Like some trite break-up letter, I find myself at the tail-end of 2023, reflecting on why my love affair with the internet has ended. I'm obviously not alone. Like many millennials, I am realising that the fun we once had has now come to an end. The signs had been there for some time, and while many friends had tried to warn me about it, it's hard to take their warnings seriously when they themselves have had their own on-again, off-again struggles.
All of the red flags have been there for a while – the co-dependency, the constant monitoring, the addiction issues – but like anyone trapped in an unhealthy relationship, I still have the impulse to draw upon all of the good that we once shared: “It's introduced me to so many great people,” I cry, as I type these words into the very thing that I am trying to walk away from. And obviously, the irony of all of this is not lost on me.
Yet, I still feel I owe it to the internet to look back at what we once had and – for both of our sakes – see if we can get some clarity and perhaps even some closure.
Our story is a simple one. That tried-and-tested tale that we've heard a thousand times before. I'll try not to bore you with the old clichés, but no doubt it hums along with the sound of a dial-up tone and an MSN chatroom notification; there are MySpace bands and Blogspot sites and street styles that went global even before people had cameras built into their cellular telephones.
In 2023, describing the significance of this time online now feels nearly impossible. At a time when people feel overstimulated, overwhelmed, and over reliant, the internet of yesteryear now sounds so quaint in comparison. But truthfully, those early days were a revelation. While my childhood and teenage years in suburban Dublin didn’t feel like a time of great cultural scarcity, once the Pandora's Box of the internet had been flung open, I quickly learnt that there was a much wider world out there.
In my mind, this was a time when everyone had their own little corner of the web – places where they shared excellently curated blogs about the things they loved. In Portland, there was a guy called Michael who ran a Private Press and – every few months – he would put out a themed radio session called the Snore & Guzzle Radio Hour – these were whole musical odysseys that I would eagerly upload to my iPod and then spend days wandering around to; in Gothenburg, Elisabeth lived with her young family and kept a blog called Fine Little Day where she shared images from her everyday life – I'd look at her posts and dream about someday moving to Sweden; over in LA, Bobby wrote about design, music, fashion and food on a site called Kitsune Noir – it made me want to seek out the things that I liked and refine and develop my own aesthetic sensibilities.
There was a sense of genuine love and enthusiasm about this version of life online. This was the endearing coming-of-age era, where people were trying things out and seeing what stuck. Most did it simply for the fun of it. There was no financial imperative; no branding strategy or game plan. To me, it felt like the DIY zine culture of the past had been reenergised – and it had been given a sparkly digital makeover with glamorous things like hyperlinks and blogrolls.
I too kept a blog. And I shared the things that I loved. I learned about architecture, art, design, culture, and illustration. It made me look at the city in new ways and it made me think about what I wanted to share. When I travelled, I did so with a fresh purpose – searching out and documenting everything I was drawn to. The blog was my small scrapbook of what I loved and it was nice to share it with a small community of like-minded people. In many ways, it helped me to find my creative voice.
In those days, the internet felt relatively low-key. My life in blogging had been modest at best – a small but tidy Rolodex of people putting out work that I liked. In those days, the thought that anyone might want to look at your blog on their phone felt weird – unhinged. In my mind, mobile sites were for die-hard tech fans who had money to burn and got excited about Apple Events and Web Summits. “Why would anyone want to look at a website when they were out and about?”. I thought. In my mind, the internet was a cosy space that existed for an hour or two on the screen of a laptop or a desktop computer and you read it in the comfort of your home.
It was Twitter that changed all of that.
If blogging had been like a phone call with a good friend, then Twitter was like texting – and suddenly we were all in a group chat with hundreds of people. Facebook was the space for connecting with those we knew in real life, but Twitter was where you got to speak with strangers and that seemed exciting. Pluralistic in its scope, it initially seemed to continue the legacy of blogging by allowing everyone a chance to have a voice. And, much like blogging, nobody seemed to have a game plan either. But there was one fundamental difference – Twitter, by its very nature, was structured like a game. Scores were given for communication; interactions received clear quantified feedback via Likes, Retweets, and Follower counts. We didn't quite notice it at first, but this, I feel, was the beginning of the end.
Of course, my romanticising of the early days of blogging comes with rose-tinted glasses. I'll throw my hands up and confess that most of the internet back in the day was junk, and of course, there was a performative nature to life online in those early years too. However, it was the heightened gamification of online interaction through social media that transformed the web into something different. Most games start out fun, but as you begin to lose, you can often regret that you began playing in the first place.
C. Thi Nguyen wrote about this in a 2021 paper called How Twitter Gamifies Communication. In his piece, he notes how games are more satisfying than ordinary life, “precisely because game goals are simpler, cleaner, and easier to apply”. It makes sense then that Nguyen would highlight this in 2021. The previous year, ordinary life was not simple, clean and easy. “Social media became exponentially more performative in 2020 as a response to the pandemic, social justice movements and generally the world falling apart,” notes Fiona O’Grady in a piece for Refinery29. “It already felt like you were either on the right or wrong side and on social media you can’t be as complex as you are IRL. This got bigger and more critical in 2020 as we’re all just sitting at home, looking at our phones.”
It now feels nearly redundant to continue writing this piece. Reluctantly, I think, we all know where it goes from here. What started out as something fun soon became a game with very few winners. Creativity became content, ideas became discourse, and practice became performance. Your attention didn’t collapse. It was stolen. is just one of countless articles or books that I could link to that highlights how modern life is destroying our ability to concentrate. To quote Earl K. Miller from that very article, we live in “a perfect storm of cognitive degradation”.
I see it every day through my teaching — a generation who never experienced real boredom. There's a sense that nobody has ever truly been forced to exercise their imagination and their ingenuity. As creatives, they are either forced to take on the role of influencers who conform to algorithms or they resign themselves to becoming passive consumers. These games have become so intertwined in how we socialise, connect and work that leaving them now feels impossible. It might be easy for me to point fingers but I'm equally as guilty — if not more so.
For me, this was the year where I wrestled with this most.
In January, I joined a book club. I forced myself away from the screen for a while and entered an actual real-life community where we talked about the written word. Our first book was Eve Babitz's 1977 memoir Slow Days, Fast Company. I loved it. Everyone seemed to love it. Babitz, it would seem, has been having quite a resurgence of late. And this makes sense to me. She is a writer who is clearly having fun. And it feels strange and novel in 2023 to think about a grown adult who has fun. Real fun. Fun for the sake of fun. Our generation is so skilled at making adulthood look joyless. Perhaps, that is because we're looking for joy in all the wrong places.
That is why I think, my love affair with the internet has ended.
In some ways, it feels sad. There's a sense of closing the door on something that I once cared deeply about. I can see others struggle with this too; trying to hold on to what they once had by joining Threads or Bluesky or starting newsletters.
Of course, we all have professional obligations, and I'm aware that there is a certain privilege in being able to separate from the internet completely. I'm not sure if that's even possible. That's why, like any good breakup story, I'm stuck here pathetically asking if there is space for us to still be friends. The romance might be dead, but personally, I feel like I'm willing to give it a shot and perhaps there's room for us to still occasionally have each other in our lives?
But, I do understand that – at the end of the day – it will be up to the internet to decide if it still wants me. Particularly when I start finding my community, connection, and creativity somewhere else...