What's wrong with the internet

Created at
03 November 2023
Last modified
05 November 2023

Or, specifically, what’s wrong with the web circa 2015-2025. There’s plenty written on this, and there’s plenty of people thinking about cures.

The symptoms

There’s a few. Homogenisation. Centralisation. Companies encouraging us to rent rather than own, and to pay through our attention rather than money. Polarisation. Lack of moderation. Disinformation. Being told what to read, rather than picking what we want.

Let’s unpack.

Homogenisation and centralisation

The idea that the web, for so many people, is basically four sites. Or five, or three, or six. The number doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s single-digits and you can basically spend your entire life on them.

The root cause



The unweirding of the internet - Trave Durnell

A roundof of thoughts and comments as at the end of 2023, specifically identifying the ease with which “successful” business can scale and squeeze out competition, and by which this leads to a culture of “gentrification”. As internet content becomes a money-maker (rather than a hobby), people optimise for cost and profit, joining up to the mainstream to get eyeballs, and alternative culture dies.

The article pivots to an optimistic take on the future of the web, suggesting that tools like AI (which are designed mainly to make it easier to produce bland, comfortable, SEO-compatible “content”) will result in an overabundance of maintstream boring content, driving consumers to seek out the weird and personal as something which is still scarce and valuable.

We’re all lurkers now - Kate Lindsay

Observing the general trend in social media:

No one really posts anymore, no one’s having fun, and it’s partly for this reason that no one seems excited about any of the newer apps and features, like Threads, that keep popping up despite everything.

Lindsay credits this to “the consequences of constant sharing”.

So where is everyone? …The Insider piece cites group chats as a reason for social media’s demise. And in fact, that conversation about breakup announcements that I mention above happened in a group chat of myself and six friends, which is where I now share literally every passing thought from my day that, five years ago, would have instead appeared as quippy tweets or sarcastic Instagram Stories.

So now social media’s almost five billion users are not turning to talk to each other but each turning outward, shouting their skincare routines or restaurant recommendations or opinions into a void.

See also the cosy web I guess?

How to fix the internet - Katie Notopoulos

The internet (ie social media) is clearly broken - “irredeemably bad, toxic, a rash of “hellsites” to be avoided”. The issue is with the applications we use to interact on the internet: Facebook, TikTok, X, YouTube, Instagram. Content is aligned with business objectives: to make the parent company a profit.

The article traces issues back to a strong insistence, early on, for free speech on the internet, driven by a userbase predominantly made of “affluent white men in California, whose perspective failed to predict the dark side of the free-speech, free-access havens they were creating”. As a result, the early internet turned to advertising as a revenue model to maintain free access, which was fine until we got to the point of user tracking and profiling, commoditising attention, and where we are now:

  • Advertisers are the real customers
  • They want your attention
  • Social media companies will do what they need to, to keep your attention

Classic attention economy. Anil Dash, on charging for web services in the 00s:

People were like, ‘You’re charging money for something on the internet? That’s disgusting!’” he told MIT Technology Review. “The shift from that to, like, If you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product… I think if we had come up with that phrase sooner, then the whole thing would have been different. The whole social media era would have been different.

Solutions proposed:

  • Get people to pay for stuff. When the business model is more transparent, it turns out things get better.
  • Federation. This allows you to break free of exploitative companies, or abandon toxic parts of the internet. Should also help add some competition to the marketplace. (Not certain I buy this…)
  • As users: focus on small, non-scaled places.