Originally published in Idler 70.
Listen. Grandad wants to tell you about the early days of the Internet. It’s hard to believe, but before social media, people used to build their own websites from scratch. We also used to look at other hand-made websites set up by enthusiasts and eccentrics from all over the world.
Some of those websites and blogs were bloody ugly as it happens, but it was the sort of ugliness that is borne of a punk DIY ethic, which is surely better than the corporate evil ugliness of Facebook and YouTube today. The social media era of Internet in which we now live (and can’t end soon enough) is sometimes called Web 2.0. I think it’s crap and you probably agree: it’s generally seen as a necessary evil or a hopeless addiction. Nobody really thinks that looking at Twitter or Facebook is a good use of their time, do they?
The independent website-based Internet of yore provided a sense of connection — genuine connection to other minds — which is what social media is supposed to do but doesn’t. Ideas used to prevail and a sense of defying borders was palpable. I remember astonishing an American in a chatroom simply by being from Britain. He couldn’t believe it. “A Brit,” he wrote, “I. Am. Talking. To. A. Brit.” It was beautiful.
There is no “going on the Internet” anymore. Thanks to Google and social media, all content and every user just squats on three or four gigantic platforms accessed through apps and manipulated by sinister Russian and Brexitty forces. It’s also as dull as old boots.
The first true social network I joined was called Friendster. It was hilarious to cajole friends from different real-life social groups into the platform, to watch them rub shoulders for the first time, leaving witty “testimonials” against each other’s names. Some people couldn’t see the point: “Who would bother with this?” they said. Almost everyone on the planet, it turns out.
I remember my dad, a lorry driver, talking about CB radio. “It was fun,” he said, “until the moron element got involved.” That was his term, “moron element,” but he was right and the same thing has happened to the Web. Morons, trolls, spies and dullards run amok. There is no salvaging it, especially as so much of it is unreal, automated Bot Country now. We need to escape Web 2.0 and here are the escape routes I’m toying with:
Go outside. One way of escaping Web 2.0 is to go out for a walk, leaving the smartphone at home or getting rid of it altogether. But I like the Internet. The Internet is not the problem. It’s just an infrastructure like the sewers or the pavement. Besides, even outside you’ll see people jabbing at their smartphones, and shops and businesses ingratiating themselves to Web 2.0 by displaying TripAdvisor and Twitter logos in their windows and on their products. The Web (the actual HTML content) is not the problem either, which is why I’ve decided to turn back the clock on the Web and live as if it was the days of Web 1.0 (which nobody ever called it) as well as going outside.
Ditch (or drastically reduce exposure to) social media. Let’s delete our accounts. I’ve deleted 75% of mine. Facebook is dead to me, as are Instagram and others. I’ve kept one of my two Twitter accounts for now because I fear professional ramifications, which of course is part of why so many people feel they can’t escape at all. But I’m skeptical of the benefits and I’ve put it on notice. Perhaps you’d do the same: kill the accounts you really hate and get it down to one.
Turn a smartphone into a tool instead of a toy. My friend David Cane has a high-quality, long-running essay blog, which is a good use of the Web. It’s called Raptitude.com and he wrote recently about his attempt to convert his smartphone “into a tool instead of a toy.” He removed all social media and other “fun” apps, keeping his phone for useful activities. A month later, he still finds himself spiritually drawn to his phone and thumbing at apps in search of semi-conscious entertainment, so ingrained is Web 2.0 addiction. The same happened to me: though the social media presence is expunged from my phone, I still keep looking pointlessly at my bank balance and step count because that’s all there is to see. It has turned us into zombies. Even so, I have faith that the addiction cycle will be broken and that this portable supercomputer will become a useful tool instead of an addictive burden. We’ll see.
Build a website. A core activity of the old Web was coding up a website. It’s creative. If we all did this, we’d have multiple — millions!, billions! — of platforms and voices and contexts instead of everyone piling into four gigantic, obnoxious moshpits. Re-find your voice, choose your own questionable colour palette, use it to circulate your long-form writing and hand-drawn pictures. Build.
Go back to blogs and blogging. I have been blogging in one form or another since 1999. A change I recently made is to blog almost daily: small, easy bits of writing. This is fun and it also serves as a direct social media replacement scheme. Whenever the urge to tweet arises, I post to my own blog instead. This is far more creative and nobody in Russia or Silicon Valley is going to diddle with my data. Anyone who reads my blog will be doing so at social media’s cost, and while they’re on my site they’ll not be subjected to advertising or behaviour modification techniques.
Start an email list. Idler editor Tom has said it before in these very pages. An email list creates a sense of community, a direct way to speak to people who know who you are, instead of jostling and competing for attention on social media. An Australian journalist called McKinley Valentine runs a smashing newsletter in this way called The Whippet, which dispenses quirky science stories along with her agony column, “Unsolicited Advice.” Trust your Internet grandad: email is the future.
Double down on print media, love your books. Of course, you could always resist social media by going offline entirely. As I said earlier, I don’t see the Internet itself as a problem and I don’t want to throw the baby out with the cyber-bathwater, but when you’re determined to avoid the toxicity of social media and to escape the digital world properly, you really can’t do any better than buying physical copies of The Complete Dickens and consuming it piecemeal in the park. Just watch out for actual trolls.