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The year we wanted the internet to be smaller

The year we wanted the internet to be smaller


Why tiny, weird online communities made a comeback in 2017

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Americans got tired of big social media in 2017. Or at least, we stopped wanting to look at it, and we stopped pretending to like it.

This feels true to me as someone who uses the internet every day, but I also know it’s true because when The Verge partnered with Reticle Research to conduct a representative survey of Americans’ attitudes towards tech’s biggest power players, 15.4 percent of Facebook users said they “greatly” or “somewhat” disliked using the product, while 17 percent of Twitter users said the same. That made them the most disliked of the six companies in question, which also included Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon. More than 10 percent of respondents described Facebook’s effect on society as “very negative,” and 10.5 percent said the same about Twitter — in both cases a higher number than the other four companies combined.

The survey doesn’t reveal why Americans feel the way they do, but last December, writing about the impulse to call 2016 “the worst year ever,” The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino articulated a pretty good guess as to why spending your time on the web’s massive, news-saturated platforms might feel so bad: “There is no limit to the amount of misfortune a person can take in via the internet,” she says. 2016 couldn’t possibly be the worst year in history, Tolentino decided, but it was the year that convinced her the promise of the social media had been false, and that “the internet would only ever induce the sense of powerlessness that comes when the sphere of what a person can influence remains static, while the sphere of what can influence us seems to expand without limit, allowing no respite at all.”

The consequences of connection were not part of what we were sold

The mainstream social internet is so big; everyone is connected to everyone, over a billion on Facebook alone. The consequences of connection — fake news, radicalization, massive targeted harassment campaigns, algorithmically-generated psychological torment, inane bullshit — were not part of what we were sold. We don’t really have the option of moving our lives off of the internet, and coordinated boycotts of our monstrous platforms have been brief and mostly fruitless. But many of us found ways to renegotiate the terms of how we spent our time online. Rather than the enormous platforms that couldn’t decide if, let alone how they had contributed to the election of a deranged narcissist or the rise of the virulently racist alt-right or a pending nuclear holocaust, why not something smaller, safer, more immediately useful?

The old promise of the internet — niche communities, human connection, people exchanging ideas, maybe even paying each other for the work they’d made — never really lost its appeal, but this year it came back with a miniature vengeance.

We can see this longing for community — and specifically, the sort of small, weird communities that populated and defined the early internet — everywhere. There’s Amino, the Tumblr-inspired app that lets fandoms build online spaces that are essentially club houses, then coordinate the creation of elaborate works of fan art, fiction, cosplay, and fandom lore. At the request of its largely teenage audience, the platform released its first cosplay yearbook this December, and doled out honors to the best writing, photography, and tutorials around cosplay. The thousands of fandom-specific rooms are lively and strange, each with their own moderators and byzantine rules.

And there’s the kids who are bending major platforms to their will, having their fun on Instagram but circumventing the intended use by making “finstagrams,” separate, strange accounts that aren’t tied to the Facebook social graph and therefore let users post weirder, funnier content they wouldn’t share to everyone they know.

It’s a direct precedent of the bonkers “niche meme” trend The Daily Beast’s Taylor Lorenz detailed last month, wherein teenagers use MS Paint and Word Art aesthetics to write surreal diary entries structured as memes. Niche meme accounts aren’t meant for a broad audience, and they’re often anonymous. Sharing isn’t about the likes; it’s about “finding ‘your people’ on the massive sea of Instagram.” One of the teenagers she interviewed told her, “Having this community of people who are like us helps us express our feelings and opinions that are usually just ignored.”

2017 saw the coming-of-age of Patreon, “the economic engine of internet culture”

As political and economic uncertainty swirled around them, we also saw creatives making back-up plans in 2017. Patreon grew up this year, with missteps along the way, and in recognition of its success, Kickstarter launched the direct competitor Drip. My co-worker Adi Robertson called Patreon “the economic engine of internet culture” in August, and explained how its model “encourages people to see themselves not as consumers, but as members of a private club, free from the constraints of mainstream gatekeepers or mass-market appeal.” That model can support podcasts, comics, art, memes, nudes, whatever people want to create, no matter how specific or strange, as long as there are people out there who want the same thing.

Patreon provides a crucial place where the people who are making internet culture can to get paid for it and build small communities around their work. As beloved as Vine was, and Tumblr and SoundCloud still are, none of them ever found a meaningful way to reward and support artists. Getting money from a patron or subscriber lets weird, niche projects stay weird and niche, catered to a specific and modest audience, and saves artists from the gross chore of chasing the lowest common denominator and the millions of eyeballs you need to make real money from ads or sponsorship deals.

