I still think of the Internet as a place. I guess the metaphors that became terminology in its early days are the main reason for that: site, visit, surf. We "go" online. When is the last time someone asked you if you wanted to "go" to TV. I do remember the early modems -- both the ones with phone cradles and the ones that could shockingly attain 14.4 baud after only 90 seconds of squealing -- and in that era, the Internet really was a destination, complete with arduous journey. But now that websites load faster than TV channels (I still find the slow load time of digital cable incredibly frustrating), it's weird to pretend that the Internet is anything different from the other media that have streamed into our brains in the age of technology.
But because I still think of the Internet as a place, it has a size, and a landscape, both of which change as the years go on. I think five years ago, just when Google was putting the final touches on its ascendancy and before the web fit in everyone's pocket, it was a vaster place characterized by weatherless white space and colorful scribbled foliage. More attractive than its rickety boat 1994 days (when we all sailed on animated GIFs made of halting pixels on churning, dial-up seas), but still unpopulated save for the occasional clapboard town (six buildings: jail, bank, brothel, inn, saloon, post office). We were still in awe of Wikipedia's seemingly quixotic quest to gather the world's entire repository of Knowledge Held By People With Spare Time.
Now, it's feeling smaller but busier. The population density has shot up, as has the information density. Everybody seems to know each other, and link to each other, and frequent the same jazz joints. The sense of adventure and exploration has dimmed; what once was a month-long expedition on horseback to turn up a laughtastic Geocities site dedicated to some nut's Cap'n Crunch fetish is now a 30-second glance at You Name It Feed Aggregator for a 1:15 YouTube clip of an old Cap'n Crunch ad redubbed with an abusive Mel Gibson rant.
[Sidebar: howcome I didn't link to these two sterling examples of 'net lulz? Because I just made them up, so they don't exist ... yet?]
When everybody had a blog, links would come from odd corners and go to odder ones, with a sense that there was not much in between. Now that the blogosphere has been reduced to a compact downtown (six skyscrapers: HuffPo, Gawker, Boing Boing, TechCrunch, Drudge, Other), the links just bounce back and forth like trains on a subway, the locals making stops at all news outlets in between, the express trains just zipping opinions back and forth. Not everybody has a blog anymore. Everybody has a Twitter, and everybody's Twitter has a set of celebrities in the following list. Even the mechanisms for adding content to the web are now explicitly married to mechanisms for reading content on the web. I kind of miss the old cranks who just wrote without stopping to think about who was reading, or caring, or knowing, or trying. I guess I miss it enough that I'm trying to be that crank, albeit with the hypocritical extra step of poking social media everytime I fart in the general direction of my keyboard.
I must be a crank, because I got all mean on a young blogger today. Why did I do that? I mean, sure, the piece sucked in a way that was offensive: lazy and obvious devices are employed as a desperate stab at "voice" on top of accidentally revealed incompetence at the basic rigors of journalism all in a sad but sadly common attempt to write Hunter S. Thompson backwash, and some fellow traveler in the school of hip nitwits compares it to Gay Talese! I know that blogging means never having to face down an editor any harsher than spellcheck, but for the love of Jesus, The Awl publishes some well-crafted and well-researched pieces in between Choire Sicha's exclamation points ... how does this keep getting on there?
The Internet-as-media (dropping the Internet-as-place idea for a while) has been trending much closer to the magazine in the past few years, and this has been a positive trend, one that's making up for the general shrinkage in scattershot content. Part of that is creating a rift between the professional Internet and the amateur Internet (whereas before, everyone danced on the same floor, regardless of talent or practice). When someone attempts to cross the divide with a piece of high school newspaper journalism artfully lowercased to signal its "intentional" authenticity as experimental babbling, er, rambling, er, writing, I'm sorry, but it's glaring.
I think the persistent presence of trolls online has created another rift between mean and nice. If you're mean, you're a troll and you should go back to 4chan and make fun of random Flickr photos. Otherwise be nice, no matter what. It's like the entire world is suddenly California, full of sunny passive aggressive people who know how to stab a back but force themselves to accept/encourage whatever their buddies are doing, even if it's awful. If the Internet really is growing up, I think we need to give it some grown-up edge.
In the world of stand-up comedy, comics are simply brutal to each other, and the audience is simply brutal to them. It's an unhappy place, but it quickly and efficiently allows artists to churn through multiple drafts of a piece to arrive at a successful one, and that's why, pound for pound, performer for performer, stand-up comedy has the smallest percentage of suck among its professionals of any other entertainment job. (Live music: close second.) The internet, with its anonymous commenters and opinionated personalities, should be yielding similar results. We shall see. Maybe it will take a few more cranks like me from the Wild West days, sticking a neck out there every once in a while and telling a lame blogger to get off the meta site and go practice in their room for a while.
Or maybe I'm just a total dick.
The Internet: crowded, busy, dripping with money in some corners and poverty in others, full of talented professionals and astonishing amateurs and atrocious wannabes, where it's impossible to tell if your attitude is one of constructive but blunt criticism or just dickery. If this is a place, it must be New York.