How I fell out of love with the internet

A breakup letter in 16 parts.
A breakup letter in 16 parts.
Image: Austen Claire
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

1. Fall in love with the internet.

Receive a free CD-ROM in the mail. Install drivers. Run installer. Launch three-lettered desktop program that will etch deeper into your memory than your own initials. Create an electronic address that is some combination of a nickname, lucky number, song reference, and play on words. Hear that dial-up scratch of deep space and a billion eager souls. Connect.

Create a profile. Under “Marital Status,” say you’re married to some celebrity you’re obviously not married to. Change the color of the font to neon green and the background to midnight blue. Talk to girls you would never talk to in school about tetherball and your life dreams and how annoying your older brothers are. Waiting for them to respond produces more anxiety than you’ve ever felt in your life. When they do, you get a shot of dopamine straight from your lizard brain. Walk by these girls in school and feel electricity in the air.

Learn a new language faster than you ever will in school. lol and brb and g2g. Join chat rooms and lie about your age, sex, and location. Be whoever you want to be.

One condition: you can only connect to the internet from a desktop computer, and your family has one computer for everyone. Fight your brothers for time on the internet.

Your friends try to send embarrassing messages from your address, like “I like you.” Pull the literal plug from the wall to intercept these messages. But sometimes only pretend to pull the plug so your friend can successfully send these messages, because secretly, you want them to.

Play Doom. Play Worms. Play Counterstrike. Play Chat Roulette. Sprint off the school bus to worship before the altar of the web. Become a back-of-a-head to your parents. Wait for fresh content. eBaum’s World on Fridays. Wimp’s daily five. Watching these videos is like swapping eyeballs with anyone on the planet. People are amazing, you realize, and stupid too. Torrent a movie that’s still in theaters. How is this even possible, you wonder. Watch it. Watch porn. Tell your friends that you found something incredible and that you’ve fallen in love with the internet.

2. See something scary on the internet.

Not something scary like a scary movie. Scary like war crime scary. Like Unit 731 scary. Remember the world is a scary place and so the internet will have scary corners too. But that’s why the internet stirs so much wonder—you can experience everything, good and evil.

For some reason, the most gruesome websites have the most innocent names. Milk and cookies. Steak and cheese. Take turns with your friends stunning one another with horrific images, a kind of post-traumatic one-upmanship. I’ve seen things, man. No, I’ve seen things. This is the dotcommer’s rite of passage. Watch pain olympics and other ungodly things. Put on a thousand-yard stare and righteously explain where you have just come back from: the bottom of the internet.

Have a friend that you know not to trust whenever they say, “Let me show you something.” Look up the meaning of NSFW. Realize that what you thought was the bottom was just a rest stop on the way to a much deeper and darker web. Realize there’s a difference between the World Wide Web and the internet, and that the web is just a small, public space in the much vaster, darker cosmos of the internet. Stay away from the bottom of the internet.

3. “Like” people on the internet. Get “liked” back.

Let the internet feed you faces. You like faces. A face is worth a thousand words.

Start seeing the faces of everyone you know on the internet. Classmates and distant relatives and even your teachers. Fortunately, someone takes over the job of scrubbing the internet so you don’t see anything scary in your feed.

See the faces of everyone you don’t know, too. Your girlfriend’s ex-boyfriends. You don’t even have to look them up. Their faces just appear.

The place where all the faces are kept is called a book, but it’s more like a firehose, pointed directly at your face. The book feeds you so many faces.

The internet starts feeling shallower than it used to. You don’t talk to strangers anymore about why lefty’s are better and what you’ll do during your first 100 days as president. You just surf faces. There’s a new widget now that lets you click a button and “Like” something. You can like comments, new connections, and faces too. When people don’t like your face, it hurts your feelings. So do what you have to to get your likes. To feel beautiful. Start spending serious time curating your pictures, because your pictures are your life. Remember, you’re just a back-of-a-head. You start photographing differently, knowing the internet will feed these photos to the world.

Everyone masters the art of getting likes and no one talks about how they feel and some will go so far as to say this little button ruined the internet.

