A year when the internet platforms’ erosion became fully depressing, social media creators settled into being a petit bourgeoisie, and AI art already felt overdone
With 2023 drawing to a close, I wanted to summarize a few of the major structural changes to culture that we experienced over the year.
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1. The internet collapses
In 2023 it became common knowledge that the 2010s post-blog, platform-based mobile internet is eroding into oblivion, and since most contemporary culture is ultimately online culture, this only further added to our pre-existing feelings of cultural stagnation.
There was a lot of writing on internet decline, starting with Ed Zitron’s “The Internet is Already Broken.” Kyle Chayka’s essay “Why the Internet Isn’t Fun Anymore” crystallized the general malaise around the web’s increased uselessness and lack of wonder. Search results are cluttered with ads and SEO trickster sites. For most people, Facebook isn’t anything other than a birthday reminder service. Twitter became X, and Musk’s subsequent actions, most notably the destruction of the blue-check mark status ranking, hastened the exodus of power users, wrecked content quality, and amplified right-wing conspiracy theory. Instagram only retains a few vestiges from its origins as a creative class social network; the platform now desperately wants you to spend your time watching lowest-common-denominator Reels that would have won third place on America’s Funniest Home Videos. Meanwhile TikTok only grew in stature, and as Ryan Broderick from Garbage Day states in this video, the app's success continues to alienate every internet user over 25.
Founder idiosyncrasies certainly played a role in this decline, but as Cory Doctrow’s “The ‘Enshittification’ of TikTok” outlines, the revenue growth-oriented business model itself conspires against promoting high-quality content to satisfy user needs. And in the essay “The Bitter End of ‘Content’” Freddie Deboer showed that money-oriented creators prefer to pump out non-content to hack the algorithm.
In that video above, Ryan Broderick of Garbage Day calls the 2023 internet “the vapor web”: There’s a lot happening, but no central narrative. This brings us back to music theorist Leonard Meyer’s 1967 prescient notion that “the absence of ordered sequential change” — even in a creative explosion — causes the feeling of stasis. Related to this is something I learned from Kaitlyn Tiffany’s excellent book Everything I Need I get From You: closed net cultures such as One Direction fandom do produce a lot of creative work, but it’s basically like the inside jokes you come up with at summer camp rather than innovations that will diffuse into the mainstream.
Taken as a whole, this collapse is interesting as a historical moment, and optimistically, the decline of centralized platforms may portend us breaking off into more meaningful taste cultures and subcultures. At a personal level, however, I admittedly found it very depressing. Anyone creating things in good faith knows that a crumbling internet makes it harder to build relevance for your output. The 1,000 True Fans Theory works for monetization but not for social impact. Your personal bubble is merely a business model; it’s not culture until your work breaks into other bubbles.
2. The internet still can’t anoint superstars (and maybe the traditional industry can’t either)
Whatever problems the internet has, it continues to steamroll over traditional media. Yet it’s still a lot cooler to be into Succession than Mr. Beast. Being “extremely online” remains a pejorative term. In my Washington Post review of Taylor Lorenz’s internet history, Extremely Online, I pointed out that creators have emerged only insofar as they are a new petit bourgeoisie in the online economy. And as I wrote in this essay, there is little glamor attached to online stars. (The Met Gala and New York Fashion Week wanted people to notice that they have lost interest in inviting social media influencers.)
Part of this is inherent in the medium. Internet video doesn’t have artistic origins, and most people who aspire to build careers making these videos have fewer artistic pretensions. So we’re not going to give them the benefits of genius artist status if they just make click-bait video-commodities.
Meanwhile Hollywood and music industry stars further entrenched their position as a celebrity aristocracy. As Ice Spice showed, the way to ink a Dunkin’ Donuts deal (the pinnacle of artistic achievement in 2023) is to have exactly one moderately-popular EP of music and not 100M subs on YouTube. Yet maybe the aristocracy is also closed, as Billboard noted in "Pop Stars Aren’t Popping Like They Used To — Do Labels Have a Plan?" And I suspect that the HBO's The Idol being absolutely terrible didn’t help the industry either.
3. AI is already boring
In March, Sapiens writer Yuval Noah Harari (the guy who thinks humanity went downhill after the development of agriculture) wrote a New York Times op-ed warning that ”A.I. could rapidly eat the whole of human culture — everything we have produced over thousands of years — digest it and begin to gush out a flood of new cultural artifacts.” (I wrote a rebuttal that the New York Times declined to run, perhaps for my past statements in support of the agricultural revolution.)
Earlier in the year, the children moved us along into Harari's AI doomsday by using primitive internet tools to make AI videos that hybridized Harry Potter and Balenciaga. This was funny for a day or so. But since the barrier to making these videos is minimal, there was instantly a flood of copies and spin-offs, and within days, the entire thing got boring and played out. Someone recently used AI to make their own kitschy adidas advertisement, and as many pointed out, it’s not good or even interesting. After mere months of having these AI tools, we’ve grown bored of what they can create. And in 2024 we should expect more AI tools, more access, and more content produced with them.
Glut is never cool. And to be entertained, humans need some form of novel or complex stimulus that goes beyond what they already know. And you can't just "tune the AI" to be innovative, since we only accept idiosyncratic artistic decisions when we feel human intention behind them.
In The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance mused about “The Coming Humanist Renaissance” and I fully agree with this. My sense is that culture in the next few years will involve scoping out this Humanist Renaissance. I harp on and on about “conventions,” but they’re key to our humanist revival: The most human part of humanity is not our animal instincts nor our computer-like rationality, but our mutual social creation of meanings and values around arbitrary choices.
4. Some Brief Recommendations
- 100 Gecs’ 10,000 Gecs was solid. (my review) Their Nü-Metal parody “Billy knows jamie” is maybe the funniest thing I heard all year other than Homer Simpson singing “Born Slippy.” At the same time I felt a bit of retro-guilt: was I just re-listening to music from my youth? I had the same issue with NewJeans’s very good EP “Get Up,” which uses the exact 2-step and D’n’b beats from tracks on my MiniDisc in 2001.
- Two really long books ate up a lot of my reading this year: Gaddis’ The Recognitions and Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. I would not casually recommend either, but as my friend Nick said, “I’m glad they exist.”
- The most meaningful book I read this year was Michael Tomasello’s The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (2001), which ties together evolutionary theory and social theory in a much, much more compelling way than the ape-brain people.