This Just Says "Bird Internet"
In an act of technological futurism, I ask you to imagine a human-scale internet. An internet for ants.
The internet is big.
The internet is a really big thing.
If a week’s worth of Youtube videos were put on film reel, laid end-to-end, it would wrap around the world, I don’t know, at least twice. All of the words that get written on Tumblr in a day, if printed out, would fill all the world’s Olympic-sized swimming pools, probably. If you committed all of ChatGPT’s responses to hard drives, it would fill every floor of the Empire State Building, I guess.
We used to love thinking about the internet in these arbitrary physical terms — how many football fields, how many Libraries of Congress — but this is all impossible now. By the time you finish calculating the metaphor, so massive and abstract so as to be meaningless, it’s out of date.
Really, the best way to think about the internet is just to think of space. A big empty void occasionally punctuated with giant masses of stuff, themselves almost incomprehensibly big in their own right.
The internet isn’t infinite, per se. But we are
exponentially significantly improving our space efficiency for the internet, allowing it to rush out in all directions. (Edit: As a clever reader Roy Brander points out: It’s not exponential anymore.)
Much like vast expanse of space, information online likes to collide together and crystallize. You’re reading this article on a platform where thought has been pressed into a hard core, around which more and more information is being added. It is big, but small in the grand scheme of the internet. It’s feasible, at least for now, to keep track of your favorite Substack authors and to get a sense, at least in a very general way, about the broad Substack environment. It’s big, but it’s manageable.
Facebook, Twitter, Youtube: Trying to imagine the layers that have been added atop their core is impossible. At its peak, Twitter users posted 20,000 each second. Every minute, users upload 500 minutes of Youtube content. That’s a dizzying amount of information: Most of it useless junk. But that process is still human-driven: A person is writing, animating, generating, recording that information, and uploading it themselves to one or many platforms.
In 2014, when Taiwanese animators wanted to create a video about Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s crack scandal, it took them about half a day to produce the minute-and-a-half video. The team, at least back then, were generating their content by having staff wear motion capture technology.
Today, one person can produce a video by just entering a few words in a prompt. An AI can script and narrative the video, and select or generate any images it needs. ChatGPT can squish into mere minutes what took those Taiwanese animators hours. For a content-hungry public, and an ad-crazy Youtube, this seems like great news.
Now that we are training artificial intelligence to work independently of us, the growth of information-generation will decouple from human input. It will disconnect the amount of content online from the amount of things that are actually happening in the world, or our capacity to make art. The limitations of human productivity are, in this narrow instance, being erased.
This all sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? Maybe even terrifying, depending on your views and anxiety about artificial intelligence.
This week, on Bug-eyed and Shameless, I argue: Good. Bring on the AI content. Let it expand our major internet platforms until they collapse into supermassive black holes.
Bring us the bird internet.
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When Friday Night Lights was on the chopping block, fans of the show mailed lightbulbs to NBC to protest its possible cancellation. They escalated tactics: Sending eye drops (“Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose,” as the motto on the show goes) and even buying DVDs to ship to soldiers in Iraq. It worked: The show got another three seasons.
The WB was inundated with hot sauce, packaged and sent by fans of the cult classic Roswell, which they feared was about to get kiboshed due to lacklustre ratings. The manager of the 7,000-user-strong message board, a college student, said they had shipped about 700 bottles of the sauce. It probably helped the show get a third, and final, season.
And when Entourage faced possible cancellation, fans sent network executives envelopes full of douchebags.
That’s the punchline from one of my favorite episodes of 30 Rock.
In that scene, the show-within-a-show, an SNL-stand-in, is at risk of getting axed by the network. So everyone is brainstorming a solution. Kenneth the Page pulls out his ideas journalist to suggest what fans of the show can send executives — but all he has written down is “bird internet.”
It’s a funny scene. Does it connect to this week’s newsletter? Not really. But it’s what jumped to my head as I was thinking, recently, about how to fix the world wide web.
This newsletter is, I suppose, part of a series: I previously wrote about the far-right exodus from Twitter to a network of disinformation-friendly platforms (dispatch #22) and how disrupting the growing polarization and radicalization online might require us to diversify those online spaces where ideologues congregate (dispatch #20.)
