The Internet Isn’t Dead
It's just resting.
WIRED senior writer Kate Knibbs argues, “The Internet Isn’t Dead. It’s Saturday Night Live.”
The internet sucks now. Once a playground fueled by experimentation and freedom and connection, it’s a flimsy husk of what it was, all merriment and serendipity leached from our screens by vile capitalist forces. Everything is too commercialized. We commodified the self, then we commodified robots to impersonate the self, and now they’re taking our damn jobs. We live in diminished and degrading times. I miss when memes were funny. I miss Vine. I miss Gawker. I miss old Twitter. Blogs—those were the days!
Stop me if these gripes sound familiar. In 2023, the idea that the internet isn’t fun anymore is conventional wisdom. This year, after Elon Musk renamed Twitter “X” and instituted a series of berserk changes that made it substantially less functional, complaints about the demise of the good internet popped up like mushrooms sprouting in dirt tossed over a fresh grave. Some people even complained on the very platforms they were mourning. Type “internet sucks now” into X’s search bar, you’ll see.
The New Yorker published an essay by writer Kyle Chayka on the subject, calling the decline of X a “bellwether for a new era of the Internet that simply feels less fun than it used to be.” People loved it. (Sample comments from X: “Relatable.” “Exactly right.”) Chayka claims that it’s now harder to find new memes, websites, and browser games than it was a decade ago. He also argues that the rising crop of platforms popular with young people—Twitch, TikTok—are inferior, enjoyment-wise, to the social web of the 2010s.
Both of these arguments are baffling. Memes fresher in the past? Yes, it’s tiresome to see Tim Robinson in a hot dog costume for the 500th time, but c’mon. In the early 2010s—the years Chayka longs for—the internet was all doge and doggos. It was the era of reaction GIF Tumblrs, the Harlem Shake, the Ice Bucket Challenge. Give me literally any still from I Think You Should Leave over “You Had One Job” epic fail image macros. Only glasses of the rosiest tint could recast the 2013 internet as a shitposting paradise lost.
The argument that the 2010s social web was superior amusement to the platforms now popular with Gen Z is even stranger. TikTok has major issues, but being unfun is not one of them. It’s been a springboard for some genuinely talented people, from comic Brian Jordan Alvarez to writer Rayne Fisher-Quann to chef Tabitha Brown. Binging Twitch streams certainly isn’t my thing, but people aren’t being held at gunpoint and forced to watch seven straight hours of Pokimane. They like it! They’re having fun! And how can one say with a straight face that gaming got worse? Roblox alone is a gleeful world unto itself; to pretend it doesn’t exist and isn’t a vibrant digital hangout is goofy and obtuse.
Corrosion of specific platforms on the internet—X, to pluck the most obvious example—is an observable phenomenon. (I, too, mourn old Twitter.) Musk’s changes to how X operates have made it harder to surface and verify information; his antics have driven away both advertisers and power users and allowed the cryptogrifter class to spam inboxes with invitations to NFT drops and meme coins, resulting in a digital space that feels abandoned and crowded at once. Other platforms, though, are flourishing.
She’s right, of course.
Part of the issue is the degree to which social platforms, especially, have been siloed. I was a pretty heavy user of earlier waves of social media, from blogging to Facebook to Twitter. But I’ve never used Vine, have only a passing familiarity with TikTok, and am only vaguely aware Discord even exists.
Platforms disintegrate routinely. I was never much into MySpace, which was aimed at a younger cohort than me even way back then, but it was the dominant social network until it wasn’t. Those of us of a certain age still mourn the demise of Google Reader. And, yes, I’ve written more than one post lamenting the days when blogging was much more communitarian–probably starting fifteen years ago.
Things change. All the time. Especially on the Internet, which is by definition a work of technology.
Twitter, in particular, gets outsized attention because it’s where the creative class, including the people who write magazine and newspaper articles, congregate. It was already going through enshittification, although mostly just from an inability to scale, before Musk bought it and seemingly torched it just for lulz.
And it’s really, really hard to re-create that sort of community elsewhere. Twitter has been around for almost 18 years now. I’ve been on it almost 17. Bluesky Social, the wannabe replacement that I’ve adopted, doesn’t have anything like Twitter’s critical mass and may never achieve it. Partly, that’s because people who’ve abandoned Twitter have scattered to numerous platforms, not just one. And, partly, it’s because a lot of people—myself included—just aren’t going to expend the time and energy to build a new platform that can just go away at any time.
