Nearly six years ago in this space, I started what would become a weekly habit of wondering aloud about the Internet — what it was, what it was we were doing on it, what it was doing to us, and where it was all going. The topic: Shame. (Remember that stuff?)
In 2014, shame still seemed to have some currency in the real world. You could use it for all sorts of things: Wrenching apologies from people, reinforcing social norms, and triggering intoxicating bursts of dopamine (which, back then, also had a little more kick).
“But in addition to the warm self-congratulatory glow that comes with policing the zeitgeist,” wrote the thinner me, “shaming could also be an extension of our desire to tailor each of our Internets into the individually customized stream of acceptable content we’ve come to expect. Civility on demand, as it were.”
At the time, the parade of racists, sexists, blowhards, and assorted fools led by the nose into the proverbial town square for their virtual floggings seemed like a ragtag band of tactless outliers, a kicking (and screaming) chorus line of bad examples, i.e. People Who Were Bad at the Internet.
Fast-forward six years and the town square has become something more like a cage match. It’s hard to tell who’s winning — or even who should be winning. The rules of engagement have been ripped up and thrown into the air like confetti. Norms are for normies, and shame is little more than a shortcut to fame. Not to mention the rogues gallery has gone forth and multiplied into something more like a flash mob of bot-like bigots, and bigot-like bots.
And as any wrestling fan knows, eventually the referee, too, gets smacked with a folding chair. So it’s with equal parts regret and relief that this marks my final filing of @large. I’m starting a new job next month, logging off of Internet coverage for the time being, and returning my attention to the arts — the one thing I actually, really, truly believe can save us in these certifiable times.
Which isn’t to say that the Internet doesn’t have artistic merits. Over my years in the Sunday section, I’ve marveled at the creativity and incisive insight of memes — from the microplays of Twitter, to the more existential explorations of reality and perception instigated by, say, an ambiguously hued dress (that is most definitely blue and black). I’ve found myself routinely enchanted by the Internet’s liberation of narrative forms — from the rise of the Web series to the spread of the social media story. I’ve gagged over the ceaseless stream of stupid #challenges (specifically that cinnamon one), downloaded an array of apps more endless than any Chili’s could offer, and dove face-first into innumerable filters. I’ve watched the Internet twist language, grammar, and even gestures into new forms and meanings (remember when OK just meant ... OK?) And much like you, I’ve seen and cooed over many, many, many adorable kitties.
Was it worth it? All this clicking and dragging? Was the time I wasted online really wasted online? Or have I (and maybe you) learned something along the way? (I mean beyond the fact that Tide Pods are toxic despite looking so delicious.)
Maybe “learn” is the wrong word, since it suggests some arrival of stable knowledge — of which the Internet seems in chronically short supply. I’ve certainly had my bearings readjusted. I’ve come to accept that “sharing” means something very different online than it does IRL — more a way of selfishly sowing one’s perspective over other people’s virtual turf than a form of altruistic giving.
I’ve witnessed the concepts of “friends" and “friendship” stretched and warped between any useful meaning — more a euphemism for the network of passive associations we codify with clicks, likes, and Happy Birthdays.
I’ve had my formative negative notions about the value of Internet “bubbles” burst — I once thought they sealed us off from an accurate view of the world, and now I treasure them for protecting us from a dangerously distorted one.
But more than anything, I’ve come to see the connections offered by the Internet as far from hard-wired. They’re actually quite tenuous and delicate — threads ready to snap at any moment and tear into outright divisions. I’ve come to understand the Internet as essential and inescapable as air or sunlight; less a technology than a condition. And I’ve come to see our place in/on it as users grow increasingly uncertain, as though the agency baked into that word — “user” — is the greatest bait-and-switch of them all.
And still, despite all of the harsh realities and even harsher nonrealities the Internet has drawn me into over six years of hard-staring into the void of my laptop, I get a little misty-eyed at the thought of watching its fight-cloud of flailing arms, legs, and stray punctuation recede into the distance. It’s going to be hard work training myself not to care so much about its tantrums and tirades, its micro- and macro-aggressions, and its literally shameless weaponization of ... well, us. But I’m still thankful for everything: If the Internet has finally inspired me to turn away, I can’t think of a better takeaway.