Why the Internet Isn’t Fun Anymore

“The social-media Web as we knew it, a place where we consumed the posts of our fellow-humans and posted in return, appears to be over,” Kyle Chayka writes in a new column. Who’s to blame? Elon Musk? Mark Zuckerberg? Maybe it is all of us, for becoming passive consumers of content rather than participants or creators. Chayka traces the problem to the consolidation and commodification of the Web. “I have been trying to recall the times I’ve had fun online unencumbered by anonymous trolling, automated recommendations, or runaway monetization schemes,” he writes. “It was a long time ago, before social networks became the dominant highways of the Internet.”

Lately on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, my timeline is filled with vapid posts orbiting the same few topics like water whirlpooling down a drain. Last week, for instance, the chatter was dominated by talk of Taylor Swift’s romance with the football player Travis Kelce. If you tried to talk about anything else, the platform’s algorithmic feed seemed to sweep you into irrelevance. Users who pay for Elon Musk’s blue-check verification system now dominate the platform, often with far-right-wing commentary and outright disinformation; Musk rewards these users monetarily based on the engagement that their posts drive, regardless of their veracity. The decay of the system is apparent in the spread of fake news and mislabelled videos related to Hamas’s attack on Israel.

Elsewhere online, things are similarly bleak. Instagram’s feed pushes months-old posts and product ads instead of photos from friends. Google search is cluttered with junky results, and S.E.O. hackers have ruined the trick of adding “Reddit” to searches to find human-generated answers. Meanwhile, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, in its latest bid for relevance, is reportedly developing artificial-intelligence chatbots with various “sassy” personalities that will be added to its apps, including a role-playing D. & D. Dungeon Master based on Snoop Dogg. The prospect of interacting with such a character sounds about as appealing as texting with one of those spam bots that asks you if they have the right number.

The social-media Web as we knew it, a place where we consumed the posts of our fellow-humans and posted in return, appears to be over. The precipitous decline of X is the bellwether for a new era of the Internet that simply feels less fun than it used to be. Remember having fun online? It meant stumbling onto a Web site you’d never imagined existed, receiving a meme you hadn’t already seen regurgitated a dozen times, and maybe even playing a little video game in your browser. These experiences don’t seem as readily available now as they were a decade ago. In large part, this is because a handful of giant social networks have taken over the open space of the Internet, centralizing and homogenizing our experiences through their own opaque and shifting content-sorting systems. When those platforms decay, as Twitter has under Elon Musk, there is no other comparable platform in the ecosystem to replace them. A few alternative sites, including Bluesky and Discord, have sought to absorb disaffected Twitter users. But like sproutlings on the rain-forest floor, blocked by the canopy, online spaces that offer fresh experiences lack much room to grow.

One Twitter friend told me, of the platform’s current condition, “I’ve actually experienced quite a lot of grief over it.” It may seem strange to feel such wistfulness about a site that users habitually referred to as a “hellsite.” But I’ve heard the same from many others who once considered Twitter, for all its shortcomings, a vital social landscape. Some of them still tweet regularly, but their messages are less likely to surface in my Swift-heavy feed. Musk recently tweeted that the company’s algorithm “tries to optimize time spent on X” by, say, boosting reply chains and downplaying links that might send people away from the platform. The new paradigm benefits tech-industry “thread guys,” prompt posts in the “what’s your favorite Marvel movie” vein, and single-topic commentators like Derek Guy, who tweets endlessly about menswear. Algorithmic recommendations make already popular accounts and subjects even more so, shutting out the smaller, more magpie-ish voices that made the old version of Twitter such a lively destination. (Guy, meanwhile, has received so much algorithmic promotion under Musk that he accumulated more than half a million followers.)

The Internet today feels emptier, like an echoing hallway, even as it is filled with more content than ever. It also feels less casually informative. Twitter in its heyday was a source of real-time information, the first place to catch wind of developments that only later were reported in the press. Blog posts and TV news channels aggregated tweets to demonstrate prevailing cultural trends or debates. Today, they do the same with TikTok posts—see the many local-news reports of dangerous and possibly fake “TikTok trends”—but the TikTok feed actively dampens news and political content, in part because its parent company is beholden to the Chinese government’s censorship policies. Instead, the app pushes us to scroll through another dozen videos of cooking demonstrations or funny animals. In the guise of fostering social community and user-generated creativity, it impedes direct interaction and discovery.

According to Eleanor Stern, a TikTok video essayist with nearly a hundred thousand followers, part of the problem is that social media is more hierarchical than it used to be. “There’s this divide that wasn’t there before, between audiences and creators,” Stern said. The platforms that have the most traction with young users today—YouTube, TikTok, and Twitch—function like broadcast stations, with one creator posting a video for her millions of followers; what the followers have to say to one another doesn’t matter the way it did on the old Facebook or Twitter. Social media “used to be more of a place for conversation and reciprocity,” Stern said. Now conversation isn’t strictly necessary, only watching and listening.

Posting on social media might be a less casual act these days, as well, because we’ve seen the ramifications of blurring the border between physical and digital lives. Instagram ushered in the age of self-commodification online—it was the platform of the selfie—but TikTok and Twitch have turbocharged it. Selfies are no longer enough; video-based platforms showcase your body, your speech and mannerisms, and the room you’re in, perhaps even in real time. Everyone is forced to perform the role of an influencer. The barrier to entry is higher and the pressure to conform stronger. It’s no surprise, in this environment, that fewer people take the risk of posting and more settle into roles as passive consumers.

Many newcomers to this field have no idea how the infamous World Wide Web came about. To truly understand what the Internet is, one needs a historical perspective on its origins.

The Internet originated in the United States during the Cold War era. The goal was to develop a system for exchanging information between computers so that it would always be possible to receive information, even if one of the networked computers was disconnected or destroyed, or if one of the connections between computers was interrupted.

At that time, the objectives were solely military, and for a period of time, this method of connecting computers was exclusive to the American military forces. In 1969, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) developed ARPANET.

Through this information exchange system, it became possible to deliver the intended information to its destination in a short amount of time and without the risk of information exchange being interrupted. The study and development of this network involved packet switching, which means that information is divided into "small packets" and sent via the best available routes, with the information being reassembled at the receiving end, as each packet contains the necessary information to do so. Another problem to be solved was making the information viewable even using different computers and operating systems, among other variables.

In addition to connecting military computers, a network was created between four American universities. ARPANET allowed these university networks to connect and exchange information. This laid the foundation for the Internet as we know it today. Despite this, control of this network remained in the hands of the military, with restricted access.

In the late 1970s, protocols were developed to enable communication between computers and networks, regardless of the equipment or software used. In 1983, ARPANET was split into two networks: MILNET and ARPANET.

The first was exclusively for military use, while the second was dedicated to research and development. This made the Internet increasingly accessible and expanded its user base. Additionally, the TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) and IP (Internet Protocol) were adopted, contributing significantly to its development. IP enabled communication between computers, while TCP ensured greater data transmission security, among other functionalities.

From this point on, the Internet continued to grow in terms of users. Although it was initially designed for academic and educational purposes, it has now become an increasingly popular means of communication among users.

Kyle Chayka