads of their online lives, the things they should not have clicked on and the things they should not have typed.

While some of these people are definitely neo-Nazis desperate for a world that lets them shout it proud, I think many more of them are just alienated and lonesome, stashing it all in fears about social justice, “censorship,” and political correctness. These ones, I can’t shake the feeling they would disavow racism and sexism if they could be assured somehow that they could keep their space, that they could be assured of certain permissions, however daunting it would be to offer them. What if it’s not actually people of color, or immigration, or more women in video games that is really triggering them? What if it’s the transformative remapping of the internet into a uniquely public space for all of us, one that now has rules? It would be awfully ironic if the group that howls loudest about the idea of “safe space” is the most terrified about the loss of its own.

Yes, you can do all the free speech you like, but no company is required to host it. Yes, you can address whomever you like on social media, directly, in an unprecedentedly democratic frontier, but if 500 other users are addressing that same person and telling her she looks like Harambe, you are a harasser and you might get your account suspended. Or people who don’t like harassment might look you up, and find out where you work, and call and tell your boss you’re being racist on Reddit. Countless stories abound of otherwise reputable teachers and child-care providers ruined by racy photos dug up by students or employees (or in this case, by the principal). You’re supposed to express yourself, but that self-expression is subject to the court of public opinion’s wildly capricious legislation.

Lots of us thought we were building a new world, an “information superhighway,” a virtual destination that would improve all things — remember the promise of those early web icons, all of which looked like compasses and maps? We were going to be navigators. Yet somewhere along the way, we just ended up enriching Silicon Valley companies with all of our personal content and our shares and our likes, and now have nothing to show for it but a gaping hole in our privacy big enough for petty bullies and political enemies alike to drive a truck through. We still say “IRL” to distinguish between talking to people digitally and talking in person, but the fact is the internet became the primary site of real life, sometime when we weren’t looking.

There’s no better example of this than the way Donald Trump’s Twitter account has juddered suddenly into the dialogue like a piece fallen off some patriotic airplane show. Should propagating untruths from a position of leadership be legal? What if his followers are willing to turn into a harassment mob aimed at any name Donald declares undesirable? Does Twitter act? In any event, a barely tech-literate reality TV star has become social media’s top troll and the president in one swoop. Now the internet-as-optimistic-space feels suddenly over, exhausted, cratered with problems too great and strange to pave.

I’ve heard the hypothesis from the “let’s just try to understand” camp that Trump followers are reacting to the sense they have lost some aspect of their home. In the age of Facebook, SafeSearch, and webinars, maybe long-lived internet citizens are also reacting to this loss. Maybe it’s why the favored tools of self-defense are privacy violations and fictional stories — if they can’t have the digital underground, then no one can.

As I write this, a new meme is trending on various social-media platforms: 2006 versus 2016, where users compare a picture of themselves from one time period to one ten years later. Of course, this is a fun way of leveraging image software to pretend we haven’t aged. But viewed differently, it feels like a means of attempting to enforce a chronology, a meaningful, positive, and orderly progression, at a time when we seem to have abruptly lost our collective plot, an ice-fishing line slipping into cold, black water all of a sudden.

Missing the Old Internet does no good, of course. We’ll march on to more privacy solutions and more means of guarding ourselves from abuse of our digital lives, hopefully. Maybe we’ll even see more new online countercultures, and more thriving underground spaces that don’t get completely overtaken by white-power “jokes.” Teens are consistently, astonishingly funny and creative online, so it may all shake out.

For now, though, we have no choice but to adapt to the world of big data, metadata, and algorithms that build one profile of you to be used by car insurers, another by potential employers, another by the police. We cannot exit the world of constant news and noise, feedback loops and takes. Now, anything you have ever interacted with or explored is assumed, by people and algorithms alike, to be what you truly believe or desire. This infrastructure long ago became a site of battle for individual self-ownership. And in a final indignity, you can’t even silently scream into it anymore.

It’s as if the wardrobe from Narnia has been slowly swelling and looming, opening its doors dark and wide, taking up the room, becoming the room, becoming the whole house.

2016: The Year the Internet Became Real