This screenshot basically sums up “the internet as we know it”.
For the past decade or so the social internet has consisted of a handful of websites that the vast majority of people frequented. The list isn’t just limited to 5 websites, and the websites themselves have changed over time, but include or have included sites like: Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Instagram, and others. I’m deliberately excluding e-commerce sites and search engines from this list, though those have also been quite popular, they deserve their own discussions. Unlike the early days of the internet (“the internet as it was”), where there were forums with their own web domain dedicated to particular topics, and people had their own websites and blogs, the internet as we know it had a plurality, if not a majority, of its original content confined to one of a few sites.
This has been bemoaned by free web activists for a long time, but most of us, including myself, were happy with it. Why wouldn’t we be? These social websites provided tons of excellent content, made it easy to follow creators who produced that content as well as connect with friends and family over long distances and have conversations. Before Facebook, there was basically no normal way to connect with someone who you knew but hadn’t seen in a while. Sure, you could ask around and try to find their number to call them, maybe send them an email, but what would you even talk about? Sites like Facebook allowed people to not only reach out to people they had lost touch with, but get updates on what was going on in their lives to make it feel as though they were still close.
Similarly, sites like Reddit provided communities that had high-quality discussions of nearly any topic under the sun, while Twitter allowed nearly anyone to follow stream-of-consciousness communications from celebrities, as well as breaking news from journalists, and memes and other fun things from their friends and favorite internet creators.
Sure, most people only visited this handful of sites, but did you really need more? Each of these sites was produced by a big tech company with a huge budget; they were relatively easy to use, they were polished, and they were free. Sure, there were ads on a lot of them, but that was a small price to pay compared to the value you were getting, and if you really cared that much, you could always just install an ad blocker.
So why am I speaking about all this in the past tense? Isn’t this still the state of the internet today? Arguably, yes, but this status quo does appear to be changing quickly. In a blog post back in January, Cory Doctorow described the method by which internet platform die, which he dubbed “enshittification”, quite well.
Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.
We are familiar with this process from Facebook, which is full of ads and sponsored posts, and offers up no content on your home timeline other than what Facebook’s algorithm wants you to see. And indeed, Facebook isn’t doing too well based on their user numbers. And anecdotal evidence says that even those who have accounts aren’t using them as much as they once did. Perhaps it’s too early to say, but it sure seems like Facebook dying.
And other platforms we think of as mainstays of the internet as lining up behind them. After being acquired by Elon Musk, Twitter decided to sell the verified “blue checkmark”, which previously marked as an account as a genuine and noteworthy one, to anyone who would pay a monthly subscription, along with many other controversial changes. They also decided to start charging outrageous prices for their previously free API, killing off many Twitter bots and apps in the process. And as I’m writing this, Twitter has decided that you cannot view Tweets anymore without an account, and that even account-holders are limited to a certain number of Tweets per day they’re allowed to view (with paid subscribers being allowed to see more than the free users).
Not to be outdone, Reddit also recently decided to start charging for their API, sparking the announcement from multiple popular apps that it will not be financially feasible for them to keep their services running. In response, the moderators of many Reddit communities decided to take make their subreddits private for 48 hours, with many extending this to be indefinite after Reddit refused to back down, and others using other creative ways of protesting while avoiding being the victim of Reddit’s threat to take the control of the subreddits away from the moderators unless they reopen.
Right now, Reddit is not backing down and it seems like they will survive the protests. But the good will of their community is not so easily regained. Reddit and other platforms like Discord have carefully cultivated their image to have a fun and friendly demeanor with cute mascots and a nerdy charm. But at the end of the day, profit is what drives these companies, and Reddit preparing for their IPO is almost certainly driving the decisions being made now. Neither Twitter nor Reddit are profitable and it seems the market’s patience for the stage of their development where they gain users, popularity, and influence has grown thin. Even well-established companies like Google seem to be feeling the pressure as they make moves to limit YouTube access for users using ad blockers. The internet as we know it is looking less and less familiar, and not in a good way.
So what’s next for the internet? If the internet as we know it is dying, what will rise from its ashes? One possibility is that the internet as we know it won’t leave, it will just get worse. People will continue to stay on the same old websites even as these websites get objectively worse and squeeze us for more of our cash. Competitors will crop up, and perhaps the list of big websites will see some turnover, but ultimately the pattern won’t change much and these big web platforms will continue putting profit over their users. If this happens, people will probably use the internet less, or at least in a much more passive way than they did previously. Perhaps this won’t be so bad though, as we’ll all finally have an excuse to touch some grass.
Of course, there are more optimistic possibilities. I’ve already written about how the Fediverse and ActivityPub are an excellent example of what a decentralized social media could be. But perhaps the future will look like something different entirely. While the return of a decentralized web sounds like an enticing possibility, with search engines becoming dominated by AI summarizers summarizing AI-generated content, finding relevant content may prove more challenging than ever. But the internet is nothing if not innovative, and perhaps there will be new ways to discover niche blogs and websites, or perhaps recommendations will simply spread by word of mouth. These options may see a future internet with less polish and smaller budgets than the internet as we know it, but they will almost certainly be more user-centric. I’m no fortune teller, so I can’t say where the internet will go from here, but I can say that a shift is definitely taking place. For those who care about what the internet becomes, it would be wise to watch what happens next.