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How the Internet Transformed Us Into Content-Generating Machines

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How the Internet Transformed Us Into Content-Generating Machines

At the start, there was the egg. In January of 2019, the Instagram account @world record egg posted a stock image of a plain brown chicken egg and launched a campaign to garner more likes than any other online image. At the time, Kylie Jenner’s daughter Stormi’s Instagram photo with more than eighteen million likes held the record. In ten days, the egg’s number of likes surpassed thirty million. It remains at the top of the chart with over fifty-five million sales. The account’s creators, who came from the advertising industry, later collaborated with Hulu on a public service announcement for mental health in which the egg “cracked” due to social media pressures. The egg’s trajectory exemplified a certain type of contemporary Internet success: if you amass a large enough audience around anything, you can sell it.

According to Kate Eichhorn, a media historian and professor at the New , the Instagram egg symbolizes “content,” a pervasive yet difficult-to-define term. Content is digital material that “may circulate solely for the purpose of circulating,” according to Eichhorn’s new book “Content,” which is part of M.I.T. Press’s “Essential Knowledge” series of concise monographs. In other words, such content is designed to be vapid so that it can effectively traverse digital spaces. “Genre, medium, and format are tertiary considerations, and in some cases they appear to disappear.” A single piece of intellectual property spawns a flurry of podcast, documentary, and miniseries spinoffs. A single episode of a streaming service can be as long as a feature film. The paintings of visual artists are shared on social media alongside influencer-style vacation . All are included in what Eichhorn refers to as the “content industry,” which has expanded to encompass virtually everything we consume online. Eichhorn writes, “Content is part of a single, indistinguishable flow,” evoking the overwhelming flood of text, audio, and that fills our feeds.

During the past decade, a number of books have attempted to assess how the Internet influences us and what we should do in response. The 2011 book “The Filter Bubble” by Eli Pariser demonstrated the homogenizing effects of digital feeds. The pioneering technologist Jaron Lanier wrote a book titled “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” after and its ilk became more popular (2018). The book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff, published in the in 2019, illustrated the systemic problems of mass data absorption. Eichhorn’s book is one of a new breed that focuses more directly on the user experience, diagnosing the increasingly dysfunctional relationship between the solitary user and the virtual crowd.

Once upon a time, user-generated content was the foundation of the Internet. The expectation was that ordinary people would take advantage of the Web’s low barrier to publishing in order to post great content, driven by the joy of open communication. We now know that the outcome was not quite as anticipated. User-generated GeoCities pages or blogs were replaced by content that was monetised. Google made it easier to search the Internet, but in the early 2000s it also began selling advertisements and allowing other websites to easily incorporate its advertising modules. This model is still utilized by the majority of the Internet today. It is not necessarily the value of the content that generates revenue, but rather its ability to attract attention, to get eyeballs on advertisements, which are typically purchased and sold through corporations such as Google and Facebook. In the twenty-tens, the proliferation of social networks made this model even more dominant. Our digital posting became increasingly centralized on a small number of all-encompassing platforms that increasingly relied on algorithmic feeds. The result was increased user exposure, but diminished agency. Facebook mined the content we generated for free in order to profit.

“Clickbait” has long been the term for misleading, superficial online whose sole purpose is to sell advertisements. On the modern Internet, however, the term could be used to describe content in any field, from unmarked advertisements on an influencer’s Instagram page to pseudonymous pop music designed to game the Spotify algorithm. Eichhorn employs the potent term “content capital” — a play on Pierre Bourdieu’s “cultural capital” — to describe how an artist’s online posting prowess can determine his or her work’s success or even existence. Whereas “cultural capital” describes how particular tastes and reference points confer status, “content capital” refers to the ability to produce the type of supplementary content that the Internet craves. Given that so much audience focus is channeled through social media, the most direct route to success is to cultivate a large digital following. Eichhorn writes, “Cultural producers who, in the past, may have focused on writing books, producing , or creating art must now devote a substantial amount of time to producing (or paying someone else to produce) content about themselves and their work.” On TikTok, pop stars document their daily activities. On Twitter, journalists express banal opinions. Rupi Kaur, the most popular poet on Instagram, posts reels and photographs of her typewritten poems. All are trapped by the daily pressure to produce supplementary content — memes, selfies, and shitposts — to fill an infinite void.

The dynamics described by Eichhorn will be familiar to anyone who regularly uses social media. She does not significantly advance our understanding of the Internet; rather, she explains in eloquently direct language how it has created a brutal race to the bottom. We recognize that what we post and consume on social media feels increasingly empty, but we have no control over it. Perhaps it would be easier to solve the issue if we had a better vocabulary. “Content breeds content,” writes Eichhorn. Similar to the Instagram egg, the best way to acquire additional content capital is to already possess it.

Eichhorn’s perception of the way forward is unclear. She briefly mentions the concept of “content resisters” who may prefer vinyl records and photocopied zines to Spotify and Instagram. Given the extent to which the Internet permeates our daily lives and experiences, however, such solutions appear antiquated. As with so many previous technologies, it appears to be here to stay; the question is not how to escape it, but how to comprehend ourselves in its wake. Professor of philosophy at Université Paris Cité Justin E. H. Smith argues in his new book “The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is” that “the current situation is intolerable, but there is no turning back.” Smith writes that too much of human experience has been reduced to a single “technological portal.” “The more you use the Internet, the more your individuality morphs into a brand, and your subjectivity becomes a vector of activity that can be plotted algorithmically.”

According to Smith, the Internet limits attention in the sense of a profound aesthetic experience that transforms the individual who is paying attention. The business model of digital advertising incentivizes only brief, superficial interactions — the gaze of a consumer primed to absorb only a logo or brand name. Our feeds are intended to “nudge the prospective attendee from one monetizable object to the next,” he writes. This has a numbing effect on all forms of culture, from Marvel blockbusters that optimize for attention minute by minute to automated Spotify recommendations that push similar songs one after the other. Increasingly, cultural products and consumer habits conform to the structures of digital spaces.

“The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is” begins with a negative assessment of online life, especially from the perspective of academia, one of its disrupted industries. However, the second half of the book delves deeper into philosophical inquiries. Smith writes that the Internet is best understood as a “living system” rather than a tool. It is the disappointing realization of a centuries-old human aspiration for interconnectivity. Smith relates the tale of the Frenchman Jules Allix, who popularized a snail-based Internet in the middle of the nineteenth century. Possibly drawing from the physician Franz Mesmer’s theory of “animal magnetism,” which postulated the existence of a universal magnetic force connecting living things, it was predicated on the notion that any two snails that had copulated remained connected over great distances. The , a telegraph-like device that used snails to send messages, was a failure, but the dream of instant, wireless communication persisted until it was realized, perhaps to our detriment.

Smith seeks the most effective metaphor for the Internet, a concept that transcends the emptiness of “content” and the addictiveness of the “attention .” Is it similar to a postcoital telegraph? Or similar to a Renaissance-era wheel device that allowed readers to simultaneously browse multiple books? Or perhaps like a loom that binds souls together? He ultimately concludes that the Internet’s interface and the keyboard that gives him access to it are less an external device than an extension of his inquisitive mind, though he never quite reaches a conclusion. To comprehend the networked self, we must first comprehend the self, a never-ending endeavor. The ultimate issue with the Internet may not be the technology itself, but rather the Frankensteinian manner in which humanity’s inventions have exceeded our capacities. In a sense, Instagram has not yet completely hatched.

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