You Used To Be Able To Read The Whole Internet
Read to the end for a really good Spotify playlist
A few points of business before we get started. First, no Extra Garbage Day tomorrow. Today is my birthday and tonight I’m doing a Meme In The Moment live show, so this week has been crazy. Second, come to Meme In The Moment tonight if you’re vaccinated and in the New York City area. You can grab tickets here.
Third, I’ll be at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, next week! I’ll be dedicating a couple items to cool stuff at the conference in next week’s issues. I haven’t taken Garbage Day to an event like this before, but I think it’ll be really fun.
You Used To Be Able To Read The Whole Internet
I can be hard to remember, but 10 years ago, you would routinely run out of things to look at on the internet. In 2011, Facebook had introduced its Timeline feature, Reddit had overtaken Digg in traffic, Rebecca Black had just landed on YouTube, and Tumblr was the most popular website for teenagers and college kids.
People were uploading content to the internet more than ever and people were also looking at it and sharing it with each other. But using the internet was still messy and, oftentimes, very boring. What you saw online was still, for the most part, presented chronologically and curated by humans. The platforms that did run on algorithms, like Reddit’s upvote/downvote system or StumbleUpon’s StumbleDNA, were less about automating an entire site and more about helping users find things faster. In 2011, even YouTube was still only sorted by views.
If you wanted to find good stuff online, you had a few options, none of them particularly sophisticated. You could type website names into your browser and click around until all the links were purple and hit refresh and see if anything new popped up or you could follow a bunch of blogs on RSS.
For a while trending content on the internet was determined by how many blogs wrote about something. This network effect of random online tastemakers (who were all getting kind of arrogant and weird) is how we ended up with blog indie rock in the late 2000s and the merciless parody of that whole culture, Hipster Runoff. When I was in college, all I wanted to do was to write for blogs. Bad news, Ryan: Your wish came true and now your brain is broken.
By the end of 2011, this whole culture was starting to change, though. Big internet traffic sources for blogs like Reddit or StumbleUpon, with their finicky audiences, were being replaced by Facebook, which in September of that year launched a new version of its News Feed. The new News Feed had an algorithm that was focused on surfacing “relevant” content.
Facebook wanted to be relevant and there were a lot of blogs who were happy to pump the site full of aggregated content in exchange for jaw-dropping amounts of traffic. A viral media cottage industry quickly appeared and these sites became increasingly aggressive about what was “trending” on the internet, hiring armies of 20-somethings to dig through other blogs, YouTube channels, and Reddit posts, filling up Facebook with links to whatever was happening online. Some of these trending news operations became full-fledged media companies. Though, many more imploded.
Since 2011, Facebook has continued to automate the content a user sees in their News Feed. It has also become more and more aggressive about only promoting content that can be viewed within their app. But Facebook’s not the only website that has followed this path. Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Reddit, Pinterest, and even Tumblr, have multiple overlapping algorithms, recommending more and more content for users to consume and share.
Algorithmic recommendations do a few things. One, they make the owners and investors of user generated content platforms feel less uncomfortable about the fact that their sites are completely dependent on their communities. If everyone stops posting on a social network, that network no longer exists. Two, these algorithms don’t have to eat or sleep. They can recommend content 24 hours a day, seven days a week without issue. And, three, these algorithms, if they’re addicting enough, can keep users on the site.
There’s a problem, though. Recommendation algorithms are stupid. And, thanks to the Facebook Papers leaks this week, we’re now beginning to understand how stupid. According to a recent Washington Post article, five years ago, Facebook engineers realized that the more emoji reactions users gave to posts, the more engaged they were. So they began to put more weight on certain reactions — an angry emoji reaction was worth five-times as much as a simple like.
Here’s the thing, though, people on the internet post a lot of garbage. Internet users are hateful, they lie, they fight with each other, they even go to war. They use the internet do all the bad stuff people do in real life, but faster and with more precision and lower stakes. And this has always been true. The long-running neo-Nazi message board Stormfront is almost 30 years old. But when the internet was still curated by human beings, the chances of you seeing something like Stormfront were much lower.
But now, trending content isn’t determined by bloggers, but by bits of code, thoughtlessly analyzing user behavior. There’s now an endless amount of content to look at it and share, but the chances of racist content or conspiracy theories being posted by a random user and then promoted to millions of users are much higher.