But let’s ignore the most bug-eyed amongst us for a minute. Let’s be a bit shameless and think about ourselves.
Let’s begin with a bit of a diagnostic: What’s wrong with the internet right now?
It’s full of junk, for one. Services like Google help us make sense of the chaos, ordering a self-replicating mass of spam and porn into a helpful guide to the 7 best remedies for getting red wine out of cashmere. But Google is, less and less, providing us with the best search results and, more and more, providing us with ads — The Markup found 41% of the first page of search results are taken up by ads.
Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are quickly becoming swarms of bots. We’ve all got the bot messages: Clumsy attempts to get us to send along our banking information, or log on to their video chat room, or message them on Telegram. We’ve all had a comment or a reply that left us thinking: There’s no way that’s a human.
It’s rising to the point of intolerable. Nobody wants to go to an Irish pub full of holograms, nobody wants to take tango lessons with three children in a trenchcoat.
Even email, the extraordinary revolution in communication, has become unworkable without various filters. You bought a t-shirt at a brick-and-mortar Banana Republic once eight years ago, and you’ll get emails because of it until you die.
The feeling is so pervasive that it has fed into a (genuinely fun) conspiracy theory: The Dead Internet Theory. The very truncated version goes like this: The internet has become fake, a Potemkin Village for us to distract ourselves on, staffed by algorithms to keep us entertained. Westworld, basically. We are alone in a sea of bots.
It’s nonsense, of course. But it really makes you go: Is Bug-eyed and Shameless written by a bot? 🤔
It’s angry. When researchers compiled some 2.7 million Facebook and Twitter posts, mostly from American partisans, they found — surprise — that posts demonizing the user’s political rivals were about twice as likely to be shared. Anger, mockery, and misinformation all tend to be closely linked to vilifying the out-group, and all of that helps drive engagement and virality. And it’s by design.
The New York Times reported that Facebook developed a way to improve users’ feeds, to decrease the amount of angry and low-quality content they received — and it worked. Things became nicer. So Facebook killed it.
This drive for anger and emotion has corroded everything it touches. Take the news media: A study from last year found that, between 2000 and 2019, there was a 314% shift in sentiment in news headlines — from marginally positive to considerably negative. This trend was more pronounced for right-wing outlets, but left-wing outlets have followed the same trend. Even “centrist” news organizations (defined by this study as the AP, BBC, Bloomberg, and a handful of others) grew more negative over those years. The proportion of headlines invoking anger doubled, the number pushing fear grew by 150%.
America runs on Dunkin’s, the internet runs on anger.
It’s expensive. The sheer volume of websites, services, news outlets, newsletters, video games, and platforms asking for money in exchange for their goods is exploding. The number of ads, both the old-school banner advertisements but also earnestly-read sponsored content, is getting absurd. Then add in the crowdfunders, kickstarters, and requests for cash — connectivity has started to feel transactional.
Speaking of which, have you subscribed to Bug-eyed and Shameless yet? Only $6/month!
It’s disorienting. You might be familiar with Dunbar’s Number: The idea that humans can only maintain a social group of about 150 people. It is, probably, bullshit. Researchers have found that it’s probably too simplistic a way to think of our cognitive limitations. But when researchers in China observed users on Weibo, they found a consistent preference for a more manageable number of online friends: About 200.
And that makes sense. Trying to keep track of 500, 1,000, or 100,000 people online is impossible. Our social networks are, really, misnamed: They are broadcasting platforms. You can try and run your intimate social network on Facebook or Twitter, but the platforms will barge in at every opportunity with more recommendations on who to follow, global conversations to be a part of, and ways to turn yourself into a broadcaster, too. Facebook, in particular, has worked tirelessly to purge its original concept: To be walled gardens, by and for friends.
This is explained by another theory: Metcalfe’s Law. It states that a social network’s value is determined by the squared value of how many nodes it has. Put very simply: The more things on the network, the more they connect with each other, the more value that network has. It means their growth is
exponential quadratic. It’s why so many social media platforms fail to launch, and why so many major platforms can die so quickly. It’s why platforms hate the idea of letting you have just 200 friends. (Edit: Isn’t it obvious I have a problem with the word ‘exponential’? Thanks again to Roy.)
