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7 June 2023

The internet is unusable now

Pop-ups, farmed content and sponsored posts have ruined a web that once told us whatever we needed to know.

By Rachel Cunliffe

On Saturday evening, after a lovely walk along Regent’s Canal, I found myself at a loose end in Camden. Wonderful, I thought, I’m in one of the most vibrant parts of London. There’ll be loads happening – I can go to an impromptu gig or a comedy night. Let me just google what’s on tonight.

A good 45 minutes later I was fed-up and despondent, and my phone battery was almost dead. Searching the internet for “live music in Camden tonight” had resulted in an overwhelming deluge of content: listicles on dodgy-looking websites that screamed with pop-ups when clicked on; maps listings that insisted on trying to download other apps before loading; ticket sites for major music venues whose gigs had sold out months in advance; reviews of events that sounded ideal until I realised they’d already happened; and of course reams of sponsored posts almost indistinguishable from the real ones. I gave up, and just wandered into the first pub that had a “live music here” sign on the door.

Since then I have tried and failed to use the internet to: buy artificial flowers I can use for a costume party (Amazon shows me dozens of near-identical listings that aren’t what I want but have clearly hacked the key words); get clarity on legal terms for a contract I’ve been asked to sign (I get directed to the blogs of law firms that make my head spin with legalese and then try to sell me services); and research Japanese knotweed (it’s a culture war issue now, apparently). It was all too much – the pop-ups, the cookies, the sponsored posts, the tracking requests. It’s exhausting and dispiriting and infuriating.

It didn’t use to be like this. I know that makes me sound about a hundred years old, but I remember when the internet was usable. Not just usable – magic. Every answer to every question, there at your fingertips. Yes, I remember teachers warning us that Wikipedia was not a reliable source of scholarship, but for the everyday stuff, it worked. Recipes, travel guides, instructions for fixing things, recommendations of cool things to read and watch and do.

Now it’s a mess. I’m not quite sure what broke it, but I’ve read quite a few articles and tweets over the last couple of years about how SEO hacks and machine learning have destroyed search engines. The Google algorithm has essentially started to eat itself: if you don’t know precisely what you’re looking for it, it can’t help you, and even if you do it will try to shove all kinds of irrelevant nonsense down your browser before you find it.

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And it’s not just about Google either. Twitter may not have completely collapsed under the weight of Elon Musk’s aggressive revamp, but trolls and spambots flourish while the algorithm recommends increasingly bizarre posts to me (no, I am not interested in reviews of reality TV shows I haven’t seen by media outlets I’ve never heard of that I don’t follow, or in the crypto scams that get DMed to me daily). Facebook is a graveyard of farmed content and ghostly memories of a time when posting blurry photos of a night out was considered a core part of the student experience. Instagram is just LinkedIn for wannabe influencers. LinkedIn is… well, LinkedIn.

As for the rest of the internet – the fan communities, the random blogs, the weird little niche websites dedicated to boardgames or alternative fashion or snow ocelots – I’m sure some still exist somewhere. It’s just that they’ve become increasingly hard to find unless you already know exactly where they are.

I’m not alone in feeling that something, somewhere, has gone wrong. “I have no idea what to do online anymore,” laments the journalist (and New Statesman columnist) Marie Le Conte in her recent book Escape: How a generation shaped, destroyed and survived the internet. The boundless serendipity of the early online world has gradually been subsumed to the big social media platforms (you know, the ones that monetise our outrage and anxiety). Like me, Le Conte came of age at the same time as the world wide web did, and has watched the anarchic, atomised wild west of the Noughties get overwhelmed by a few giant websites that have tamed it, sanitised it and made it entirely un-fun. Everyone who spends time online is now hanging out on the same platforms, which has had a detrimental effect on how those platforms feel: “Our spaces make us feel tense because we never feel truly safe in them any more. Our internet is both open and flat, and it is not a nice place to be in.”

My struggles finding a gig in Camden are part of the same trend. Somewhere along the way, the idea that the internet existed to be useful to us has morphed into an understanding that we exist to be useful to it, mostly so we can be sold to or manipulated in some way. I never much minded the adage “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product” because I felt I was at least getting something of value – you can have my data as long as you show me what I’m looking for. Now it’s a different game. We’re being data-mined and provoked and trolled, and for what? So we can keep getting data-mined and provoked and trolled, in the futile hope that at the end of it all there might be someone who can explain what “vacant possession” means in language that doesn’t sound like it came from a legal textbook.

There’s been so much hype over ChatGPT (now six months old) and other chatbots destroying our jobs and making fact-checking impossible, and now experts are warning that artificial intelligence could lead to human extinction. But I don’t think we need to be quite that hyperbolic to see how technology is destroying something precious: itself. Or rather, the version of itself that felt like a magic spell back in 2006 when you could ask “what should I do tonight?” and it would tell you. I don’t think that’s coming back – the incentives are all skewed, the tech giants are too powerful, the algorithms have a life of their own and there’s no stopping them. The internet now keeps us on it as long as possible not by being helpful or engaging but by simply eliminating all the alternatives. This is it: the pop-ups and the trolls and the sponsored posts have won.

Ah well. There’s always Wikipedia.

[See also: The Reeves doctrine: Labour’s plan for power]

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