Digital dark age.
thought digest, 08.07.2023
It’s been a while since I did one of these. Mostly it’s because I haven’t had much to say.
These fallow periods have been a long-standing feature of this blog—some seasons are more fertile than others—and in general, absences strike me as something a blogger shouldn’t have to acknowledge. I’m sure many don’t. But since blogging has been formalized as “content creation,” and there are all these rules around how to do it correctly, here we are. That and I’ve received a number of surprisingly angry emails about how infrequently I post.
What’s the future of content creation, I wonder?
I’m not sure. People are certainly still making money. I’m always struck when I hear about the success of some contrarian YouTuber or confessional TikToker, or political podcaster—part of me feels like it’s dated. Is the Millennial Internet, that same Internet that created the influencer and the content creator, really dying, or do we just think it should be dead by now?
It feels like the appropriate time for it to all go away, for some big change. But we’re not there yet.
A while ago, I (along with several others) predicted the death of social media and a pursuing Digital Dark Age spurred by a lack of serious archival work and a preference for group chats over public feeds. In my mind, we were approaching a digital landscape with no e-celebrities; no Current Thing; no real Zeitgeist to speak of.
A content winter—both past and present—that would further fragment culture.
Though many argue that’s the reality we’re living in now and have been living in for some time, I don’t think so. Remember, people still use Facebook; you’re just not one of them. There are still cultural touchpoints recognizable to most people, Barbenheimer being one that’s almost too obvious to name.
Micro-celebrities and influencers still rise and fall in popularity, and so do more traditional celebrities. There’s no such thing as “too many new podcasts” in the same way that there’s no such thing as “too many new TV shows.” You might move from cable to streaming, but an essential part of the medium's spirit is still there.
Legacy publications have reach, even if their influence has changed shape. Being featured in the New York Times, to give one example, can still be a huge boost for someone’s career. With how some people talk, you’d think nobody is reading these things, not even the headlines. I think that’s demonstrably false. What might be true is something I suspect has always been true: different socioeconomic classes prefer different news outlets. So what?
What’s cemented my belief that some cohesive, mass culture still exists—that we might be atomized, but our culture isn’t—has been traveling and talking to people.
No matter where I am in the country, most of what people share about their world is immediately recognizable: the music, the websites, the apps, their interests, the social dynamics, all of it. Even many of the internet personalities and subcultures that people love to say are obscure are better known than even I anticipated.
I don’t live the same lives as these people, but they’re not aliens. Maybe this is a faulty way of thinking on my part, but is it such a bad litmus test?
But then there’s also the issue of “the perpetual now” of the Internet.
The precarity of “our digital past,” as Nana Thylstrup called it, is well-known. Old blogs get deleted, both by platforms and people; the Internet Archive is under constant assault; search engines are eroding; streaming platforms disappear movies and television all the time.
On a personal level, how many of us lost our entire adolescence to Photobucket accounts we can no longer into? What happens in 30 years when my kids want to look at pictures of me as a young adult, but sorry baby, they were spread across Instagram, Google Photos, and iCloud, none of which exist anymore?
Big Tech collects and razes through data like it’s nothing and there’s nothing we can do.
Even more significant is how we value what we post online.
Think of all the stuff we didn’t think to record because we thought it was trivial or irrelevant. Imagine how much has been lost to nobody bothering to archive certain Facebook Groups or private LiveJournal communities. There might be a few important ones that have been preserved thanks to some graduate student somewhere, but it’s probably fewer than ideal. That reads like a joke, but I’m completely serious.
Do I have an inclination towards information hoarding, or do I rightfully see that, e.g., the Facebook Groups where people fleshed out their political identities in the 2010s might be a valuable resource for sociologists?
You can find people who remember these things, but good luck if you don’t know where to look. And even if you do, so many digital subcultures long to remain illegible and treat anyone who wants to write about them with suspicion. It pains me to say that the suspicion is usually warranted, so much of what has been recorded is distorted or the source material misunderstood. God knows that I’ve been guilty of that myself.
Anyway. I guess there have been some things on my mind after all.
Writing around the web:
Below the cut is an early draft of a piece about dating, femcels, you know, all the usual stuff.