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The Internet Impasse

Online Nostalgia, Personal Archives, and the Trap of Staying

I was born on the internet, and some days, it seems I'll die here too. 

This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, as we approach the one-year anniversary of Elon Musk's acquisition of Twitter. I've watched the site implode repeatedly for the last year, finding it worse with each passing day. Again and again I and the other sheep on the platform proclaim that Twitter is over, that it's dead, that I'm moving to Mastodon, no, Bluesky, no, Threads. And again and again, I find myself back and scrolling in the comfort of my hideous and familiar home, past ads for Newsmax and bogus supplements, wading through a sea of illegitimate blue checks to try to figure out which person-who-claims-to-be-a-journalist actually is a journalist.

Yet somehow, I can't bear to make myself leave. I've been on Twitter since 2009, when I was fifteen. It's a log of who I am and have been for fully half my life, even if my account is mostly just an archive of mediocre-to-bad jokes and political takes and embarrassing high school-era opinions on Twilight. It's strange to have access to something like this, to have a public and personal history laid out for me in sentence-long blips, and I'm loathe to relinquish it. I don't quite know how.

For me, this is true of all social media. Of my Facebook account and its albums of memories with people I no longer speak to, of my Tumblr that tracks my bumpy journey into feminism and media critique. The pages that have been lost to time and capitalism, like my old Blogspot and Flickr, hold a perverse fascination. Untouchable, they bother me.

I wonder if these old accounts don't taunt me in part because of a sense of nostalgia for an earlier edition of the Internet. After all, there was a time, I think, when the Internet was fun. When I used it primarily to poke my Facebook friends and forward chain email surveys in which I answered questions about my favorite ice cream flavor. I used to find pleasure in crafting my AIM away message and talking to SmarterChild. I used to play Slime Volleyball and upvote posts on My Life is Awkward. Remember Farmville? Remember Facebook pirate language? Now imagine reading your friends' latest posts on the Israel/Palestine conflict "posted 4 turns o' the hourglass ago" and clicking to "scrawl a message" in response.

Part of me is certain this is an incorrect memory, an edifice built of sheer will and painted by nostalgia. I know that catfishing has existed as long as the Internet has. I know this is true of cyber-bullying, too. I myself remember the betrayal I felt at a middle school friend printing out the emails I had sent to her in confidence; I can still feel the heat rising in my face as the girls I'd named in them confronted me. Years later, I probably even still had English (Pirate Language) enabled on my Facebook page as I was doxxed on election night in 2012, in a 4chan thread about hot virgins who gave good head. The creepy DMs I was fending off were probably still labelled "messages in a bottle." So yes, I know it wasn't all fun.

And yet the rapid acceleration of it all, the rise and fall of app empiresit has me missing the relative simplicity of my massive, pop-up filled home desktop. I'm nostalgic for a time when the phrase "go on the computer" made any sense at all, because we weren't all of us always already online. Part of me would like to return to the era of the computer room, when I was designated a strictly observed time frame for email and playing and scrolling.

The Internet has aged with me, and as I have grown to care more about credit scores and vacuum cleaners, it has grown to care more about profit margins and engagement. The Internet, quite frankly, just isn't as fun as it used to be. Neither am I. We're both more serious now, plagued by a massive, never-ending onslaught of daily information overload and, oh, right, also a quite literal plague. We are both bogged down by a constant avalanche of news and advertising and the occasional photograph of an old friend's daughter. A symbiotic relationship, we feed on one another's aging exhaustion.

This appears to be the case for everyone around me, too. No one is having fun on the Internet anymore. No one is thrilled to be sharing this experience with others through the magic of wireless. The wonder of having every piece of knowledge at our fingertips has instead turned burdensome. We are overcome by the tyranny of endless choice and the compulsion to participate in it. Indeed, these days my feeds are mostly enormous echo chambers of anger and ire. The same video, with the same commentary, in the language of a thousand different users. And I see myself in all of it.

I exist, myself refracted into a thousand tiny shards, across platforms and accounts, in others' photos, in comments and replies. My Twitter, my Instagram, my TikTokeach has become its own house of mirrors, in which my own misery is reflected back at me across an infinite scroll of posts, disseminated in empty, algorithmic time.

In truth, I don't really believe all these platforms should exist. I don't think we were meant for this much information -- to consume it, to create it, to have it at hand. I don't feel my brain was made to handle this barrage of blue light. I am the worse for it.

I cannot bear to let it go, but I also think maybe I need to. In fairness, I decide this every few months. Each time I feel new with realization and determination. I delete my apps; I log out of my accounts. It hasn't yet stuck. Even so, this time, I'm hoping it will. In the past weeks, as I've wrestled with finally, actually pulling away from the Internet, I've downloaded archives for Twitter and Facebook. I've never done this before. I've never thought so deeply about my investment in these platforms without ultimately giving in to the glimmering allure of content.

The medium is the message. I've known that for a long time now, long before Marshall McLuhan gave me the words to describe it. Regardless of the content, I'm aware that it is shrinking my attention span, flattening my arguments. I'm becoming more like the places I spend my time. I'm aware of the way I have at times lived a life for online curation and presentation, for the empty achievement of views and likes.

The Internet has changed me. I knew it before I read Nicholas Carr's The Shallows in twelfth grade English class, felt the truth of his assertions even as I read them in my childhood bedroom: "Outsource memory," he writes, "and culture withers." My Tweets and photos and likeswhat are these if not outsourced memories? What of all the stories I've posted to Instagram, now willfully disappeared, fragments of my self unspooled without regard?

That, I think, is what I cannot stand.

Don't you see? I am a hoarder of memories. I have a predilection for nostalgia, and often feel it prematurely. I find myself reminiscing about things as they happen, feeling a future longing for this very moment that intensifies its bittersweetness. I have a flash drive with family photos stored in a fireproof box; the physical copies are neatly organized in albums, each painstakingly labelled with dates and names and specific memories of the time and place. My kitchen counter holds a recipe box of tastes from childhood. Beside me in my office there is a folder of newspapers from important dates, even though I know hardly anyone reads a physical paper anymore. I've saved all my old journals and notebooks. Maybe one day I'll pull the hard copies of my first love-struck diary entries from the drawer of my desk. Perhaps I'll gift them to my husband or our children, let them see in neat and tiny lettering the first tastes of this wonderful luck that has since become a part of me, that has changed the entire trajectory of my life for the better and the best. There is something to that, to running a hand along the uneven edges where I tore these pages from their spiral binding, to reading the urgency of my emotions in the ink smears of my left-handedness. There is a tangibility to these memories, and they stick.

By comparison, my Internet archive is stark and cold, a history coded in zeroes and ones. I open these files, these logs, and there's a feeling of loss in the lines of text. Hours and days and years of my time and energy, and for what? To forget it all immediately? To forge a compulsion? To close out of the app, feel bored, and immediately open it again? In file form, it's clearer than ever that this is all it is: errant thoughts broadcast into the void. Contextless content, which serves primarily to ensnare me and my investmentstime, money, attention. Online, what I produce doesn't matter so much as the fact that I have produced it. My presence is the product, sold to advertisers in the hope that maybe the next time I buy a car, I'll remember that love is what makes a Subaru, a Subaru. The Internet doesn't care about me; it cares about my data. That's the whole point.

I don't want to invest the best and most insistent pieces of myself in someone else's landscape, to farm my thoughts into data and dollars for some unfathomably wealthy man in a house made entirely of plexiglass and right angles. And so I won't. At least for now, I think it's about time I logged off. I'm not aiming to absent myself completely, of course. After all, this website exists, and I'm writing on it in this exact moment. I probably won't delete my accounts, even if I have logged out and banished the apps from my phone. The people I love live their lives online, and I want to keep up, to share in their joys and defeatsbut I also want to do so much more meaningfully and mindfully, without falling into the endless, unfeeling scroll.

One day, I hope to look up from my phone without wondering where the time has gone. Maybe this is the first step.

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