Is it possible the internet will be a garbage fire hellscape forever? And if so, what then?
“Everything is about to change. The world is going to crack wide open.”
Those are the final words from a character on Halt and Catch Fire, AMC’s series about the dawn of Silicon Valley and the digital age. It’s the late 1980s, and the character (we won’t spoil who it is) had just leaped to their death rather than face prison time for computer crimes, leaving behind a suicide note, a profound voiceover from beyond the grave explaining their motive and, in doing so, predicting The Internet As We Know It:
There’s something on the horizon — a massive connectivity. The barriers between us will disappear…We’ll hurt each other in new ways. We’ll expose our most tender selves, only to be mocked and destroyed. We’ll be so vulnerable, and we’ll pay the price…It’s a gigantic risk. But it’s worth it — if only we can learn to take care of each other. Then, this awesome, destructive new connection won’t isolate us — it won’t leave us, in the end, so totally alone.
These words sound chillingly prophetic because they were, of course, actually written today, in the show’s writers’ room, by people who, like the rest of us, were gripped by the hellish throes of daily life online in the 2010s. But even in the year these words aired, exactly one month before the 2016 U.S. election — Halt and Catch Fire itself ended its four-season run back in October — the writers could hardly have known how chillingly resonant they would become.
In 2017 alone, life on the internet revealed some of its most monstrous work yet: broken Facebook algorithms, Twitter Nazis, and the emboldened ogres of Gamergate put a president in the White House. Wildfires in the West and hurricanes in the South reached biblical proportions, and the world watched on social media as GoFundMes and newly formed nonprofit sites circulated in place of government aid that never came, as survivors floundered and died in darkness. We have seen a great expulsion of predatory men from Hollywood and countless other industries as survivors of sexual assault and workplace harassment summoned the courage to come forward. Still, many of us — regardless of why we are online, but often because we have to be — have had to grit our teeth through the retraumatizing experience of engaging with the detailed realities of rape and harassment, of reliving our own worst nightmares as justice is sought for others, every single day of our recent memory. We have weathered the naive shock of so-called “good men” and “nice white people,” their relentlessly dopey horror an insult to the injury of trauma already being endured; the indignities we were often told to shut up about before it became en vogue not to. The news in 2017 was almost exclusively bad, and on the internet we got every morsel of it instantly, a reminder every minute of how deep the wells of human callousness and cruelty truly are. It was difficult to remember just what about this massive connectivity was so great to begin with.
Now, as we stare down 2018, it is clear (or at least, it should be): There is no turning back, and there is no turning away. Barring nuclear apocalypse — which is, of course, a significant possibility — we cannot break up with the internet any more than any one person can truly “live off the land” in the 21st century. And it’s becoming unlikelier by the day that the institutional platforms where we congregate are ever going to get it right. What if life online is destined to remain an ever-growing garbage fire of abuse, bad faith, and depression forever?
But asking whether the internet is ever going to be a nice place is like asking whether a better world is possible — because now more than ever, the internet is the world. We’re finally at a moment in human history when more people are online than off, which means that the experience of existing on the internet is closer than it has ever been to literally trying to survive in a room alongside more than half the world’s population. It is a physical impossibility, of course, but it serves as a striking image that helps explain why it’s so hard to keep our heads above water online:
A means of communication that is flat-out absurd in the tangible world — being able to absorb thousands upon thousands of individual opinions and news stories and acts of goodness and cruelty, simultaneously, on a day-to-day basis — is an all but quotidian reality in the digital world.
“Every conversation we had before now was built around smaller communities, with at least some privacy, so it’s like our current social skills are several hundred years behind our social reality,” writer Sady Doyle recently told me in a message. As a vocal Twitter user, especially during the 2016 election, Doyle receives death threats and harassing emails, mostly from men, on a regular basis. (She actually received one as she was writing to me.) “If human society were five people, a puddle, and a goat, two of those people would probably team up to withhold the goat from the others and push them into a puddle. People [have always been] kind of shitty; we just do it at scale now.”
The same sense of scale is true — however difficult it may be to compare the two — of the good. As access to health care in America is being viciously dismantled, and as we scroll through daily reminders of those still wasting away in the dark in Puerto Rico and on the streets nationwide, GoFundMe recently announced its overall donations had topped $5 billion from more than 50 million people worldwide. As a result of relentless organizing efforts on social media, members of Congress received millions of calls in 2017 about their performance — to say nothing of town halls newly filled with furious, newly engaged constituents they’re now regularly forced to face. And what soul among us has not benefited from — if not nearly suffocated laughing at — a viral tweet or video shared in a group text or Facebook group?
If the internet, then, is connection unadulterated by circumstance, a consistent, hyperconcentrated, steroidal diet of all the ways humans are, in their best and worst forms, the only way forward is to consider it a Law of the Internet, much like a law of nature, that as it exists now, life online will not be getting any better. White supremacists, while they are emboldened by those in power, will always be in our faces, in one way or another. Stories of sexual harassment, while we continue to grapple with its immeasurable cultural and individual impact, will always push its way into our news feeds, much like it has always been a reality in our lives.
The good news is that in such an acute new world as this, all we have to do is act accordingly: to fulfill the Halt and Catch Fire prophecy and take care of each other by approaching our online existence like we’d approach our analog one — just tweaked, of course, to account for how many of us there are in one room.
Or, as Sady Doyle put it: “I think we have to rely on people getting sick of being horrible. We have to decide this is too much, it’s not worth it — and maybe evolve as a species, in a way that makes us less inclined to make the Internet shitty.”
Luckily, on sites like Facebook and Twitter — where black women get banned for poking fun at white people but the president does not get banned for inciting nuclear war — there is a definite sense that, little by little, even those who don’t and may never experience harassment or abuse have had the rose-colored filter ripped from their screens. There is no insisting that the internet is built by and for everyone — not anymore.
“Believe it or not, I think my life online actually is getting better,” Full Frontal with Samantha Bee writer Ashley Nicole Black recently wrote to me in a message. As her visibility both online and off has skyrocketed with the TBS late-night show — including an Emmy last year — Black says she’s seen the same men and white people who once doubted her more harrowing experiences online now “jumping into the comments” to defend her and others against those abusers. “Are those trolls ever going to go away? Probably not. But more people being able to see them definitely helps.”