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The State of the Internet

More than ever before, we’re coming to grips with the fact that the web isn’t separate from reality—it is reality

One thing you can say for sure about the web: You’re caught in it. And if you have the same masochistic streak I do, you probably dive in first thing every morning — before your brain has powered up, when you’ve barely begun to think through the demands of the day. You log on and see what’s trending, who died or said something stupid, which hoax has taken hold and which places are under threat from a new fire or flood. It’s work to sift these stories, to align them in a history already slipping from your grasp. It’s a God’s-eye view we gain scrolling through our feeds, planetary context for breakfast.

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When this becomes your routine, what’s on your phone seems realer, more visceral than the coffee and Corn Flakes sitting in front of you. How can your quiet kitchen — and your ordinary life — survive within the howling chaos of a hateful, hyperconnected world? There’s a massive disconnect between hours spent in the internet’s cascade of minor armageddons and the instant you realize you need to take the recycling out. This little chore is the grand escape, as it happens from the poisonous information we breathe.

The internet is now so surreal that it commands attention in ways the tangible stuff never could. Each Trump tweet is a lightning rod assembled from the junkyard of his mind, inconceivable until you’re actually reading it, struggling to parse it and finding the old tweet that directly contradicts it. We can’t quit this analysis because we know with total certainty that the Trump who delivers scripted policy speeches isn’t the president, and neither is the Trump who whips rallies into a frenzy with condescending patter stretched to its natural limit. No, the one and only president is @realDonaldTrump, a troll and cyberbully fixated on his enemies. Not until he bypasses the formal filters of the White House by tweeting can we hope to have even half a glimpse of his true feeling.

Having a head of state who is, in the common parlance, Extremely Online, has drastically reoriented the internet’s functionality. Where it once offered healthy distractions from politics, it’s now the channel for both executive propaganda and grassroots resistance. This undercuts a currently popular theory, which holds that monopolistic consolidation, the end of Net Neutrality and a preference for the walled gardens of mobile apps herald the end of an open, utopian web and the rise of “Facebook’s Internet,” something more like a shopping mall than a public square. Where we once had revolution, the thinking goes, we will be crowded by ugly ads and muzzled by the collective clout of tech’s five biggest giants, an opaque tribunal worth $3 trillion.

That may be where we’re headed in the long-term, but some people — especially the Nazis — are still kicking and screaming. Aaron Sankin, a reporter from the Center for Investigative Journalism who writes a weekly newsletter called the Hate Report about racist and far-right movements, sees 2017 as the year when major social services had to confront the ways in which these assholes abuse their platforms. The purges and bans handed down from the likes of Twitter, Reddit and Facebook are as much about self-preservation as ethics, Sankin says; to ignore the increasing public pressure to scrub the scum from their sites is to “risk their public reputations” as well as “new government regulation, which they very much would like to avoid.” It also makes them less financially viable — Twitter trolls killed an acquisition deal in October.

“This pushback against the racist far right has led to a splintering of the internet,” Sankin says. “New platforms have sprung up to create safe spaces where this type of offensive content can be shared freely. Gab is the ‘free speech’ version of Twitter; Voat is the ‘free speech’ version of Reddit; Hatreon is where neo-Nazis go to raise money when they get banned from Patreon.”

These alternative web tools may not be scalable or have significant reach, yet they prove that the internet hasn’t been totally colonized by the mainstream apps. What’s worse, Sankin says, the fringe racists have been driven into theoretically apolitical forums like the gamer chat service Discord and the gaming platform Steam, where they spread their toxic ideology to people who “hadn’t really thought too much about white genocide.” Soon enough, they’re on the team: “When a forum’s radicalization hits a tipping point, a sense of new groupthink takes hold.”

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The upshot is that hate groups need not conspire in each others’ basements to organize something like Charlottesville’s deadly Unite the Right march — their meetings are virtual, and the web is their catastrophic reality. Consider how militant right-wingers attacked a 4chan guy who showed up to their event waving meme posters, or how baffled these dudes were to be identified after photos of themselves screaming and waving tiki torches in a major metropolitan area went viral: To them, the marches were an extension of everything they do and say online, and they spared no thought for the serious consequences of spewing their hate in meatspace.

The rules of engagement online, not the empowering anonymity of the web, dictate what they believe they can get away with in both realms. Sankin cites research showing that “perceived social norms of a given platform are much stronger determinants of user behavior than whether or not users are identified by their real names.”

Everybody is trapped in their bubble, of course: The enigmatic Facebook and Google algorithms continue to fuel fake news (and bogus declarations of same), while our own habits, friends and curation ensure we see stories and viewpoints we’re more likely to agree with. Bitcoin millionaires assure themselves the cryptocurrency isn’t heading for a major crash, despite the countless indications to the contrary. In the discourse surrounding sexual harassment, you either support women coming forward to speak their trauma with the #MeToo hashtag, or you think a lot of them are lying or exaggerating for attention. And every time the president tweets, his staunchest fans and tireless critics are there to restate their case, harvesting likes, retweets and followers.

Trump more than anyone has tried to replicate his digital safe space wherever he goes. If he’s not on Twitter, he’s watching Fox News — but usually both at once — and receives a folder of nice news about himself twice daily. Meanwhile, he likes to violate Twitter’s terms of service, basically daring the company to kick him off, single-handedly upping national vitriol a few millionfold, and revealing how overly dependent we are on tech overlords to grow a conscience when it matters most. While a single errant “like” on a porn video from Sen. Ted Cruz’s account prompts an internal investigation, Trump cannot be embarrassed into deleting any of his old tweets that show unprecedented hypocrisy, because he only moves forward, further into the darkness.

Personally, I’m not convinced he actually realizes that tweets from the week or month or year before remain accessible to anyone who wants to find them — all he can do is pounce on a moment.

If you don’t believe that the president’s approach to the landscape of the web has infected its entire culture, consider this year’s biggest memes. Some were premised on a false claim to wisdom or intelligence, as in the Expanding Brain template or the GIF of fictional rapper Roll Safe tapping his temple, typically accompanied by a caption describing “poor decision-making” — perfect for the era of Trump, a profoundly stupid man who insists he’s actually very smart. There was White Guy Blinking and the “Right in front of my salad?” woman, both of whom expressed the kind of disbelief that was de rigueur for anyone tracking news from the White House in 2017. “Cracking open a cold one with the boys” was chill nihilism: a sit-back-and-watch-it-all-burn refrain. Mocking SpongeBob conveyed a lurch toward Trump’s juvenile rejoinders, while Distracted Boyfriend spoke to concerns that the tweeter-in-chief had mastered the sly art of diversion, despite the glaring fact that his own attention span is shorter than his fingers.

In the meme economy and elsewhere, time and again, we manifested the collapse of any distinction between our offline and online domains, creating an eerie totality. We joked about Trump looking directly at the solar eclipse — and then he did. Suddenly, the men accused of rape and a litany of other sexual abuses on Twitter were losing their movie and TV deals, or getting run out of their own companies; once-whispered knowledge of similar misconduct took on concrete form in a shared Google spreadsheet. Tweets bearing animus toward Colin Kaepernick, #BlackLivesMatter and assorted players taking a knee for the National Anthem preceded a ratings slump for the NFL, and though the causal connection there is flimsy at best, correlation is enough for most people. A couple whose years-long, go-nowhere Tinder conversation went viral were essentially forced into an anticlimactic first date. The more devices we hook up to the cloud, the more likely our fridges are to be hacked. When “Cat Person,” a short story in the New Yorker, made waves on social media with its unsparing look at gender dynamics, it was immediately claimed for a movement it didn’t address, and readers widely mistook it for nonfiction. Nonetheless, a $1 million book deal followed.

I’m not the first to note this bleed — the way people, events and problems now pass through a barrier that used to be defined by the noise of a dial-up modem. Indeed, some argue that the border never existed outside our imagination, that the internet was merely treated as less than real, much to our great and growing misfortune. But nothing prepared us for 2017’s acceleration to an event horizon where the theoretical difference was forever obliterated.

The only relief, it seems, from this merger of black holes, is to unplug from the artificial one. Think of how often you saw Facebook posts or tweets from acquaintances who said they were taking a break from these feeds or deleting their presence entirely, just to regain some peace of mind. Where the loss was permanent, and especially when you only interacted with the person online, it felt not unlike a death — like they’d gone to a better place and abandoned you to a waking hell.

But the internet isn’t simply hell. It’s where we live and love and hate and fight, and it gives us solace alongside the pain. You can check out any time you like, but after you finish reading that book, or come home from a beach vacation, you always want a mainline hit of that gnarly, refreshable agony. You need to be crushed by it. All you can smell and touch and taste is pale or unsolid compared to sizzling wastelands of the web, full of horrors too new to have names.

Welcome back — you never really left.