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Noticing Excerpt: Getting lost on the internet

posted by Tim Carmody   May 18, 2018

Each week (more or less), I write a newsletter for Kottke.org called Noticing that summarizes the previous week, looks for deeper connections between some of the material, and expands on one or more of the shorter quicklink posts that didn’t get the full blogpost treatment the first time around. Here’s an excerpt from this week’s newsletter, on the internet and wasted time.

If all art aspires to the condition of music, then all media aspires to the condition of television. Television is passive and active, shallow and comprehensive, cheap and expensive, gratuitous and mandatory — an easy way to waste time, where you can find anything you want, but it all just sort of happens to you, without frustration or interference.

Dan Nosowitz’s “I Don’t Know How To Waste Time on the Internet Anymore” strikes a chord partly because it shows how the web has become too much like TV (too much corporate control, homogeneity, amateurs playing at being professionals in all the wrong ways), but also not enough like TV (delivering easy entertainment in bingeable quantities). You can still get lost down a rabbit hole on the web, but you have to work at it, and the results aren’t as satisfying as they used to be.

A lot of this rings very true to me. Some of it is unquestionable: the bottoming out of the ad market, and everything that caused that, has made it really hard for niche, indie web sites with an unusual point of view to survive. The commercial websites and traditional publishers who colonized that space are a lot more same-y and predictable.

Social media also transforms our experience. You used to be able to come across a blog or forum post, in your RSS feed or straight up navigating in your browser, and have a relatively fresh and unmediated reaction to it. You could then share that reaction on your blog or wherever. Even the blog style favored generous blockquotes as much as it did hot takes. Now everything feels a lot more picked-over. Something like Yanny vs. Laurel, by the time you actually listen to it for yourself, you’ve seen friends scream at each other at the top of their lungs, a half-dozen quickly-manufactured memes, a dozen or so copycat posts, and five or six scientific explainers or web spelunkers who’ve traced the auditory hallucination’s journey from the web’s bowels to its front pages. All of the moves have been mapped out. There aren’t a lot of surprises any more.

Trust me: I spend most of the week looking for things that I hope will surprise and delight Kottke readers for the one day of the week I manage the site. They don’t just float to the top.

So what does this mean? Paradoxically, wasting time is now more work. You can certainly do it — the web is as full of nonsense as it ever was — but you have to look a little bit harder. You have to learn some new things. You have to find your own corners charting unmonetizable enthusiasms. It’s not just going to happen to you. You have to dig your own rabbit holes.

The other thing is that I’ve come to treasure people who are genuinely inventive and interactive on social media. Finding people who will riff with you and are skilled at interjecting weirdness and intellect is becoming more valuable, to me, than people who have the precisely titrated level of anger or the perfect bon mot at whatever new atrocity has just crossed the stream. That sort of thing is valuable, but there’s a glut of it.

Relatedly: the other other thing is that when the world sucks, the web sucks. The whole country is broken. Fun is harder to find all over. Yet somehow, we do what we can.