The internet is a vast and wondrous place, friends—or, rather, it was. Scale and greed and countless other culprits have spun the geologic clock backward. A realm that once comprised countless nations has become a supercontinent, a monolith of homogenized use and mood. In its present state, it comprises two primary uses, each of which manages to be more existentially unsatisfying than the other.
The first is simply a giant data set, a contextless compendium of information consulted via websearch or Alexa query to fill whatever momentary gnaw has interrupted your day. How often you need to replace the filters in your water tank. The nature and purpose of something called "voodoo floss." How tall Halsey is. The result, invariably, is a what rather than a why. It lodges nowhere, it builds on nothing. Its only purpose is to quell the tiny anxiety of not-knowing, then to float back into the ether you snagged it from in the first place.
Senior correspondent Peter Rubin covers culture and technology for WIRED.
The other: the experiential counterpart, the hellsite. Tumblr, or Facebook, or, with ever-escalating frequency, Twitter. Have you heard? Twitter's a hellsite! Gizmodo said so just this week! Take out the commas and capitalization so that your super-cool detachment comes through loud and clear and hahahaha you guys we're all addicted to this hellsite. You hate it and it's broken but you use it so you tweet it just so we can see how hard you don't care and how very unthirsty you are. Your late-stage capitalism memes know it. The hellsite knows it. Brands who speak Conversational Wendy's, that performatively nihilist dialect of hey-fellow-kids!, know it.
If you get bored of talking about the hellsite on the hellsite, there's plenty of other stuff to do. You can, for instance, drag the other people using the hellsite. You can also dunk on them. Oh, you can roast them, that's a fun one. Have you tried the clapback this year? It's got a heady bouquet! All great options if you have enough followers to join the dogpile—and if you don't, your self-loathing will probably curdle quite nicely into the realization that you're the only person who truly understands Star Wars.
As far as default modes go, not-learning and not-listening aren't really the kind of things that make you confident in the future of humanity. So consider charting a path that skirts their pitfalls. The next time you want to know something, or see what the world is up to, seek out a place where the question comes before the answer. And try not to say anything.
Once the internet evolved past the novelty of communicating over distance, it found value in experience. Forums proliferated, naturally subdividing so that people congregated around shared interests or life events. In 2003, legendary community-run weblog (yes, weblog) MetaFilter launched Ask MetaFilter, where users could pose questions to the "hive mind."
If MetaFilter was the best newsfeed you'd ever seen, painstakingly moderated and sincerely interested in unearthing interesting stories, AskMe was the message board you'd always wanted to read. Free of both topical constraint and bad-faith responses, it offered utility and empathy in equal measure. Even today, a quick scan through the front page offers up thought-provoking conversations around ideas that don't conform to SEO fields or 280 characters. What am I supposed to be doing in therapy? What's a good second career to address age-related irrelevance? Where do all the shipping containers come from?
AskMe was, and continues to be, a lurker's dream; I'd scroll through not to answer, or even looking for something specific, but to absorb. These were the world's best road-trip conversations, just with dozens of people packed into the car and no terrible playlists. The experience was entertainment by way of voyeurism, but it was also enlightening. Lives and stories came into focus, revealed in parcels but told in full.
After AskMe came the others. For all its ills, Reddit spawned a diverse interest-based ecosystem that at its best captures some of the MetaFilter magic. (At its worst, it more than earns its hellsite stripes.) Where those sites encourage candor through usernames, Quora made authority its watchword and traded on real-life bona fides: A WIRED feature from its early days name-checked the Silicon Valley big-brains who spent hours each day telling war stories about their own experiences. From the programming discussion site Stack Overflow came Stack Exchange, a broad and well-moderated assortment of Q&A communities that wring humanities out of STEM fields. (How can you not be charmed by this, from the Interpersonal Skills board? "As amusing as this situation might be for reminiscence, I'm really anxious and feel that I, an introverted Chinese male dullard in his late twenties with virtually zero dating/life experience, lack so many necessary skills to properly reciprocate the affection of such a fine lady.")
So visit them. Them, or any other message boards that prize discussion over data, people over posturing. You're not there to contribute, you're there to read. Read people's questions and other people's advice. Like any other form of eavesdropping, there'll be moments when you find yourself reveling in smugness. That's fine! It's a hiccup on the way to something far grander. Shutting up and listening is rarely a bad thing. It's exactly what those hellsites rely on you not doing.
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