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Everything leaves an imprint
I believe that sports are meant to be watched socially, ideally in a public setting—this can be a somewhat expensive habit, but also a way to limit the excessive time they might otherwise consume. When I watch sports at home, however, I do so on extremely glitchy third-party websites where, with a bit of of finessing, any game is available to view for free (I won’t share any links because I don’t want you to blame me if malware takes over your computer). On an internet dominated by massive platforms, these shadowy streaming sites are my main experience of a version of the web that was much more familiar before Facebook and Google divided it up and streamlined everything. This is not to say the sites are good—they suck in almost every way—but that their combination of flashing pop up adds, chat windows full of toxic commentary, aesthetic chaos, ephemerality, and general unreliability are characteristics of the internet that have largely been pushed to the fringes (ok, maybe not the toxic commentary). You encounter them mainly when you’re doing something illicit or outside the big platforms’ scope, like bypassing Amazon Prime to watch an awful Bears-Panthers game.
These sports streaming sites do share one quality with the rest of the contemporary internet: Every square inch of screen real estate does something, and much of it is allocated to advertising. If you click anywhere, accidentally or intentionally, you open a new tab or window, and it’s almost never something you want. The layouts of megaplatform websites like Amazon and Facebook aren’t quite as extreme, probably due to aesthetic considerations and a minimal amount of respect for the user—the margins and borders separating all the menus, banners, posts, and search results aren’t clickable—but the majority of randomized clicking will route you somewhere, in a way that is useful to the platform itself, directly or indirectly. Illegal sports websites are merely implementing the crudest possible version of this approach, in which everything on the screen is just dead-end advertising that makes you hate the site. The more sophisticated version assumes a long-term relationship with a user, directing them toward other useful features, account management tools, data harvesting opportunities, and ads that don’t feel overtly intrusive, all in service of deepening the relationship and making the user worth more to the platform. But every small part has some function. The more widely used the website, the more important it is to wring out every possible drop of value from the scarce physical space on the screen everyone is looking at. Digital behavior is thus consequential in a way that our physical actions frequently aren’t; those consequences may be microscopic and invisible—sometimes just a database record of your eyeballs glancing at the screen—but they exist in durable form and are often available to others who can make use of them.
Recently, someone articulated a theory that a lot of people like Twitter because “they like having more control over their interactions with other people than IRL allows, including but not limited to the external image they create of themselves.” I think this is correct. Traditional social life—the face-to-face kind—can have the frustrating quality of inhibiting whatever identity transformation we may pursue, however modest, and of contradicting the aspirational self-image that we carefully construct in our moments of solitude. Once you step out the door you’re confronted with family, friends, and coworkers who aren’t buying your act and push you back into your established self. With social media’s affordances and especially its omissions—the ability to edit your outward-facing life like a movie, basically—you can theoretically shape your own identity with surgical precision, if you care enough to do the work. Follow, unfollow, block, mute, delete, tweak, focus-group your own personality using the instant feedback the platforms provide. This control is somewhat illusory though. Those same levers of refinement are also a prison: Whatever gap exists between your successfully crafted online persona and its cumbersome IRL counterpart dooms you to invest more in the former as they drift further apart. Compared to the present digital landscape, moreover, the intractability of physical reality is a gift. Most of our actions in meatspace are ephemeral and unseen, in contrast to the suffocating consequentiality of the internet, where every move reverberates through the network, even if it usually ends up as statistical noise. Shouldn’t it be a relief to give up control and not think about fine-tuning every setting? And even if we could, would most of us it get it right?
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The last issue was about listening to the radio and the role of old media as metaphors that make digital space less overwhelming.
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What Happened to the New Internet? by Bryan Lehrer, a superb account of the technological idealism of the late ‘10s, the unfulfilled promise of crypto, and where we can go from here. “Despite growing increasingly unpopular amongst young people, the old internet never really ceded significant power over the last decade.”
n+1 recently launched its annual Bookmatch quiz. “If you take it, the proprietary algorithm will spit out a list of highly specific book recommendations, tailored to your particular dreams and fears.” All you have to do to access the quiz is donate any amount.