Millennials serve as the bridge between the kids who send in TikTok dances as their college admissions essay and old folks who went to school when computers took up enough space to have their own zip code. The transition from the Internet as novelty to necessity happened right next to us. As we were developing, so was the Internet.
Before it became a hyper-addictive, attention-stealing, behavior manipulating thirst trap, the Internet was like outer space: an ever-expanding void of untapped possibility. And just like outer space, tech billionaires ruined it. The days of doing something on the Internet “just for fun” are long gone, replaced by micro-transactions and the onslaught of capitalism into all aspects of our lives. Every action taken online is being commodified into a service, or a token, or some form of capital, whether it’s physical, digital, or social. Honestly, it’s hard to tell the difference, and the companies that run the platforms we’ve become indentured to prefer it that way, because no matter what, the majority of that capital rises to their ranks, leaving the rest of us with nothing but “followers” and crippling depression.
Most of the things I see on the Internet are fleeting. Occasionally, I’ll read a story or a quote online about the MCU, climate, politics, or basketball that gives me a little nugget to chew on for a few hours, or if I’m lucky, a couple of days.
Rarely do I read something that cuts so deeply into the core of my existence that I read it, read it again, and then have to re-evaluate my entire life. Dan Sheehan, writer at Polygon, published a piece this month that did just that; it burrowed into my psyche, carved out a sizable plot of land to build a solid, well-furnished home, and has been living there ever since.
The story is about Homestar Runner, a Flash animation website that captured the attention of a whole generation, my generation, before internet virality. I implore you to read Sheehan’s piece, but I want to zero in on his closing remarks:
One of the biggest sins on the modern internet is trying too hard to be funny. It has caused the internet’s sense of humor to turn cruel in the last decade and our knee-jerk response to earnest humor to be negative. Putting oneself out there creates a risk of ending up in a cringe compilation or as the subject of a devastating quote tweet. Strong Bad is representative of a time in the internet’s past when there was something new every day, and there was room for simple jokes. The world of Homestar Runner sprung from a place of passion and caring. It’s possible that nostalgia for the character is rooted in a desire to go back to a time when we embraced that type of enthusiasm. And who wouldn’t want to? At the end of the day, like Strong Bad himself, none of us are truly as cool (or as mean) as we pretend to be online.
The Internet used to be a safe, inviting laboratory for earnest experimentation and self-discovery. Now, it is a conveyor belt, pulling us along to the same inevitable end. “Something new every day” has been supplanted by whatever the Algorithm decides is most nutritious for our digital diet. We’ve been conditioned to “cancel” and be canceled, to mold a perfect image of an infallible lifestyle, to succumb to whatever is trending in pursuit of abstract digital clout and social comeuppance.
On today’s Internet, Homestar Runner would be as captivating as it would be ridiculed because that’s just what we do now. Nothing is pure, or innocent, or sacred. Nothing can just be fun, or simple. Strongbad would have his own Instagram filter. The techno song would be the backdrop of every TikTok meme. There would be super fans and massive haters, and the content would evoke powerful responses from both groups, ultimately diluting and distracting from the original product.
Much of this behavior, and the emotion it elicits, can be traced to our over-abundance of time looking at screens. If we spent too much time on the Internet before the pandemic, quarantine has increased our dependence on the World Wide Web to levels never seen before. Growing up, screen time was a privilege, and few people had more than two Internet-connected devices in their home. Online content consumption was limited to short bursts between meals, after hours of basketball, or as a reward for finishing homework. We sat with the content for weeks, and didn’t feel obligated to scream our opinion about it into the void. Using a computer was a means to an end, not the never-ending. Today, we are slapped over the head with content repeatedly by push notifications, email newsletters (yes, I understand the irony), and group chats (I said I get it!). They have screens when you pump gas, screens for self-check out, and screens for your exercise bike. Being inundated with content every waking moment has scrambled our brains and deteriorated our relationship with almost everything.
The content isn’t all innocent or inconsequential. Online harassment is worse than ever. Mental health concerns are at an all-time high. People (mostly of color) are being assaulted, shot and killed on a regular basis and we bear witness to it all through our devices. Of course, these things were happening both in the shadows and broad daylight long before Web 2.0, but the speed and precision with which the content reaches us has raised our collective anxiety and, in turn, caused us to look at everything online through a critical or nihilistic lens. Innocent, inconsequential content can’t exist online in a world where every person or brand has to take a position on the topic of the day. I’m not arguing for brands to remain on the fence, or for athletes to “just shut up and dribble,” but in some ways, it limits what space certain content can inhabit. I think about this constantly. Is it okay for me to tweet my theories on the Falcon and the Winter Soldier finale if another Black person was just executed by the police? At the rate that these things keep happening, will it ever be the right time?
Sheehan yearns for a time when “passion and caring” are the dominant forces on the Internet again, and he’s not alone.
Time to put on our red boxing gloves, keep fighting, and occasionally, check our email.