This declining social networking value is also why platforms cram more and more onto their platforms: Marketplaces, chat rooms, video streaming, business listings, cryptocurrencies, and so on.
So this is the tension at the heart of social media: They must become big to survive, thrive, and profit; but the inter-linking between users quickly makes them untenable for real social interactions. So they stop being social networks, and they become massive telecommunications conglomerates.
So the internet is a wonderful, exciting, chaotic, disturbing, disrupting place. It’s also, in its current incarnation, objectively bad. And, as I wrote in the introduction, ChatGPT will make all of this so much worse. It will wildly increase the amount of junk — but the junk will be more verbose, and it will look more real. It will help optimize online marketing, standardizing and supercharging our marketing-by-anger tactics. And it will make the internet feel even bigger and more depersonalized.
And, here’s the thing about all those problems above: We don’t like any of it. Users don’t want junk. Voters do not want their politicians to spread animus about their opponents. We do not want angry headlines. Left exclusively to our own devices, our better angels will almost certainly win out. These negative things can have a time and place: We need some political polarization, and sometimes an angry headline is exactly what we need to motivate us into action. Without moderation, however, those emotions shift from the exception to the norm. But the architecture of the internet works to feed us junk, vitriol, and to profit off the results.
But this isn’t an internet problem. It’s a corporate problem.
I was on a call a few years ago with Mark Zuckerberg — hundreds of journalists were furiously mashing their phone keypads, hoping to get a question to the CEO. I didn’t, but one brilliant colleague did. He asked one of the best questions I’ve ever heard posed to a captain of industry: How much profit is too much profit? the journalist asked.
“I don’t understand the question,” Zuckerberg replied.
So the journalist tried again: Is there a point where your increased profit comes at the expense of your users, where you would be comfortable taking less profit to serve a better product or to minimize the negative effects? (I’m paraphrasing.)
“I still don’t understand the question,” the CEO repeated, and proceeded to ramble on about some bullshit. Not long before, Facebook had helped enable a genocide in Myanmar.
We can legislate fixes for these platforms’ worst excesses — mandate algorithmic transparency, impose moderation, criminalize hate speech — but it will not change the fundamental architecture and profit motivation that makes these platforms bad. Government intervention may just delay the necessary cleansing fire.
Because if there is one thing that the internet loves, it’s a reign of terror. Its default position is to torment kings and overthrow regimes. For years, the chaotic nature of social media has turned that desire in on us, like Bugs Bunny twisting Elmer Fudd’s shotgun back on him. Eventually, we’ll need to stop trying to cancel each other for each improperly phrased tweet, and start cancelling the platforms that drove us mad to begin with.
Consider The Cult of the Dead Cow, arguably the first and most influential hacking organization in the history of the internet. They existed to torment Microsoft, hacking its systems and publishing security vulnerabilities rife in the Windows operating system, because the company refused to push the necessary security patches.
“People have absolutely no protection,” Sir Dystic, one of the Cult’s hackers, explained. “And that's the awareness that we're trying to raise. It's really frustrating that nobody has actually come up with a decent solution for it.”
These hackers ended up being the solution. Their online insurgency birthed the field of cybersecurity and forced Microsoft to, eventually, do better. Other operating systems sprung up to offer users options. All it took was this gang of Bay Area nerds. And those nerds, and their successors, went on to invent so many of the things that have constructed the modern internet.
The internet is bigger now, yes, and it is full of multi-billion dollar corporate behemoths. But their position is more precarious than they would have us believe. The graveyard of dead internet giants — Friendster, Napster, Netscape — should be a good sign of that.
I am a terrible soothsayer, but I firmly believe the exodus from Facebook is already in progress, and will hasten, in line with Metcalfe’s Law. I think the distrust and disgust with Meta, especially as it tries to foist an ad-ridden Metaverse on us, will get intense. I think the company will be rubble by 2030. I think similar trends are coming for Twitter and Google.