4. Hold the internet in your hand. Rewire your brain.

A man in a black turtleneck keeps saying three words over and over. An iPod. A phone. An internet communicator. But he’s just talking about one, epoch-making device. Finally, you are unshackled from your family desktop. Carry your mailbox in your pocket. Carry the Library of Babel in your pocket. Carry more computing power in your pocket than the Apollo spacecraft that landed on the moon. Go mobile.

Using the internet on the go is just about the most magical thing you’ve ever experienced. Everything gets so much easier, so smart. You don’t need printers anymore. You carry boarding passes on your phone. You pay down credit cards on your phone. You can pinpoint yourself on a map. You can take a picture of your smoothie, upload it, and share it with friends, on the spot. Thank god for this internet in a box, this smartphone.

You reckon that mobile internet has to be a categorically good thing for the world. Like the printing press. Like the railroad. This exploding net of satellites, cables, servers, modems, and repeaters is nothing short of a Cambrian explosion. Watch communication distribute. Watch the crowd source information—the crowd which can think faster and more accurately than any one human, the crowd which is an incredible asset in times of both danger and celebration. Watch the crowd use this hackery thing called hashtags to track the advance of wildfires. Watch the crowd reproduce the Mona Lisa one pixel at a time from all points of the compass.

Watch smartphones save people who got hurt and are all alone in the middle of nowhere. Watch smartphones save children from traffickers. Watch smartphones save people from the rubble of earthquakes. Watch dogs dial 9–1–1 for their smartphone owners. Watch smartphones take bullets.

There are so many miracles to watch on the internet that you find yourself watching them at the bus stop and in the elevator and in the coffee shop and before you fall asleep.

Feel your brain rewire—from so much watching, swiping, tapping, liking. Feel awake 24/7, but half-awake. Your sleep is taking a toll. Feel like a back-of-a-head. Behold the app-ification of everything, which only makes you watch, swipe, tap, and like even more. And sleep less. Pointless apps. An Is it dark out? app. A hold the button for as long as you can app. A put your mouth on the corner of your phone and tilt your head back so it looks like you’re downing a beer app.

Wonder where all these addictive micro-technologies came from. Do some research. Find out they didn’t all trickle down from the military like microwave ovens or digital cameras, but from casinos too. Read more and more about casinos and the design of modern slot machines and think, wait a second, I might have a little slot machine in my pocket. Read about slot machine addicts who play slots around the clock to escape the screaming reality that they’ve wasted all their time and money playing slots. This is called escape backwards. Realize you’ve been escaping backwards ever since you touched the internet.

Realize your smartphone is not a phone. The phone part is just a tack-on now. This thing is 1% phone, 99% variable reward supercomputer. The phone-phone was just a boringly banana shaped thing, so utilitarian it was invisible. People just wanted the voice on the other end. But the smartphone has a legion of product designers behind it whose business KPI is users’ time-on-device. And so you just want the device, itself. The feeling, the hit. You start suspecting that the smartphone is a Trojan Horse for some cultural phenomenon that no one really grasps yet, and that perhaps even the next generation won’t grasp.

Feel your attention rot away. Your ethics too. Find out all your digital assistants are female by default because product designers have done research studies that prove users are more comfortable telling a woman what to do.

The life curation from Step 3 is now on overdrive. The like-ification plus the mobilization plus the app-ification plus the slot machine-ification plus the optimization plus the brand-ification of everything rolls up into digital platforms that force you to question your fundamental worth as a human being. Are you likeable. Are you dateable. Are you swipe rightable. Are you at least fuckable.

Even people who are broken inside take care to look beautiful and bright on the internet so people click the little button.

Think okay okay okay. You have to get back in the driver’s seat. This is not the internet’s fault—the internet is just a bunch of protocols. This is the fault of profit-mongering tech executives and their developers and product designers and marketers who are so heads-down to meet their business KPIs they’ve lost sight of the big picture. Think about that Heidegger class you took in college and the question concerning technology and what was that question again?

You won’t break up with the internet, though. You’re not some Neo-Luddite. The internet is saving lives, remember. Also, just try to live without it for a day. You can’t. But you’re going to at least break the dopamine loops that have you escaping backwards into a likeable, swipeable nothingman. You read a 75-minute article about reconfiguring your iPhone and share it with everyone you know and love like it’s penicillin. Good god, you can’t share it enough. It should be required reading for children in elementary school.

You still love the internet deep down. You just hate the way it has been mobilized, weaponized.

5. Find out web search is fishy.

Understand that whoever controls the search engines controls the internet. Watch one search engine rule them all. The engine’s ranking algorithm is more secret than the Coca Cola formula. No one but the engineers who work on it know exactly how it works. The search engine is your reality interface—remember, you worship before the altar of the web and you’re just a back-of-a-head. But you don’t know how the reality is made.

Conduct experiments to uncover how the algorithm works. Play a game called Googlebombing. Get one of your cocky friends to rank first for the search query “talentless hack.” Googlebombing is thrilling but disconcerting. You have the power to distort reality.

Watch the search engine monopoly make whimsical changes to their secret ranking algorithm. Watch people and places disappear from the first page of the internet, which for all intents and purposes is the internet, because everyone surfs faster now.

Find out that different countries get different search results. Wonder why the card catalog for the world isn’t uniform. Find out that the search engine monopoly has also used their algorithm to analyze drone footage for the Department of Defense.

Read James Grimmelman’s “The Google Dilemma.” Realize their dilemma is your dilemma. Realize that whoever controls the search engine controls you.

6. Find out Facebook is sketchy.

Find out that underneath the Like-industrial complex, something much sketchier is going on. Facebook is using you as a lab rat. They are tinkering with your news feed to find out how you react to positive and negative content. Only after the story breaks are you able to understand why you had that one bad day last week. It gets hard going about your days knowing someone might be running experiments on you. But Facebook publicly apologizes, and you accept their apology.

Find out Facebook is using you as a commodity. They are selling your private data—your personal info, your connections, your likes—to a political data firm that feeds you targeted content to steer your vote. You know the power of targeted content now because of their massive-scale contagion experiment. Wonder if you have real political agency or if you’re just a pawn, a purchased vote. Facebook publicly apologizes, but you’re less forgiving this time.

Deactivate Facebook, but don’t delete it. You have so many memories there.

Find out Facebook let Netflix and Spotify read your private messages. Find out Facebook uses your location data to send you more targeted ads. To steer your body. Look up Facebook’s patents. Find a technique for using passive imaging data to detect your emotions and deliver content. Find a method for generating emojis based on facial analysis. Find a system for tapping your phone and monitoring your TV habits. Facebook will never apologize for any of this. This is their business model, watching you and productizing you and selling you off. Living on the internet feels like living in an empire now — Mark Zuckerberg’s empire.

Unfriend Facebook. Delete them once and for all.

7. Find out what Snowden found out.

Find out that the book of faces, the one search engine to rule them all, and a handful of brand name internet companies have been participating in a large-scale NSA surveillance program. For years. You aren’t even surprised. You wonder why a no-name government contractor who had a cushy life in Hawaii gave everything up to blow the whistle. Sure, the NSA knows everything about you, but you have nothing to hide. Government surveillance is so commonplace it becomes a running joke.

Find out employers and insurers are watching too. Follow these social media tips to keep your life insurance premiums down:

  • Don’t post pics of yourself smoking
  • Post photos of yourself running
  • Visit a gym. Let your phone access your location.

Actually quit smoking, start running, and visit a gym. Be a model citizen.

Start hesitating while you surf the internet. Hesitate to search troublesome topics, to make risqué jokes to your friends. One last scrap of autonomy tells you that this everyday self-policing is a dangerous precedent. Remember the word “panopticon” from college. Flash back to Facebook’s massive-scale contagion experiment. Research some of the experiments that government agencies have run, like Tuskegee and MKUltra. You love your country, but these experiments are sketchy as hell. How can you be sure the internet isn’t a proving ground?

Delete all social media. Download a VPN. Feel schizophrenic. Wonder if you’re a targeted individual.

8. Let the internet infect everything.

Your shoes. Your doorbell. Your vacuum. Your fridge. Your mattress. Your toothbrush. Your mouth. This is not a drill. Follow @internetofshit. Crack up at all these “smart” things. Let paranoia replace your laughter. Realize that whatever isn’t just pointless is probably policing you and that the surveillance state from Step 7 has extended to every last nook and cranny of your life.

Introducing Babeyes. Record memories from your baby’s point of view.

Introducing InMan. The world first autonomous shower.

Introducing Numi 2.0. The fully-immersive intelligent toilet.

The internet wants to go with you everywhere now, but you just want some privacy. Get off the grid. Go back to the land. But realize these are knee-jerk reactions to the internet of shit, and you’re throwing the baby out with the bath water. Come crawling back.

9. Find out the internet is fake.

Watch ads take over the internet. Watch ads flood your inbox. Watch ads for cosmetics and luxury cars punctuate world-class journalism about the global refugee crisis. Watch Pulitzer Prize-winning publications play the clickbait game. Watch your heroes sell out and submit to ad revenue. Watch your heroes pay to play. Feel their writing turn into content.

Find out more than a hundred million Facebook accounts are fake. Watch your mom friend a stock photo of a man with no friends. Feel sad for mom who just wants to connect with someone but is connecting with bots.

Find out about content farms. Find out about click farms. Find out just how much of the internet is fake. The metrics. The businesses. The content. The people. It’s all fake. It’s like Fight Club, except now you’re buying things you don’t need with money you don’t have to impress people that don’t actually exist.

10. Go back to the bottom of the internet. Find some feels.

This is a rational response to a network that has been flattened by ads and drones and fakery. You were born to feel, not click. So go back. To the bottom. To the beginning. To unbranded imageboards that don’t care if you click. They’re just places for people to share their feelings.

Find incredibly raw, human stories on the bottom of the internet. Stories about car accidents and lost love and found photos and family recipes. These stories take on a strange, poetic form that is unique to the internet. All these feels, you realize, would have been impossible without the internet.

Fall back in love with the internet.

Watch these anonymous, unmoderated forums get inundated with gore porn and Neo-Nazi propaganda. Finding feels is now like finding a needle in a haystack, which only makes the feels more powerful when you find them. But you start to burn out like the internet scrubbers in Step 2, because you’ve seen too much. I told you to stay away from the bottom of the internet.

Corporations try to feed you feels on the surface of the internet. They almost work. The one search engine to rule them all runs a Super Bowl ad that reminds you what it was like to touch the internet for the first time. You just want to go back, but you can’t. You know too much.

11. Find out how fragile the internet is.

Watch families freeze because their “smart” thermostat failed. Watch smart bikes fail. Watch smart cars fail. Watch Syria lose its internet. Watch Assad blame the rebels. Watch the rebels blame Assad. Watch the whistle blower from Step 7 blame the NSA. Watch Russia switch Ukraine off. Watch a 75-year-old Georgian woman switch Armenia off with her shovel.

Read David Gilbertson’s “I’m harvesting credit card numbers and passwords from your site. Here’s how.” Read it with your jaw on the floor. Read about the woman who succumbed to absolute paranoia because anonymous users were weaponizing her digital life against her. Read about the billion-dollar bank job and the hackers who planted malware in our global banking system.

Read about a server farm on the ocean floor. Think good, that’s safer, cheaper. Remember that the farm is still owned by one single, massive corporation. Watch one engineer execute a command and interrupt the Cloud.

Feel nothing. You’ve heard these scare tactics a million times before. Feel one thing you’ve created disappear from the internet and decide enough.

12. Find out the web is not worldwide.

Find out that whole galaxies of Twitter users have little to no contact with one another. Find out that if you go to prison, you forfeit your internet connection.Find out how many people have never even touched the internet. 3.4 billion.

Remember that research paper that everybody references about random people helping random people find jobs in Boston. “The Strength of Weak Ties.” Wonder why the internet doesn’t harness weak ties, why it has locked you up in an echo chamber. Simply connect, the great books say. But you can’t. Wonder what went wrong with the internet.

13. Find out what happened to the internet’s backbone.

Begin the deep dive of a lifetime into government documents, academic articles, subcommittee hearings, solicitations, and a maze of acronyms for people, places, policies, and protocols that you can never tell apart. ARPANET and NSFNET and AUP and NAPs and IXPs and ISPs and ICANN and FTC. Run into gated PDFs and 404 pages around every corner. Feel like you’re trying to dig up something that someone does not want you digging up.

Find out that the internet has a backbone, a literal infrastructure for moving data. The internet’s backbone was built on the backbone of the telephone networks. Find out that once upon a time, the backbone of the internet belonged to the public. Find out about a backroom deal. Find out that years ago, while you were playing Doom and Worms and while your parents were celebrating the end of the Cold War, the National Science Foundation sold the internet’s backbone to an oligopoly of five companies, some of the same companies that owned the telephone networks. With no conditions. The companies could charge access, channel content, cut deals, and run the internet however they wanted. Recognize the names of these companies on your smartphone’s status bar, your modem, the panel antennas outside.

Get that sinking Hitchcock feeling when the dolly moves in but the camera zooms out. It all makes sense. The internet was never really yours.

14. Settle for the internet of shit.

Smile at Facebook’s comeback video. Laugh at FuckJerry’s fake content. Relax in your smart home with your smart fridge and your smart mattress. Accept that the internet of shit is our condition on earth and that you will be stuck in this abusive relationship for the rest of your natural life. For longer than that. Remember the in-home DNA testing kit you tried from the one search engine to rule them all. Think about your genetic data and how insurers of the future will leverage it against your children. Think about the domain where you host your indictments against the internet, and when it will expire. Think about the twin terror of permanence and oblivion.

Silence the demons in your head with the sleepcasts on your smartphone. Stay awake scrolling through the variety of sleepcasts on your smartphone. Escape backwards.

Acknowledge that it’d be a damn shame to extend this internet of shit into deep space. But you doubt that anyone could fix this mess mid-flight. It would take everyone on the planet.

15. Find out the internet is going to rehab.

Find out that someone is holding an intervention for the internet. Find out that thousands are. Find out an underground resistance has been gathering for decades.

Come across a technical paper from a pseudonymous individual or set of individuals. Realize they’re talking about much more than electronic money. They’re talking about taking the backbone of the internet back.

Watch the paper ignite a movement. Watch the paper ignite another paper. Watch people rise up under different banners. Crypto. Anarchy. Web3. Decentralization. DLTs. DAGs. Blockchains. Autonomous blockchains. Some say the internet will look and feel the same, it’ll just have better plumbing. Some say everything will be different. You hope it’s different, because you don’t trust anything about the internet anymore. It’s hard to tell who will heal the internet of shit and who will just perpetuate it.

Watch teams prototype. Watch prophets preach. Watch pumpers dump. Watch bubbles pop. Watch devs ship. Watch maintainers maintain. Watch progress. Messy, circuitous, planetary progress. Watch from a distance. You want to believe in the movement but this might just be the internet getting your hopes up and breaking your heart all over again.

Get frustrated with the pace of the movement. Wait for network upgrades. Wait for scaling. Wait for interoperability. Wait for mobile. Wait for usability. Keep waiting. Visit the blockchain graveyard. Where’s my new internet, you’re wondering. Recognize that these people are trying to fix the biggest machine in the history of humankind.

Read a message from the future that calls into question the direction of the entire movement. Realize you have to make a choice.

16. Join the resistance.

Join the resistance knowing that you can’t be certain whether you’re building Skynet or destroying it. Join the resistance knowing that the people who gave up the internet’s backbone thought they were saving the internet too. Join the resistance knowing that once you unleash strong crypto, it cannot be put back in the bottle. Join the resistance even though some will say it has already failed. Join because you believe there is no fate but what we make.

Talk to someone about how the internet broke your heart. Share your pain with @internetofshit. Join the #FuckFuckJerry movement. Read the first wave of research about Facebook’s effect on our mental well-being. Propagate an #UnfriendFacebook movement. Bookmark Mozilla’s guide to creepy products. Download Brave browser. Submit a Freedom of Information Act request. Go on a journey to the center of the internet. Find out who controls the backbone. Pick a project that you believe is least likely to succumb to the internet of shit. Master Ethereum. Interoperate. Cherish weak ties. Build an internet backbone that’s for the people, by the people. Publish your internet grievances on IPFS, so no one can ever forget how bad things got.

Realize it was dangerous to ever fall in love with the internet. You never knew it had so much baggage, baggage from before you were even born. Know that you deserve better. Know that we can do better.

This article originally appeared on ConsenSys Media. Illustration by Austen Claire.