The Internet Doesn’t Exist

Jacob Silverman   June 03, 2015
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Few people talk about “the Telephone” as if it were some person or place, as they do with the Internet. / Joel D.Oliveira

The Internet has been very busy. In just the last week, Caitlyn Jenner broke the Internet, but she also united it. The FCC made war on the Internet. The Internet shamed a couple. The Internet had a dark side, Nikki Finke was barred from the Internet, the Supreme Court made the Internet less safe for women, the Internet named a famous fetus, the Internet did stuff with a superhero movie, and the Internet changed. A girl also won the Internet, Jack White had a difficult history with the Internet, and the Internet “shafted” a Canadian journalist.

“The Internet” is the universal straw man, a hero or villain for every occasion. The Internet, the Internet, the Internet—this decentralized communications network has long been granted a proper noun and practically a degree of sentience. Yet few people talk about “the Telephone” as if it were some person or place, though perhaps they once did. This eagerness to grant the Internet some degree of autonomy—to make it into an actor, an entity—stems in part from its apparent abstraction. Where does all this information come from? As Ray Bradbury famously said, “To hell with you and to hell with the Internet. It’s distracting. It’s meaningless; it’s not real. It’s in the air somewhere.” 

Bradbury wasn’t just slipping into kneejerk techno-fear. He was also guilty of the same fallacy that crops up again and again in digital journalism: the assumption that the Internet is some monolithic mass, a discrete population or interest group. “It’s distracting,” Bradbury said, without specifying what “it” was.

But in another, more important way, Bradbury was absolutely right: the Internet doesn’t exist.

A couple years ago, Rachel Law, a grad student at Parsons at the time, had this to say: “The ‘Internet’ does not exist. Instead, it is many overlapping filter bubbles which selectively curate us into data objects to be consumed and purchased by advertisers.” As she also said, a bit less academically, “Browsing is now determined by your consumer profile and what you see, hear and the feeds you receive are tailored from your friends’ lists, emails, online purchases, etc.”

What we call the Internet—and what web writers so lazily draw on for their work—is less a hive mind or a throng or a gathering place and more a personalized set of online maneuvers guided by algorithmic recommendations. When we look at our browser windows, we see our own particular interests, social networks, and purchasing histories scrambled up to stare back at us. But because we haven’t found a shared discourse to talk about this complex arrangement of competing influences and relationships, we reach for a term to contain it all. Enter “the Internet.”

The Internet is a linguistic trope but also an ideology and even a business plan. If your job is to create content out of (mostly) nothing, then you can always turn to something/someone that “the Internet” is mad or excited about. And you don’t have to worry about alienating readers because “the Internet” is so general, so vast and all-encompassing, that it always has room. This form of writing is widely adaptable. Now it’s common to see stories where “Facebook” or “Twitter” stands in for the Internet, offering approval or judgment on the latest viral schlock. Choose your (anec)data carefully, and Twitter can tell any story you want.

We fall back on “the Internet” because it gives us a rhetorical life raft to hang onto amidst an overwhelming tide of information or a piece of sardonic shorthand to utter with a wink and a grimace, much like “never read the comments.” It also reflects a strange irony about today’s culture: despite being highly distributed, and despite offering an outlet for every subculture and niche interest and political quirk, what we think of the Internet often does feel rather uniform and monolithic.

This impression is partly based in fact; the tech and media industries are currently undergoing a kind of recentralization, exemplified by the rise of massive platforms like Facebook and recent mega-deals, such as Verizon buying AOL or Charter Communications (who?) snapping up Time Warner Cable. Attention is increasingly being manipulated and auctioned off by a handful of big conglomerates. The relegation of Twitter to also-ran in the social media sweepstakes—the loser to Facebook in the rush to industry monopoly—also reflects this centralization. That a company with hundreds of millions of users can seem like a failure only shows how bad the market is at apportioning value. (But there I go falling into abstractions again—as if there is anything called “the market.”)

“The Internet” is easy, a convenient reference point and an essential concept for web journalists tasked with surfacing monetizable content from this great informational morass. Digital culture, or writing about “what people are talking about on the Internet,” is considered its own beat now. But in the same way that someone born in the 1980s might not think of himself as a millennial—an arbitrary distinction crafted by demographers and marketers—a user of an online service is not necessarily from, or part of, the Internet. Even some of the subcultures often held up as part of the Internet are mostly notional. Is “Black Twitter” a specific, homogenous entity, as it’s so often described in news coverage? Or is it more something that people do, a set of social relations acted out by varying groups of mostly black Twitter users?

The more we write about what takes place online as if it occurred in some other world, the more we fail to relate this communication system, and everything that happens through it, to the society around us. To understand the Internet, we have to destroy it as an idea.