A world fit for humans

Both the internet and our real-world shared spaces must be improved

This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

About 15 years ago, a classmate of mine began uploading videos to a website called “YouTube”. In the videos, he played little songs and performed skits about gaming, school and “How to be English”. He was a well-liked chap, but it struck everyone as a strange thing to be doing. It was only The Internet. It wasn’t TV.

His video on being English went viral before “going viral” was a thing. Hundreds of thousands of young people across the world admired our classmate’s quirky sense of humour and boyish good looks. Soon, he became the first British person to hit a million subscribers and was able to turn making YouTube videos into a full-time job. No one still maintained that it was an odd thing to do.

Sure, we had been on the internet for years: flirting fruitlessly and awkwardly on MSN, creating Bebo profiles and downloading dodgy films. But we had not realised how global and accessible it had become — and how a random person could have such tremendous reach.

These days, I find myself working on the internet as well. My career was launched when I began to freelance for a one-woman online magazine that took off when a Google employee sent a provocative memo. 

Now, half my life is spent browsing Twitter. Much of my brain is colonised by inexplicable memes. Soon, I’ll be an optician’s brightest fantasy. I am very fortunate to have an audience, and to be paid for writing about my opinions, but I sometimes remember how excited I was to write a blogpost for a hundred people, or how proud I was if a tweet got ten “likes” rather than two. 

Such introspective thoughts have been inspired by Marie Le Conte’s new book Escape. Le Conte and I were both born in 1991, grew up with the internet, and have built our professional lives there. Escape disparagingly contrasts the “new” internet with the “old” internet. Le Conte’s references to the “old” and “new” internet might baffle readers who were born before 1991. Le Conte is not talking about BBSes, Usenet, or hacker culture. She is talking about MSN and Tumblr. 

Granted, “old” is relative, and it is true that we millennials were the first generation for whom discovering the online world was a rite of passage rather than a niche pursuit. But if we are going to take some generational credit for “shaping” online culture, we should pay homage to the nerds who came before us.

Le Conte has ascended from teenage blogging to success in freelance journalism. Still, she misses a more amateurish age. The internet, as she reflects, was once predominantly occupied by oddballs. Now, everyone is online, and to some extent this has diminished its charms.

But there is a wider problem. Years ago, we fled onto the internet because we were unusually eccentric or alienated. Now, the shrinking and mutating of social capital — the closing of churches, the shuttering of bars, the emptying of high streets and working from home — means almost everyone has to become “extremely online” to work, to shop, to find romantic and sexual partners, and to seek friendship. I can understand Le Conte missing the old internet, with its “places that felt human-sized”. But more people are living their lives online because the world itself feels less human-sized.

To be sure, there is no firm distinction between the internet and “real” life

To be sure, there is no firm distinction between the internet and “real” life. WhatsApp can be used to talk to loved ones. Tinder can be used to form real-world relationships. YouTube can be used to teach us how to fix a lavatory. Besides, no one could suggest that being able to speak about your interests and experiences to strangers on the other side of the world is a wholly dispiriting development. Yet it has pathological aspects nonetheless.

It is often argued that social media has Balkanised society into “bubbles”. Le Conte argues that most of our internet-inspired problems have been the result of online flattening. There are too many people — too close together.

Once, for example, we could experiment and play online without fearing social consequences. Now, “any stray tasteless joke left somewhere googleable can ruin our lives”, Le Conte observes. When did someone say X? Who was it said to — and in what tone? No mitigating context exists online. For as long as it has been posted online, anything that you have ever said, or anything you have ever been photographed doing, is vulnerable to being judged by thousands, if not millions, of uncharitable strangers. And by current or potentially future employers.

Despite this, our misanthropic tendencies are incited by the extremists, bores and madmen who stick out far more than other, nicer people online. The enlargement and flattening of the internet also tempts us to degrade ourselves. Once, online spaces were so marginal that it took real enthusiasm to keeppeople active there. Now, there is attention to be earned and money to be made. 

This has been especially damaging for young people. Before I got a job in journalism, I was a teacher. Many students — and smart, industrious students at that — wanted to be gamers and Instagram influencers. Granted, kids before them wanted to be popstars and footballers. But the fact that we can technically compete with the elite few e-celebs makes success feel more achievable and failure more wounding.

We put on a show even when there is no money to be made

We put on a show even when there is no money to be made. People perform on dating apps to the countless men and women in a sexual marketplace where their product is themselves. People perform on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter just for crumbs of attention to validate themselves.

Craving for attention can encourage unhealthy behaviour. How to earn it, in such a crowded field? Through contrived and extreme words and actions. People twist their humble mix of preferences and personality traits into something more obnoxious, more bizarre, more exhibitionistic. Does everyone seem mad? It’s the way to get ahead! Cultural norms can shift in turn.

But not everybody is performing. Some immerse themselves in the performances of others — either because they have nothing to experience themselves or because the idealised and sensational experiences of online strangers seem more attractive than anything on offer. What I call “vicariotica” is pleasure received through observing the experiences of others. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, hence the value of reading memoirs. But an excess is toxic. 

For example, as a heaving sexual marketplace alienates more people, intimacy is replaced with the numb browsing of online porn — one’s imagination feeding off the scraps of pleasure it gleans from viewing others. (This, as Le Conte writes in Escape, then influences real-world behaviour, such as the normalisation of dangerous sex acts such as “choking”.)

There are other peculiar and demoralising forms of entertainment. “IRL” (In Real Life) streaming offers the chance to watch people endanger themselves and others in return for audience donations. “Mukbangs” allow people to watch men and women consume gigantic amounts of food. 

Dehumanising and alienating aspects of online life are too often embraced as virtues by corporate and political elites. Amid the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic, remote communication was often hailed as the “new normal” (thank God we don’t often hear that anymore). Mark Zuckerberg, meanwhile, is hard at work on building a “metaverse” — which combines the aesthetics of children’s television with the social aspirations of a chronic agoraphobe.

This has encouraged the bizarre equation of simulated and real experience. If you can’t buy a physical house, declared one glassy-eyed software junkie on Twitter in recent weeks, you can always buy one in the metaverse. Wonderful! Can I sleep there? These are the kind of people who tried to convince us that it made sense for digital pictures of apes to be worth millions of pounds. They were NFTs, you see. 

Some people are trying to make the internet more human-sized. My old classmate stopped making YouTube videos and now livestreams to a much smaller audience on Twitch. Building a little garden can be nicer than performing in an open field.

He is not alone. Walls are going up across the online world. Locked social media accounts are gaining popularity as communities withdraw to private servers and group chats. Of course, even the most private forums are vulnerable to leaks. But people are at least trying to hide themselves from the internet’s glare. There is something to be said for the mad, vibrant openness of the internet — but perhaps there is balance to be found.

But such balance depends on changes in the material world, as well as changes online. You cannot blame the internet for everything. “Cancel culture” is enabled by the dynamics of social media, but it is also encouraged by the instability of professional life and the creeping authoritarianism of criminal law. Culture wars are inflamed by the incentive structures of online platforms, but they are also fomented by traditional institutions.

If we do not wish people to isolate and endanger themselves by seeking attention online we need to recognise that bars, parks, cafes and civic entities fell silent while Instagram and Twitter roared with life. Social media has taken the strain because we have allowed our public spaces to crumble.


Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover