I've been online since 1992, and there's been a subtle, sinister shift in how we use the web
- Social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit have changed the way I experience the internet.
- I recently realized that I've been caught in the social media feedback loop for years.
This week, I heard two words I hadn't heard in a very long time: "Penny Arcade."
Hearing those words made me remember that I used to read webcomics all the time in my preteen and teenage years. But I read zero webcomics these days. I realized that reading them used to be part of my daily routine, but somewhere along the way, I broke the habit.
The thrilling days of dial-upMy colleague Matt Weinberger made a good point on Twitter: Webcomics were popular around the time of RSS feeds and smaller communities like LiveJournal, where it was incredibly easy to create your own blog, and find others doing the same.
It was an exciting time, the early 2000s: If you wanted to write, or share your artwork, you didn't need to work your way up at a publication, or hope for a random break. You could simply scan your artwork and upload it to your own free website, for everyone to see.
Back then, I would spend a lot of time on individual websites - but I would almost always visit those sites directly. I have more than a dozen folders on Chrome and Safari filled with sites I used to read all the time, about technology, or movies, or music, or video games. But I realize I haven't visited visited 90% of those bookmarks in years, for one simple reason: social media.
Social media made web browsing convenient
Social networks like Facebook and Twitter changed how I visited websites. Before I joined those platforms in the mid-2000s, I would read sites voraciously until there was nothing left that was "new."
When social media came along, suddenly I had one single website that could round up the very best - or most popular - material across a range of websites, many of which I hadn't seen before. If a friend was sharing something, it was worth checking out. Suddenly, I had little time for my old favorites, since there was so much "new" stuff to consume.
These days, I still spell out the URLs for a few sites I frequent, like Kotaku or Rotten Tomatoes. But I realize the vast majority of my time on the internet is usually directed by a single link on Twitter, or Reddit, or Facebook, or Instagram, or Slack. Those giant hubs send me on my daily internet journey, which obviously gives those particular sites a lot of power, but it also means they're generally controlling what I experience online.
Looking at Facebook's most recent earnings report, I know I'm not alone here.
Skimming and dipping
Social media hasn't just changed what I read, but how I read it. Years ago, I used to find myself reading incredibly long stories, or spend myself poring through archives of webcomics. These days, I rarely invest myself in long reads, especially when the comments section can sum up the points, or the general sentiment, about as well. And the only archives I've checked out recently are people's past videos on YouTube.
In some ways, I feel like social media has trained me to look for the content I came for - either a story, or a picture, or a video - and dip back out after it's done, to be rerouted to another point of interest somewhere on the internet, via the social networks.
This isn't the fault of Facebook, or Twitter, or anyone else. In fact, it makes sense that the most successful websites on the internet are mainly redirecting traffic to more important links around the web. And of course, using social networks like those doesn't preclude you from keeping a steady stable of websites that you visit every day, and rely on above all.
Your internet habits might differ than mine - that's totally great - but in any case, it's important to be cognizant of which sites you're giving your eyes and time to, because it's too easy to be caught in the social media feedback loop. It took me until this week to realize I've been caught in one for years.