Thus far, innovation has gone in the wrong direction. Tiktok operates on an algorithm designed to maximize emotional reaction. Gab, Rumble, Parler: All exist to replicate the worst excesses of their mainstream competitors, except tilted in favor of a hardened conservative audience. The bevy of platforms which have been pitched as forward-thinking alternatives to an increasingly-unpleasant Twitter – Mastodon, Spoutible, Post News — are looking to rewind the clock a few years and constitute those heady days when Twitter was just everyone arguing about Laurel and Yanny.
I understand the drive. Technology, after all, is cyclical. But I don’t think our next innovation will be a social media behemoth. I think it a constellation of smaller, more manageable communities. And thank god.
The centralization of services into Twitter, Facebook, and Google actually runs counter to how the internet wants to behave.
Consider Craigslist. For a time, it’s where you went for everything. This was particularly at a time when doing everything on the internet was a bit of a chore. You picked your apartment, sold your furniture, organized car pools, gave away litters of kittens, found jobs, found dates, found hookups, got murdered by a stranger.
And then it got spectacularly unbundled. All of the things that Craigslist seemed to have a monopoly on broke into a thousand pieces: Short-term rentals went to Craigslist, real estate went to Zillow, dating went to Tindr, hookups went to Grindr, job postings went to LinkedIn, and so on. (No app for murderers — yet.)
Way back in 2020, a post over onargued that Reddit is being unbundled in a similar fashion. Much like Craigslist, Reddit has become a massive trove for, well, everything. Every fandom, every tech product, every city, every video game. As Isenberg writes "There is too much surface area for Reddit to possibly cover within constraints of subreddits."
He points to a variety of apps and platforms that have sprung out of Reddit — most will probably fail, but it’s clear the demand is present to figure out communities that are more niche and manageable.
Consider an internet where you can maintain a manageable social network — of, say, 200 people with whom you have some real-world relationship. You can post frequently and candidly, knowing that your communications will largely stay within your network. Your interactions remain civil and personal, because you actually know these people. Apps like BeReal are already trying to capture this quest for low-stakes authenticity. Slack and Discord are already offering this kind of community for small friend groups or bigger networks of coworkers or colleagues. These platforms may be motivated by the same kind rent-seeking and network growth as Facebook, and we can only hope that their users reject it.
So we will unbundle the social aspect of the internet, but the internet demands that we network as well. Discoverability and chaos is half the fun and excitement of the world wide web. While Mastodon (which I do, genuinely, like) may not be the solution, its underlying technology likely is. ActivityPub, the open standard on which it runs, essentially lets you create media platform of any size or type that is still compatible with other platforms on the standard. Tumblr and Wordpress, for example, are both adding support for ActivityPub — so a toot on Mastodon can be read on your Tumblr feed, or a blog uploaded to your Wordpress can show up on somebody’s Pixelfed.
Does this all sound slightly alien? It should! It’s all completely ludicrous, and it might be the future of the internet.
But this is the technology that may just enable a trend that made us all, I think, happy. Internet users crave issue- and region-specific fora. Many never really went away: There is still a network of Harry Potter message boards that have resisted the migration to the internet oligopoly. But most, like the message boards that organized the bulb-mailing campaign to save Friday Night Lights, have longed faded away. Some of these platforms could offer the 30 Rock fandom and the International Luxemburgist Federation places to talk amongst themselves, whilst still networking the broader internet.
If the old internet was a series of small outposts in the middle of a barren wasteland, the current internet is a series of giant sprawling mega-malls, then perhaps the next internet is a medium-density city, with strip malls and apartment blocks, marked by plenty of wayfinding and readable maps.
Will it happen?
I guess that depends on us. Be the bird internet you want to see in the world.
That’s it for this week.
I opened a chat thread on this very topic. I’m keen to hear where you think this whole internet business is going:
I am trying to open a chat thread every week or so — in a sense, putting into practise all the things I’ve written about in this dispatch. I generally try not to send out an email to everyone when I do, because I’m leery of spamming your inboxes. So if you like the pleasant conversation in the Bug-eyed and Shameless chat, I suggest getting the Substack Reader app. It’s actually quite a pleasant way to read on this platform, and it will ping you when your favorite authors start a chat.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Kate Bush songs that comes with a genuinely bonkers video I’ve not seen before: