[This article was originally posted on 2018-07-12.]
*Note: It was debatable whether or not Reddit should have been included in this post. While Reddit has never been in the same boat as Facebook or Twitter, in the last few years traffic on Reddit has increased significantly, to the point where even my mother and my friends’ moms know about Reddit memes. In the end, I decided that Reddit’s structure and underlying culture are “genuine”, and not the result of an invasion by outsiders. Still, Reddit is frequently mocked in certain places for this character.*
In an era where left-leaning political activists obsess over concepts like colonialization, gentrification, etc, it’s worth pointing out (a bit tongue-in-cheek) that the largest colonization in human history is the colonization of cyberspace by normies.
The early Internet’s culture was not accessible to the general public. Computers were extremely expensive. The 1991 Macintosh PowerBook sold for $2,299, which is over $4,000 dollars in today’s money. These machines were also much slower, with fewer features, running on unsophisticated networks with messy standards and poor stability.
People who used the Internet tended to be experts, academics, and hobbyists with a good amount of disposable income. These people came together on IRC, spoke over email, used simple websites, and formed tight-knit communities. (I have left out Usenet, as I was not a Usenet person, but Usenet and BBS systems were the original birth of Internet culture.)
Then came the Eternal September, and the Internet would never recover.
I’m in my mid-20s, so the so-called “Golden Era” of computer nerdery was just before my time. My first interactions with the Internet came from using America Online over a dial-up connection, like many other Americans. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but the lowering of the bar has consequences for Internet culture.
AOL made using the Internet easy. Anybody could pay a decent fee and get dial-up through AOL, with email service, pre-curated chatrooms, instant messenging, keyword search (great for casual users), etc. AOL was a highly effective walled garden – although not completely walled – and extremely profitable. AOL’s user base was huge, and the profits from the company were invested into marketing schemes like sending out huge numbers of free trial CDS with a certain number of dial-up hours offered for free. Many Americans remember playing with these discs, since they were everywhere and completely useless for people who already were customers. I used to shatter the discs into tiny pieces, play with the thin foil between the layers, and make shapes out of the shards of plastic – that’s how pervasive AOL was in those days.
At one point, America Online free trial discs made up more than half of all the CDs made in the world. At another point, half of all dial-up customers in the United States were on AOL. This company was huge.
And a lot of people blame this for the Internet going to shit. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happened any other way (it’s inherently just about elitism and not wanting the unwashed masses on our special nerd platform) but in our current timeline, AOL is at fault. The cultural norms that propagated when normal people started to use the internet became widespread, especially when AOL went from charging an hourly rate to charging a flat $19.95 a month for an account (which had multiple usernames – each member of the family had their own email address, chat username, etc). Poor grammar, mispellings, cyber hookup culture, etc festered on AOL, although they are not unique to AOL even at this time.
AOL provided curated keywords which, in the era before people had gotten used to the Internet, were much easier to remember than a URL. The chat rooms, while not technically superior to IRC, were arranged in easily-used menus and full of people from all walks of life. AOL had a booming text roleplay scene in the early days; while MUDs and other nerd things had already existed, it is probably on AOL’s chatrooms that the \*asterisk actions\* became a thing. Instant messaging was a big deal as well. Lists of friends in groups, seeing when people are online, status messages, etc. Combine this with email (“You’ve Got Mail!”) and AOL was the most effective entryway for normies ever designed.
It’s worth remembering though that AOL was not a minor feat, technologically or in business. They deserve our respect for making a large impact on Internet adoption across the country.
Most of my generation remembers MySpace as the first real social network. Before MySpace, I had a friends list on AIM, but that isn’t a social network. I remember using MySpace to keep track of people I met at local shows starting in middle school.
At this point, MySpace is a meme. A dead craze lost to the bins of history. But MySpace’s effect on web culture was not insubstantial. The tacky, stupid page skins from people copying random pieces of HTML/CSS from elsewhere on the Internet, the autostarting music that you could never find in time, the interpersonal drama caused by Top 8 choices of popular people – all important. The note culture was strong (and even persisted at Facebook for a while before dying) and functioned as a sort of half-LiveJournal, half-public chain letter platform. Photos and comments, long message chains. MySpace mattered.
MySpace is where many of my early friendships took root, especially in the post-AOL era. Going to a local concert would inevitably end in exchanging MySpace names. Private MySpace groups could function as places to plan get-togethers, discuss local topics, do political activism, or just talk shit.
Too bad the platform was mostly annoying attention-seeking teenagers. But we were free.
And then Facebook dethroned MySpace.
Fuck Facebook and fuck Zuck. This platform is a piece of shit and its dominance has only harmed our society. Maybe in the future I’ll write a long article on why I hate this company so much.
The tl;dr of that article:
Real-name social networks stifle their inhabitants. People don’t want to say things that will offend the people they love, even if they believe them. Nobody wants to post something which will cause a mob of offended Internet crybabies to bomb their office with phone calls and emails until they get fired.