The appeal of a specific, engaged audience is also responsible for the return of community email. Newsletters distributed only through the “phone tree” friend-to-acquaintance-to-friendly-stranger model were wildly popular in the days of early email and early blogging, took a nearly two-decade break, then reappeared thanks to a Miranda July pet project, the buzzy 2012 email community Listserve, and most notably, the 2013 founding of TinyLetter. As part of a May 2017 New Yorker survey of the death of the public personal essay and the return of email newsletters, Awl alum Carrie Frye speculated that writers, and female writers in particular, have declared to themselves, “I’m going to make an Internet on which my essays go out in pneumatic tubes to just who I want them to go to, and no one else.” Newsletters are an easy a way to build that tiny, private audience away from the ugliness of the internet at large. TinyLetter has a cap at 5,000 subscribers, and it has no discovery or explore section.

One of the more fascinating internet projects of this year, the briefly-lived platform Double Bounce married the subscriber-based structure of Patreon and the personalized distribution model of TinyLetter. You could only subscribe to an artist’s work if the URL was shared directly, or in a different public space, and users could place whatever they wanted behind a paywall. It was an appealing prospect for creators with modest followings, especially those looking to “refocus away from massive distribution sites that sell everything to advertising companies, [and] focus on smaller, more tight-knit communities.” The basic idea was that not everyone needs to be an “internet megastar” to prove that their work has value.

“I love the internet. Everything I ever liked came from the internet.”

Double Bounce is shuttering at the end of the year, but it was good while it lasted. “I love the internet. Everything I ever liked came from the internet,” founder Alex Carusillo told me. “The internet when I was younger was just a bunch of weirdo strangers who were all weirdo strangers together and felt like a community for that.” He says he doesn’t care if someone else brings the idea back to life; it’s just something he thinks should exist.

Advocates of a weird, niche internet took other hits in 2017, the first full year without Vine and a crisis period for SoundCloud. Tumblr’s future grew murkier this year, as it was acquired by Verizon and folded into a nightmarish mega-corporation. Then, in November, following months of silence and public absence, CEO and founder David Karp stepped down. Karp was abnormally beloved for a CEO, called “daddy” for years by Tumblr’s most active users, and without him, it would stand to reason that Tumblr now feels like a less special place. But communities are resilient and the mostly young, majority-female userbase of the platform had a great year regardless. They taught each other witchcraft in hopes of improving the dire political situation around them, even while the tools they’d been taught in school (call your senators, read the news) were failing them. They doubled down on “wholesome memes,” a genre of internet humor where the joke is just “this is nice, whereas everything else is sarcastic or mean.” They continued to be funnier than anyone I have met in real life.

For her expansive 2016 research project The Lonely City, writer Olivia Laing wandered New York alone and studied the artists who lived their lives on the fringes there — both those who were eventually celebrated and those who died in obscurity. Many of her subjects made their work during the AIDS crisis and were killed by the disease, or were otherwise neglected or tormented by the society they lived in. She argues, convincingly, that the fact of anyone’s individual loneliness cannot be separated from the fact of the country they are trying to exist in. “The vicious circle by which loneliness proceeds does not happen in isolation, but rather as an interplay between the individual and the society in which they are embedded," she wrote.

She was talking about a specific American city, but her statement applies just as readily to the internet. It’s a place. Much of what people have expected from traditional community structures — affirmation, information, a back-stop in the case of financial catastrophe or unwieldy loneliness —  can feel more readily available online than it does in a society that seems to relish deepening the gulfs between us.

I, for one, spent the vast majority of 2017 retreating into a tiny, email-based community of my own making, with a handful of charming strangers who shared my idiotic, overwrought affection for the actor Jake Gyllenhaal. All we ever did was share photos we’d seen before and thank each other for existing, but I suspected we were responsible for each other in some slim, uncategorizable way.

we are responsible for each other in some slim, uncategorizable way

At The Verge, we used to argue amongst ourselves about whether internet culture was “internet culture” or just “culture.” It now seems useful to debate whether the internet itself is “the internet” or simply the world. For better and for worse, the latter proved itself to be true this year. The internet Nazis were real Nazis; they live in America. The #resistance was a sloppy but real and tangible resistance; it happened in America and it sometimes worked. The kids stormed McDonald’s to scream about a Rick and Morty reference; the kids asked for help for their families.

Every banal, stupid thing you hate about living in the world is also something you can hate about the internet, and every good, vital thing that keeps you walking around without your face in your armpit is also on the internet. In that sense, the online world has ceased to be interesting. Here we are; it’s where we live. I guess it is fitting that — just like the planet our bodies sit on — the whole thing is in immediate, grave peril.

So much of what happens to anyone, offline and online, is the fault of everyone — our collaborative structures, our massive platforms. The people in charge at Facebook and Twitter are just getting around to saying so, but the rest of us have made it clear that we already knew. “Loneliness is personal, and it is also political,” Laing concludes. “Loneliness is collective; it is a city.” The vast digital metropolis of the internet — that place that was supposed to make us feel never alone — failed us this year; we built what we needed on its outskirts.