Come the end of every year, the Internet is awash in reviews of itself. (Heck, I just threw one on the pile last week.)
Part of this is that the Internet moves fast, and it’s easy to forget what happened over 12 whole months of furious clicking and scrolling; and part of it is that the Internet just makes forgetting easier, period.
But a bigger part of it is that the content cycle turns the entire Internet into a processor of the Human Year That Was, training its every mechanism on sorting and batching our online activities into a purported portrait composed of clicks. Facebook’s bot-assembled Year in Review videos somehow manage to fuse precision data mining with unadulterated schmalz. The wildly popular Top Nine app is flooding Instagram with microgrids of users’ most double-clicked selfies. And Spotify’s “Wrapped” feature gathered up hours of unconsciously consumed background music to call me “adventurous.”
And while they enlightened me to a few key reflections — I’m a serial liker; I should probably wear a shirt more often; I should probably listen to things other than the new Robyn album — most of these walks down megabyte lane left me feeling like I’d wasted a lot of time caught in the feedback loop of my online life.
The immediate past is so much easier to read than the near future, but it’s not exactly great reading. Maybe that’s why in the darkest weeks of each winter we turn to those trusty flashlights of intention to help guide us forward: resolutions.
Each year I pull together a short list of New Year’s resolutions dedicated to my (over-) engagement with technology. As a chronic joiner of platforms and early adopter of apps (so many terrible, terrible apps), attentive regulation of bad habits before they form is a must. And as someone who is extremely bad at attentive regulation, my annual attempts at resolutions reliably double as chronicles of failure.
Last year, for example, I resolved to track less of my doings and “let the cloud get cloudier.” (Nope. I simply forgot to turn all my tracking apps off. All year long.) I resolved to get “better” about the mess of my logins by using password managers. (Nope. I have somehow gotten much worse.) I resolved to transition to digital currencies and employ VPNs to protect my security in public places, which makes me wonder if it was really me who wrote this. And finally, I resolved to use social media in a “more mindful, less divisive way,” so yeah this was definitely not me.
Even still, I remain an optimist (no, really!) in that I’d rather look forward than back — especially this year. 2019 is going to require us all to make some significant changes; and while I can’t guarantee I’ll succeed with this year’s batch of resolutions, I can at least try to fail better.
TRUST NO ONE
This year made clear that nothing about the Internet is clear. Russian bots, fake news and “fake news” (and scare quotes flying around like bats), suspicious sites and fronts and legions of faraway trolls. All of those things about the World Wide Web your mother first warned you of while your AOL disc whirred in the drive have finally come true: The Internet is a vast expanse of artifice and algorithm. “Everything that once seemed definitively and unquestionably real now seems slightly fake; everything that once seemed slightly fake now has the power and presence of the real,” writes Max Read in a piece for New York Magazine that asks “How Much of the Internet Is Fake?” (Spoiler: Like, most of it.) In 2019, I resolve to go full “Blade Runner” and assume everything I encounter is a highly sophisticated fraud. That might sound cynical, but it will actually make me glad to encounter real people online. That’s huge.
SHARING IS CARING
Like a landfill, the Internet is made of what we throw into it. And, as a result, those plumes of methane that blast from its depths all day long are, in no uncertain terms, our doing. This year I’m trying to rein in my sharing — of everything. Articles, photos, retweets, GIFs, memes — somehow even though we are drowning in content, we feel stingy if we don’t pass it along to everyone else. Sharing has become one of the ways we sculpt the bodiless self online — a way of projecting ourselves into the timelines of others, taking up their space with our concerns. This year I’m making an effort to share things that could only come from me, or that might otherwise go unseen. I’ll feel less like a cog moving clickbait, and more like a responsible programmer. (Unless it’s Robyn related.)
MAKE A MOVE
I’m resolving this year to find a home away from Facebook, which has not finished 2018 looking very good. The Zuckzone’s implication in everything from massive data breaches to disinformation campaigns to creepy political psy ops missions to the popularity of Help Helen Smash has amounted to a whole lot of people chewing their last straw into a pulp. I’m in the taping-boxes-together stage of my imminent departure from Facebook, and on my wall hangs a picture of an idyllic new home, just over the hill of 2019. It’s called Byte, and I want to go to there. It’s billed simply as “a new looping video app by the creator of Vine,” and has tweeted just four times since rumors first hatched that Vine cofounder Dom Hofmann would revive the wildly popular platform (under the name he once bestowed to his now-defunct sui generis playground app). The creative community that formed around Vine was a uniquely positive pocket of a wild and scratchy Internet, and the content that sprung up there helped video develop into a language all its own. The app’s sad disappearance in 2016 left a human-shaped void in the social fabric of the Internet. If Byte can become as compelling a hangout as a haven, it stands a chance of taking Tumblr’s place on the weirdo Internet, while taking the other kind of bite out of Facebook’s supremacy.
And if this sounds like “I’m doing this so you should do this” when I say I’m going to be kinder online this year, well then, you got me. There’s not a person online who couldn’t be nicer about it, and I’m one of them. I lash and unleash on strangers and 2nd-degree friends when my coffee hasn’t kicked in, the way I might while merging onto 93. The Internet has a way of sealing us off in our little compartments and sending us on a collision course — it all seems very familiar. Call it defensive driving, but I’m taking 2019 to slow down, let people change lanes if they need to, and flip the proverbial bird to fewer of my fellow travelers. (Mittens work great for this in the car; less so on your phone.)