People create false expectations of life. The kind of pre-curated bullshit content that gets posted to Facebook makes everyone depressed. People post everything good that happens to them, their meals, their new house, their new family, their marriage. Scrolling through a Facebook feed for long enough will give you the impression that these people are the norm, that they are successful, and that you (yes, you) are uniquely a failure. It’s bullshit. Everyone’s life is a mess, but only the drama queens post it all over Facebook.
Advertising as a profit mechanism is cancer. If you’re not paying for it, you are the product.
You only see what you want to see. Facebook’s nature makes it an incredibly potent echo chamber. Most people have friends who believe what they believe, so the posts by their friends justify their own biases. (The few who are stifled, as above, only see an endless sea of the unenlightened – not better.) Even worse, Facebook’s algorithms ensure that it will only show you content that it thinks you will click on. Like hamsters running in wheels, for the profit of one of the world’s richest companies.
It makes you stupid. “You don’t realize it but you are being programmed.” A previous Facebook executive has tried to do a public run on the problems here because some of the people involved in creating this monstrosity feel regret. It didn’t work; these stories died after less than a month.
Twitter forced us to think more concisely. 140 characters isn’t a lot of space (this was upgraded to 280 characters at the start of this year). The scale that Twitter personalities can reach is also much larger than the scale on Facebook. This platform is ground zero for the culture war – breaking news, up-to-date propaganda from the front lines, virtue signalling blue checkmarks posting about Blumpfth, Twitter has it all.
The problem is that conciseness isn’t the lesson everyone learned. A lot of people are just on Twitter because the short post length gives them an excuse not to think. It’s very difficult to have a serious conversation there because of this. The bio, the name, the reputation, the subcultural trappings – these artifacts of cultural inertia make convincing someone on Twitter nearly impossible. Everyone on Twitter is a rhetorical warrior, driven by self-satisfaction and Likes.
At least Twitter is entertaining. People who want to show off to their followers (or the people they follow) are extremely easy to bait.
Of course, nowadays Twitter is also cracking down on the kinds of anarchic content creation that made it a giant in the first place. In the throes of the “Russian bot” scandals, the well-known secret that a lot of Twitter’s traffic is automated has become center stage. Liberals and leftists are hysterical about pro-Trump and conservative hashtags, those Trending stories are removed by direct admin intervention, etc. But it should be known that this has always been the case. Automated bot accounts pushing hashtags have always been a part of social movements using Twitter. Faceless trolls with thousands of followers are hugely influential on the far right and the far left both. The birth of what I call “blue checkmark journalism” has only made things worse – click ANY Trump tweet and it’s nothing but virtue signalling liberal Twitter users at the top. People literally wake up in the middle of the night to alarms that Trump has tweeted so that they can reply first.
What a shitshow. More normie colonization.
|MySpace||“Real name”, unenforced||Friends list, top 8||Subcultures||Report system|
|Real name, sometimes enforced||Image, friends list||Viral, group||Algorithmic / report system|
|Pseudonymous OR verification||Follower count, cultural clout||Viral||Algorithmic / report system|
The Issue with Normie Culture
As I established in the previous post on this topic, much of the power of what I consider “genuine” Internet subcultures stems from some variant of anonymity. This allows people to vent online, to express views which are socially unacceptable, and to learn from this experience. Many socially-normal people have abnormal or even anti-social views on some topic or another, and by exploring these topics in argument with others (in either good or bad faith) these individuals can gain a more nuanced view of reality. Anonymity is not always put to the benefit of the social good – the rampant bigotry on pol is oft-referenced, but I’ve made it clear that such a simple analysis of pol is useless.
More dangerously, when these communities fracture into isolated echo chambers, things get worse. The canonical examples are the radical leftist bent of Tumblr communities and the vicious right-wing nature of pol. But neither holds a candle to the effect of fracturing in the post-anonymity era.
This is the issue with normie culture.
With your reputation on the line, or even your job, personal friendships, or family relationships, people get entrenched in their opinions. They share clickbait content that exists only to rile up political or emotional sentiments in their friends. This clickbait serves not just to solidify their political inclinations and their hatred of their enemies, but also serves as free propaganda for the other side showing their own compatriots “look how fucking stupid our enemies are”.
The flip side is the chilling effect of knowing that certain opinions will be unpopular in your community. Even worse, this drives people even further towards radicalized cyberspaces, and gives them an even deeper impression that they’ve discovered hidden knowledge. In some cases, this is true – but in most, it breeds conspiracy nonsense and an unearned sense of superiority.
The idea of tying your digital identity with your real-life identity is the worst idea anyone ever had, and many governments are constantly discussing trying to pass it as law.
The normie colonization of the Internet is almost complete. And poor John Barlow is turning in his grave.