One interesting aspect of the pandemic internet is all the content that has stopped appearing anywhere. Max Read writes, “Instagram, cut off from a steady supply of vacations and parties and other covetable experiences, had grown unsettlingly boring, its inhabitants increasingly unkempt and wild-eyed, each one like the sole surviving astronaut from a doomed space-colonization mission.” Instagram—formerly the most straightforward, literal, and aspirational of social networks—has become the lacuna that mirrors our real, enervated social lives, a void to stare into as we mourn everything that COVID-19 has choked off. It’s not just the vacations and parties that aren’t happening, either, but how Instagram (and the broader internet) process the activities that are happening: Instead of using the platform to amplify our amusement for friends and strangers, we’re abridging and minimizing whatever fun we do have, in a perfect inversion of the ordinary dynamic. Maybe you’ve done something this year that you’d normally post but decided instead to keep quiet about, unsure whether it’s tasteful or appropriate and choosing to err on the side of caution. If you found yourself in this bind, after years of conditioning to the contrary, perhaps the act made you question whether your unshared experience was even real, or just a tree falling silently in the forest.
This accumulation of individual discretion has a cultural footprint as well, and might yet coalesce into a silent-by-definition zeitgeist. In a recent SSENSE article about the continued viability of subcultures in the “age of the algorithm,” Dean Kissick makes the following observation: “Here in New York lots of people are hanging out in public spaces, on the streets and in the parks. But it’s far less documented and performative than before; no pictures or videos, or shared invites…This might be framed as a return to an older model of subcultures; one that happens in the parks and behind closed doors, in real life, that travels by word of mouth, that can be stumbled upon if you go to a certain pier on a warm summer night, or get a hold of an address and apartment number; one that’s irresponsible, hedonistic, frowned-upon, and concealed below the surface.” In February 2020 it may have been impossible for many to fathom such a mode of existence; it seems far more plausible now.
The late Mark Fisher wrote that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, which isn’t saying much at the moment, but nonetheless expresses how a single arrangement can become so ubiquitous that it erases the memory of every alternative. In similar fashion, the one-way road toward increased connectivity we’ve been traveling on for our entire lives has no real ability to reckon with what remains disconnected; it can only connect it. The prompt to which Kissick responded said that “when a distinctly niche or localized subculture first hits the internet, it is voraciously absorbed for its singular authenticity,” and just as the global market economy can assign a monetary value to anything—even an entity that refuses to participate in the market—the internet (which in many ways is just another interface for the same market economy) can absorb subcultures that don’t want to opt in. To paraphrase Trotsky, you may not be interested in the market, but the market is still interested in you. The current pattern, however temporary, of withholding more personal and subcultural information from the internet, despite its unpleasant cause, might accidentally reintroduce a bygone paradigm that the internet itself is structurally incapable of encouraging, one of silence and even mystery. That sounds a bit like a Dark Age, yes, but hasn’t the world become a bit overilluminated?
Kyle Chayka on the warped, glitchy aesthetic of algorithmic style, as exemplified by Microsoft Flight Simulator.
The specter of 1970s-style austerity looms in New York, but believing it’s inevitable could make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.