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Tuesday, February 10, 2015 

The internet makes you stupid.

Back in those heady web 1.0 days, there was a site called Something Awful (and there still is, just the cool kids have long since moved on).  Its tagline was and again, could still be, the internet makes you stupid.  As this was back when the net was still mainly used only by nerds, gamers, autodidacts and bored office workers rather than your grandmother and her bridge group, it was a fairly cutting if not meant entirely seriously barb at the numbskulls who read the site and populated its forums.

Jump forward all these years and a few people seem to have noticed that hey, this internet thing isn't all it's cracked up to be.  In fact, you could say that it's making people even stupider than was believed possible.  There are now so many listicle articles online that a whole section of rainforest in Brazil has been cut down to make way for the world's biggest ever server hub to host just them.  A scientific study has found that if a mouse so much as catches a glimpse of a screen displaying Buzzfeed, it causes a complete loss of spatial awareness that can last for up to 5 hours.  Likewise, YouTube's most subscribed user PewDiePie has been identified as the common factor in a whole range of pet suicides, with goldfish jumping up out of their tanks rather than listen to him scream again, their incredibly short memory no apparent protection.

Add in how Twitter is the Stasi for the Angry Birds generation (© Stewart Lee), Facebook is mostly used for talking to people you don't want to, with a sideline in slut-shaming and/or stalking your exs, as they often go hand in hand, while Instagram gives new meaning to the word narcissism, and you'd be hard-pushed to claim the net isn't a fresh hell we just like to pretend has enriched our lives.  Unless of course you're Holly Baxter, in which case you more or less accept the above, then say actually the internet is a great leveller, a meritocratic paradise as without it she wouldn't be able to pay the rent.

To which the obvious response is Baxter is indeed the very epitome of meritocracy in action, as is Pewds.  So long as you can do something reasonably competently in a specified niche, whether it be writing click-bait with a vaguely feminist edge or let's plays with the kind of commentary that entertains pre-teens and teens who've been held back a year at school, there's an extremely remote chance you can make it in this brave new media environment.  For every Baxter however there are thousands of frustrated and bitter commentators who imagined their searing political insight might lead somewhere, only to come to realise they may as well be howling at the moon.  And for every PewDiePie or Yogscast, never mind a Zoella, there are umpteen vloggers or let's players whose total views can be counted on the fingers of the participants in a Dominique Strauss-Kahn orgy.  Much of their material will also be far superior in content to their erstwhile rivals, but hey, dem's the breaks.

But, but, but I hear you spluttering, what about all the money raised thanks to the internets, the very fact it provides somewhere for subcultures to thrive, how without it we'd never have discovered that band, seen that film, gotten that STI from the one night stand made possible by Tinder?  Haven't you said before the web can be a sanctuary for those bullied and repressed, as much as it can mean there's no escape from those same oppressors?  Isn't the very idea of a life not lived online now completely alien to your average teenager, both for better and worse?  And, moreover, isn't it a bit naive if not well, stupid, to complain about the hypercapitalism of the internet and its monopolistic tendencies when it had its origins in the goddamn Department of Defense?

Duh.  The problem is the only kind of shades of grey the internet likes are contained in those Twilight fan-fiction originating books.  Everything is turned up to 11: a television journalist lies about coming under fire in Iraq, and soon he's getting photoshopped into being at the last supper, because that's funny, right?  The internet can't possibly be a bad thing, just as social networking can't possibly be a bad thing, because look it's not all trolling and celebrity inanity and identity politics and pointless arguing.  Besides, it's the old media, and the old media is always wrong and biased and wrong.

As if to prove the point, Andrew Keen's book of course recognises there will always be your Holly Baxters and Dapper Laughs and Sam Peppers, but Baxter was responding to what she thought was his argument, just as I'm responding to what I think are their arguments.  The reality is the internet reflects life in general, even if some of us use it to escape from that reality.  The key difference is the web sees far more in the way of rebellions than we do offline, as it's a whole lot easier than manning the barricades.  Just don't take that as an indication of there not being the same anger, disappointment or even apathy just below the surface at the state of the world.  Such rebellions don't though discriminate, and often shout things we don't want to hear.  Life in general is a bit shit, and so too is the internet.  And that's all there is.

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