Why criticizing the Internet is so difficult 

Photo by: Brenden Cowan

For some time the Internet has been viewed as an unalloyed good in connecting the globe through the free flow of information. However, this utopian view makes it extremely difficult to rightfully criticize large aspects of the Internet.

For those who are digital natives — meaning you’ve grown up with the ubiquity of the Internet — the idea that the world’s largest database has only cast sunshine and rainbows on our lives probably comes off as dubious at best. That being said, disillusionment when it comes to the negative societal effects of Internetization is less and less something that Gen Z has a monopoly of experience on as parents have been getting hooked to social media since the 2010s.  

The truth is most of us are internet dwellers, well over half of the human population has access to the internet. The tricky question is how do you criticize aspects of something you use all the time? 

The first step should be to see what most people are using the Internet for but the statistics get muddy here. Most studies agree that the number one reason people use the web is to “find information.” The issue is that “finding information” is vague. For example, scrolling Twitter hashtags to learn about the recent Kanye West scandal is technically finding information as is intensively reading a UN climate report online. 

A study from Kepios this year shows that there are 4.74 billion social media users around the globe as of October this year. 

The issue is that most are aware that social media technologies are addictive and often harmful to minors’ mental health — especially for girls and young women — but it’s difficult to articulate that in a progressive way. If you want to get people’s attention about said issues there’s often only a few places where you can get a lot of attention now: those very social medias. 

There have been voices, however, that manage to effectively communicate the harmful aspects of Internetization and social media addiction. The first is musician-comedian Bo Burnham who has pointed out the fact that social media relies on the current economic model of “Growth, Growth, Growth!” Instead of that growth finding its object in land expansion, like in the past, growth now figures in terms of capturing attention spans to gain advertising revenue. Burnham outlines the resulting mental detachment due to this new growth model:

“The kids know it. The whole joke on the Internet is everyone’s like ‘This place sucks, right?’… That’s why their memes are all ironic and detached, and self-referential and 12 layers deep, because truth is completely dead to them and they know it.” 

Burnham’s Netflix special from last year, Inside, can be seen as featuring a suite of specific criticisms related to social media habits that have formed around truth being “completely dead.” The key in Burnham’s critical rhetoric, though, is that he politicizes this issue using the language of the detached, ironic youth—infiltrating it from the inside, so to speak, as the whole “woke” Socko bit from his recent special exemplifies.

People forget that the Internet became highly lucrative through a lot of the changes that came with Web 2.0 in the late aughts that made the financial and technical barriers for entry low for those looking to market their business because of the then burgeoning model of user’s content-based sites such as YouTube, MySpace, Google, etc. Politicizing this shift is important. 

Furthermore, artists have been at the forefront of Internet criticism for some time. 

Highly-regarded independent musical acts from this decade and last that owe their rise to the Internet such as JPEGMafia, Phoebe Bridgers, Death Grips and others often have one theme in common in their music: the effects of the Internet on an emotional level. Sentiments of overstimulation, post-ironic detachment, point-of-entry narcissism, even violence, figure into these artists’ work in some way or another. 

A Death Grips track called “Culture Shock” from 2011 lyrically investigates this issue with an almost prophetic foresight given the year it was released:

“You speak in abbreviations because real life conversation moves too slow / You’re the media’s creation, yeah your free will has been taken and you don’t know… Whatchya gonna be when you’re grown young blood? / Gonna be a helpless drone /  Won’t ever have to think / No your head’ll be linked directly to your cell phone / The virus is alive, I can see it in your eyes / The infection is full blown” 

Politicizing and aestheticizing the discontent that internet addiction has fomented in younger people is one of the most effective ways of getting the ball rolling on changing the most addictive aspects of the web. Artists that are doing this in highly effective ways like the ones mentioned above are the first step in getting that message across in the mainstream. The trickier part is translating these issues into legislation and systemic change, to get the people with political power to take them seriously. 

If social media didn’t run on a growth model it could be completely reimagined as a place for genuinely productive, far-reaching interactions that lead to actual concrete changes to the world instead of non-stop scrolling that serves the interests of advertisers and the wealthy. 

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