Whatever Happened To the Weird Internet
The quality of being on the internet has gone down significantly in the past several years. The internet as a whole has become lamer, dumber, more filled with click bait, advertising and B.S. You can’t read a recipe for how to cook Pad Thai, for example, without first wading through a couple paragraphs of blathering about “what is Pad Thai?” and why the narrator loves to make this vegan recipe for her meat-loving husband.
In a nutshell the problem comes from advertising swamping everything, like rampant kudzu. The dumb recipe genre is designed to make a person stay on the page long enough to activate the different ads and banners. Alas poor internet! We hardly knew ye!
I’m mostly concerned here about what was always my personal favorite slice of the internet—the esoteric, weird, speculative, and funky side of the internet, which has fallen prey to the ceaseless march of the commodification of everything, just like all the other corner of the internet. I guess, given that the weirdo underground subcultures always felt so anti-capitalist I had hopes they would fare better. A few examples come to mind, my favorite being Arthur Mag which existed online briefly around 2014 (besides being a print magazine for years.) Arthur Mag was a wonderful blend of stoner/psychedelic music reporting, mixed with other heady weirdness. (My book DIY Magic got it’s start as a series for online Arthur Mag.) “Psychedelic Knitware, New herbalist Zodiac” boasted a typical print issue. My impression of Arthur Mag’s demise was that rather than sellout and corrupt it’s wonderfully weird internet presence with ads for bullshit, Arthur Mag would rather die. A noble choice, but also leaving lovers of weirdness in a world slightly less magical.
Reality Sandwich went the other direction, it was a really out there website for many years, founded by Daniel Pinchbeck, and Ken Jordan. Reality Sandwich seemed like a psychonautical sandbox, that just about anybody could submit an essay to (I published a couple) and would feature erudite ramblings on DMT and Zen, UFOs and Chakras, Crypto and Atlantis etc. It was more out-there than Arthur Mag—which was a perk or a detraction depending on your taste in weirdness. And then at some point, it sold out, quite literally, and was bought by a corporation which now publishes incredibly anodyne dribble, in a transparently desperate attempt to turn psychedelia into clickbait. If you want to read the “Just what is Chicken Pad Thai?” clickbait article on psilocybin, Reality Sandwich is the place for that.
Reality Sandwich and Arthur Mag seem to be the two extremes of the choice, what happens when a traditionally underground subculture (psychedelia, Stoner weirdness, mystico-hippie vibes etc.) meet modern digital commodification. Another example is Boing Boing, a long-time celebration of the weird and wonderful, that to be honest, I still visit frequently, but the quality has gone down in recent years, as the original creators have all moved on to pursue other endeavors (like writing books.) Boing Boing still has fascinating information to share on everything from the sci-fi-like weirdness of now, to psychedelics but the quality control feels inconsistent, and these days there seems to be ever more increasing ads, and hocking of toys and gadgets of dubious merit. Have they lost their way, or is the struggle between clickbait and actually cool, fascinating things on-going? For me the jury is still out. But I know that at the end of the day I want my weirdo wit and wisdom to come from somewhere that isn’t going also be shilling worthless crap.
Which brings me to why I decided to start this newsletter: it’s basically my attempt to stake out a small plot of land in the shrinking wilds of the internet and share the stuff that I wish there was a bit more of, one newsletter a week at a time. I hope to dig into thoughtfully weird, mystical meanderings, and thought-provoking stuff that I miss from the good old days of places like Reality Sandwich, Arthur mag, and Boing Boing and places like that.
The Other Half of the Deal
The Other half of the question is what’s the healthiest way to interface with the internet as a reader? I think it’s helpful to compare phones/social/twitter/YouTube etc. to liquor. Everybody knows hard alcohol is potent, and potentially dangerous if you over do it. We have laws about how old you have to be to use it and what time the places that serve it are open and so on. These laws didn’t spring up overnight. Imagine an alternate timeline where alcohol hadn’t been invented until say the 1990s. The 90’s would have been crazy! A society stumbling into the invention of alcohol all of a sudden, with no culture around it, no immunity to the stuff would have been nuts. In fact, we can kind of see what that would be like in the gin craze of the 18th century, massive amounts of cheap gin came on the scene (due to a variety of factors) and people just weren’t ready for it, everyone drank themselves silly “As cheap gin flowed unabated, crime increased, men were rendered impotent, women ceased to care for their children, suicide rates jumped, and people sold their possessions to satisfy their insatiable thirst for perpetual drunkenness.” (Gin Mania.)
Of course, gin is still around—but people have to a large degree built up some immunity to the stuff, gin is no longer seen as the scourge of civilization like it was in 1751.
(Hogarth’s Gin Lane)
The answer to building up immunity against the infinite entertainment of the internet must come from us, from humans. I was heartened to see a group of kids spontaneously tackle this by declaring themselves Luddites in this recent NYT article.
Perhaps something we can strive towards as creators and consumers is an awareness of when someone is trying to sell us something. To avoid clickbait, we can vote with our clicks. And simply make an effort to be mindful and avoid the clickbait articles, the vapid listicles. Let’s work together to create and celebrate places on the internet where the writer and the reader simply treat each other with mutual respect.
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