Can the internet ever be fun again?
The internet isn’t fun anymore. That’s the claim made in a recent New Yorker article1. A claim with which I agree.
So why isn’t the internet fun anymore? Let’s answer that by first looking at why the internet was fun in the first place.
In the early days, people were on the internet because they wanted to be. These early adopters were curious and adventurous, at least in a digital sense, so they experimented to see what the internet was, what it could be, and how they could help shape it. No one yet knew what would work. For better and for worse, there were no best practices. So people took chances and made strange sites that appealed to certain niches, thereby creating digital communities. And if you stuck around, you’d accepted that everyone you knew wouldn’t be on the World Wide Web. More than that, you embraced this fact. The uncertainty that accompanied not knowing what you’d find was a feature, not a bug.
Compare those early days to the current state of the internet. People aren’t on the internet because they want to be, but because they feel they need to be. For many of us, an internet presence is self promotional. We put the time in because we hope to get something tangible in return–something that shows our time ‘invested’ was worth it. (For the record, this applies at times to your author. Otherwise, I wouldn’t still have a LinkedIn profile.)
On today’s internet, most people don’t want to spend time in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar faces. Most of us don’t want to start over with new social networks and new communities, in part because pursuing something new means taking time away from something you’ve built elsewhere. A couple decades ago, trying something new on the internet was a great example of having nothing to lose and everything to gain. Now, for many of us, the opposite is true.
Also, digital communities are harder to come by. Twitter/X, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube–these aren’t communities. They’re instead mega aggregators. People don’t use these services because of a shared interest. They’re on these services simply because they are. Because they’re online. And now, thanks to the abundance of broadband Wi-Fi and smart phones, simply being online isn’t the gatekeeper it once was.
Is it any wonder no one seems happy when the internet feels like a ubiquitous obligation? We’re no longer online to have fun. Instead, we’re like Marshawn Lynch–‘I’m just here so I won’t get fined’2.
But Lynch, an NFL running back, was contractually obligated to attend interviews. So he made light of the obligation wherever he could. Most of us don’t have to be online. But we feel as if we must, so we don’t contribute to the community.
And then there are the issues of the look and feel of the internet.
The internet is now highly centralized, dominated by four of five major players. Any new platform that gains attention risks being acquired by one of the majors and maybe abandoned or shut down. And most sites sites not owned by the big players are plastered in ads and popups and autoplay videos, making the content you came for inaccessible, particularly on mobile.
The modern internet has been optimized–not for users, but for corporations. And as the great poet Cyndi Lauper warned us four decades ago, money changes everything.3
Anything that gains a major following online and sticks around will most likely be monetized at some point, as it deserves to be. Maintaining these sites and services isn’t free. So, is this just the fate of the internet for the most part? Was the era of fun a brief window in the late ’90s and early 2000s? Is it gone forever?
Jake LaCaze wants the internet to be fun again.