Regardless, Knibbs’ point is that it was always thus:
The impulse to describe the internet as being in a dire existential crisis is an understandable one, especially if you love going online—it’s easier to get people to pay attention to emergencies, isn’t it? All sorts of decidedly not-dead things get declared dead periodically, from literary criticism to monogamy to Berlin. “My favorite platforms are faltering and I don’t like the new ones” isn’t as compelling a pitch as “The basic experience of goofing off online is on the brink of extinction!!!”
But the basic experience of goofing off and being creative online is not on the brink of extinction. Ten years from now, there will be writers—even if they’re AI chumbots churning out shitty prose on SubstaXitch, the demonic merged iteration of Twitch, Substack, and X our poor children will use—earnestly reminiscing about the good old days of 2023, when that affable menswear guy showed up on everybody’s feeds, and TikTok wasn’t banned in the US. I know this. I know it because during the era that Chayka is now nostalgic for, people were also complaining that they missed the old, good internet. (Real headline from 2015: “The Modern Internet Sucks. Bring Back Geocities.”)
Which leads us to the analogy teased in her headline:
This brings me to my theory about the internet. To understand how people feel about being online, look at how they feel about the long-running sketch comedy television show Saturday Night Live.
Bitching about how SNL is so much worse than it used to be is a time-honored tradition. It has been declared “Saturday Night Dead” regularly since it debuted in 1975, nearly 50 years ago. In 1995, for instance, a New York magazine writer bemoaned the “slow, woozy fall of a treasured pop-culture institution.” The cast at the time included Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Norm Macdonald, and Molly Shannon, all widely considered comedy legends in the present day. In 2017, in fact, New York ranked that cast’s run as the third-best era of SNL, ever, describing it like this: “At its peak, it’s hard to argue the show was ever better.” Quite the reassessment!
It’s indeed true that people have been lamenting SNL’s decline for pretty much as long as I can remember. Knibbs’ argument is that it’s generational:
In 2014, writer Liz Shannon Miller examined the impulse people have to favor whatever era of Saturday Night Live they grew up with and watched during their formative years. “It’s a generational problem that leads to parents and kids just not being able to agree on the talents of John Belushi versus Will Ferrell,” Miller wrote for IndieWire.
A similar sort of generational problem is playing out right now about what it’s like to spend time online. Millennials grew up logging on in the 2000s and 2010s, maturing alongside Facebook. The internet from this era is the internet of our salad days. Of course watching it get eclipsed by a different iteration hurts. Of course some of us look at TikTok and wish it was Twitter—it’s the same impulse that propels family squabbles about whether the Lonely Island guys were funnier than the Please Don’t Destroy boys. Saturday Night Live has always been wildly uneven. Every era now heralded as golden was once pilloried as corny dreck.
To insist that the fun is over is to adopt an overly nostalgic stance, and one that rests on a pathetic fallacy: Just because you aren’t having fun on the internet doesn’t mean the internet itself is broken. It’s what it always has been, a flawed mirror of the cultural moment. It’s fine not to like it. But don’t pretend there aren’t young people alive right now who are having the most fun they’ll ever have online, just as there are young people alive right now who will be raving to their kids about how hilarious Bowen Yang was on SNL—especially compared to the synthetic clones of Gilda Radner and Jimmy Fallon the AI programmed to imitate Lorne Michaels cast in the 2061 season. We don’t need to make the present sound worse than it is. The future will come, soon enough.
I was too young for the inaugural seasons of the show but started watching with some regularity circa 1979, when I was 13 or 14. And, indeed, that cast (Jane Curtin, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Harry Shearer, Al Frankin, Don Novello, etc.) was pretty good. But I was still pretty young during the years when it was pretty much Eddie Murphy carrying the show.
SNL has indeed had some fallow periods but has generally rebounded to brilliance. A confluence of events—moving to the Eastern Time Zone, having kids, getting older, and the ability to simply watch clips on the Internet the next day—has made my days of regularly watching the show a thing of the increasingly distant past.
The main ways that aging has made the show less interesting for me are the musical guests and some of the other pop culture references. Then again, even in my relative youth, I pretty much watched the show for the opening monologue, Weekend Update, and political sketches. There was never a time when every sketch in a given episode regularly appealed to me.
Still, the analogy works pretty well. It’s not shocking that my peak enjoyment of blogging and other forms of social media came when I was younger. Not only were the experiences much more novel then but I had fewer demands competing for my time.