We’re talking a lot about Facebook’s algorithms right now. And that’s a good thing. The company is finally getting the scrutiny it has desperately needed for years. But make no mistake, the problems of the Facebook age will continue as long as internet platforms rely wholesale on algorithmic recommendations. I don’t think it’s possible to moderate the whole internet. Or even worth the trouble trying to. But what we can do is put human beings back in the driver’s seat.
In fact, according to a report this week from Big Technology, Facebook experimented with removing the algorithmic News Feed in 2018. What happened? “Turning off the News Feed ranking algorithm,” Big Technology writes, “led to a worse experience almost across the board. People spent more time scrolling through the News Feed searching for interesting stuff.”
Weirdly, Facebook did make more money with a chronological News Feed, though, because people were scrolling so much. But it seems clear that with chronological feeds, people use the internet way less. And maybe that’s a good thing.
A Good Tweet
Fun fact: This is actually what I do every morning!
Another Good Tweet
I Have Complicated Thoughts About This Subreddit
The r/fakedisordercringe subreddit was created last August and it’s a community where people document social media users pretending to have dissociative identity disorder and other psychological illnesses.
In July, I wrote about the increasingly huge community of “multiple systems” on TikTok. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, “alters” are different personalties that live inside a “system,” or a person’s physical body. So I knew that this was a thing on TikTok, but I did know the extent of other weird fake mental illness cosplay was happening on the app.
My read on all of this is that it’s fairly harmless and just kind of embarrassing. There was a whole trend of this kind of content on both Myspace and Tumblr. That said, seeing all of these posts in one place is definitely jarring, to say the least. I suppose the biggest difference between the older waves of this and the current TikTok iteration is that TikTok is just a way more visual app with a much more intense algorithm.
Myspace vampires or Tumblr otherkin all got to move on with their lives after they were done making up fake mental illnesses on social media for clout. I don’t know if it will be as easy for TikTok kids to move on after they’ve built a viral following for their fake Tourette’s content.
It’s All Kicking Off On Welsh Twitter
Earlier this month, a Twitter user named @SianCaerdydd tweeted, asking for help in identifying a woman named Sian Olwen Parry. Parry had written a letter to @SianCaerdydd’s grandmother as a young girl.
The power of Welsh Twitter activated and they were able to find Parry. It turned out to be the aunt of another Twitter user named @StAlun. I came across a summary of this on Tumblr this week that appears to be written by @StAlun’s wife. The funniest part about all of this is that in the letter, Parry wrote that she loved to ride horses. Well, according to her family that was actually a huge lie she made up to impress her American pen pal.
“My mother-in-law is currently on the phone gleefully telling us that when that letter was written her sister had never sat on a horse in her life before,” @StAlun’s wife wrote on Tumblr.
If You Haven’t Seen The Train TikTok, You Really Need To
Francis Bourgeois is an extremely excitable train guy from the UK. I lived with a train guy for a while. He used to read the MBTA’s message board and watch Amtrak trains pass through our neighborhood from the window of our Astoria apartment.
Bourgeois seems like a very nice guy who really freaking loves trains. But, also, there are some things that Bourgeois does in his videos that are, honestly, incredibly funny. I don’t want to ruin it for you if you haven’t seen it, but at no point in this video that Bourgeois recently filmed in Brighton did I know what would happen next. (Here’s a Tumblr mirror of the video for folks in non-TikTok regions.)
There’s a video from 2015 titled, “My cat went to the neighbours to borrow a tiger plush toy :)” and it’s been viewed over 29 million times. The video is 34 seconds long and the camera follows a cat, who carries a tiger plush doll into a tiny clearing in the forest. I think that video is exactly how all good TikToks feels, like the ones Bourgeois makes about trains. You press play and nothing is explained to you, but everything is following its own internal dream-like logic. Like a portal to another dimension opens up, offers you a brief glimpse of something you never expected, and then closes.
A Good Interview About Trees
My Favorite Fake Emo Band Is Back
The emo revival revival is reviving again, everybody.
Some Stray Links
P.S. here’s a really good Spotify playlist.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***
Ben Smith when asked about his substack subscriptions named this one first