This week’s post is disjointed and I’m not really satisfied with how it turned out, but hey, it’s a post!
I am not happy with the way I use the internet. I continually refresh the same websites, hoping something new has appeared since last time—usually there’s nothing. Occasionally I’ll find something interesting, but it’s never worth the time I’ve wasted. The slot machine analogy, though clichéd, is still relevant. I feel a little spark of excitement and anticipation every time I check, and that strengthens the compulsion, even though I am disappointed most of the time.
This is a problem, because it’s not like I’m enjoying myself while doing it. I’m not getting distracted and only realizing what I’ve done hours later. I’m constantly, miserably hyper-aware that I’m wasting time—that the majority of what I’m reading isn’t important, useful, or even interesting to me. I’d rather read a book. Instead, I keep going, afraid that if I don’t, I’ll miss something that would make my time spent worthwhile. But nothing could possibly be good enough to outweigh such a massive cost.
For some sites—like blogs—there is a simple solution. Instead of checking compulsively to see if they updated, I simply follow them in Feedly, my RSS reader of choice. This reduces the number of sites I need to check to just one. If nothing has updated, there’s no possibility of having my attention sucked away, because I will be met with an empty screen. Other sites offer newsletters. When new articles come out, I will be sent an email. If I don’t get the email, I don’t need to bother checking the site.
It’s not blogs I compulsively waste my time checking, though. Blogs are nice. Blogs only update once every few days, if that. Blogs are of reliable quality because they’re the work of a single person. No, the culprits are social media sites and content aggregators—Twitter, Reddit, Hacker News, etc. These sites are near-continuous fire hoses of content, so an RSS feed is pointless. Plus, the average quality is incredibly low because literally anyone can make an account. I can’t remember the last time I found something legitimately good on Reddit.
My life would improve immeasurably if I never visited these sites again—perhaps. But for some reason, I find this difficult to do. I’ve tried using browser add-ons to block my access to certain sites, or to limit the amount of time I spend on them per day, but these are trivial to circumvent and I always do. I don’t even think such measures are the correct solution to the problem; what I need is something outside the internet to occupy my time with. But it’s a vicious cycle, because I’m too busy with the internet to get deeper into my hobbies! Plus, I don’t want to avoid using these sites entirely. Reddit is occasionally the only place one can find answers to certain questions. YouTube is how I became such a good cook. I have friends on Twitter and sometimes even enjoy it. How do I reduce the amount of time I spend on these sites without just quitting them cold turkey forever? What does a healthy relationship with the internet look like?
A few more unorganized thoughts about the internet.
If you’ve been on a content aggregator for long enough, you begin to notice that a lot of the best content comes from the same few sites. For example, the majority of the time I find something legitimately interesting on Hacker News, it’s from Quanta Magazine, Nautilus, or some other magazine in that general space. Wouldn’t it be better to follow those sites directly (via RSS or newsletters, of course) and skip the Hacker News step entirely? Of course it would. The fear, though, is that by doing that I’d be missing out on new sites to follow.
I think the key to avoiding this whole mess I’m in is to trust that the people around me will link me to anything interesting they find, or that I can just ask if anyone knows an interesting source on a particular topic.
You also notice that the comments are basically never worth reading. Large subreddits, for example, routinely have chains of comments dozens of levels deep, each making a slightly different variation on the same joke in a desperate attempt to accumulate karma. There are a thousand low-effort joke/meme comments for every normal comment, and a thousand normal comments for every comment that is actually worth reading. Who has the time to search through all that?
There’s also the problem of the Eternal September. No subreddit can ever progress, because new members are constantly flooding in and asking the same old questions they always ask. On the /r/piano, for example, every post is either a request for someone to identify a chord or a symbol on their sheet music they don’t recognize, someone posting a video of their own playing, or someone showing off their new piano. It will never move past that.
Another problem is leaky boundaries between subcultures. Reddit actually scores relatively well on this, since everyone is siloed into different subreddits, but Twitter is the worst offender. There’s no way to only follow certain people or subjects, or to talk in peace, because everyone retweets everyone else. The Scholar’s Stage articulates it best in The World That Twitter Made:
See, twitter is not a constellation of carefully moderated communities. The users of twitter are one great mass. The ponds and lakes of the blogosphere have emptied into a heaving sea. In this sea, twitter users are linked together, but linked weakly. They are unmoderated, unorganized, atomized—but stuck all together. A retweet can roll through the lot in a day.
Communities of a sort still exist on twitter, but they are mashed together in an unhealthy way. Many of these communities will be filled with people whose base assumptions about how the world works are 100% different than your own. That is fine. It is quite possible to talk honestly to people who don’t share your commitments—but of course the way one does this is very different from how you talk to someone whose world view aligns 85% with your own. On twitter you do not get to refine your message for either group. On twitter you project to everyone at once.
All the best sites are carefully curated walled gardens, where only a select few people are allowed to post. I often wish we could go back to the old internet of blogs and forums, well-defined communities around different topics, where there are few enough people in your bubble that you can get to know them. In The internet as we know it is doomed, Annalee Newitz puts forth the idea that the internet will collapse back into smaller societies the same way that civilization did in the late Neolithic period.
These Neolithic metropolises, though rare, were incredibly long-lived — some were continuously inhabited for 2,000 years. We know of their existence because their inhabitants changed the landscape permanently, leaving dramatic hills of crumbling brick and debris behind. But then, about 7500 years ago, something changed. People abandoned their larger settlements and went back to small communities, many of them moving seasonally rather than sticking with settled, agricultural life.
Large cities didn’t re-emerge in the region for about 2,000 years. And when they did, they were shockingly different; they were essentially city-states, with kings and taxes and slaves.
She doesn’t really “make an argument” so much as say “hey, this event is superficially similar to this other hypothetical event, maybe that means the hypothetical event will happen because of
magic reasons!” I doubt this will actually happen, but if it does, it would be the best thing to happen online for a long time. I am rooting for it.