Friday, July 23, 2021

"The Day the Good Internet Died"

 From The Ringer, July 21:

For a small slice of time, being online was a thrilling mix of discovery, collaboration, creativity, and chaotic potential. Then Google Reader disappeared.

....From my desk in a high-rise office building at the southern end of Manhattan, I click and scroll and scroll and click. Sometimes idly, with one eye on the clock; sometimes desperately, in lieu of the work I know I ought to be doing. I skim the sweaty Getty images on the celebrity fashion blog Go Fug Yourself and peruse the latest tidy musings from Felix Salmon, an arch Reuters blogger who covers high and low finance alike. I read everything published on The Awl (tagline: “Be less stupid”) and most things published on Consumerist. (Emboldened by that site’s recurring pieces of advice, I decide to push back one day, out there in the real world, against one of those little “$10 card minimum” signs at a grocer in SoHo. It does not go well and I will never attempt it again.) It’s the year 2011, and I can’t get enough of the internet.

I stare at The Big Picture’s gripping photos of deadly catastrophes around the globe. I parse cryptic, confusingly formatted bursts of internecine drama between tiny yet mighty Tumblr accounts helmed by people whose various blog iterations I have parasocially followed since I was in college. I read posts about ConLaw and SantaCon. I mostly keep a poker face, but when I do slip up and accidentally snicker or whisper “huh!” out loud, I play it off as though I’m reacting to something Jim Cramer or Maria Bartiromo just said on CNBC. With a critical eye I scan my own sub-rosa Tumblr as if it belongs to another, trying to imagine how my squirrely curio of online fascinations—Jason Kottke reblogs; slideshows of Martha Stewart getting stitches; links to my own unhinged and unpaid rants about concepts like “preemptive irritation”—must come across in the eyes of another person.

All of this is facilitated by Google Reader, a slim workhorse of a site launched in 2005 that uses pre-existing RSS feed protocols to turn the chaos of the web into a pleasant lazy river of content. Google Reader is not the world’s first RSS newsreader, nor will it be the last, and over the years plenty of internet power-users will sniff that it’s not even the best. But it’s the one that caught on. And using it requires little effort to yield satisfying, orderly rewards, kind of like tossing spare coins and crumpled bills into an old ceramic piggy bank and finding out, in return, that you have been granted access to a sleek, organized, and free Swiss bank account.

Google Reader never judges, nor does it showboat. It swans under the radar, with a URL that isn’t blocked by my office computer system the way louder social networks like Twitter and Facebook are. It has a look that is intentionally left blank. There are ads here and there, but way fewer. Even its black box functionality, introduced in 2009, is labeled with wry charm: A user can sift through feeds in chronological order or can choose to, in Google’s words, “sort by magic.”

I decide to see what happens if I sort my life by magic, too, and I leave that career for a totally new one. None of my loved ones are surprised, even if they can’t completely relate: the majority of them use the internet almost exclusively for work emails, online shopping, fantasy football, and/or keeping tabs on exes. They say well-meaning things to me like, “Ah, you and your blogs!” In my new job, Google Reader becomes less of a diversion and more of a vital resource. I add a sub-category just for hockey blogs; I use the search function almost daily to resurface things I know I’ve read somewhere and want to quote in my work; I comment on the links shared by my colleagues. I can’t possibly know it yet, but life online is about as good as it will ever be.

It’s the year 2021, and I can’t get enough of the internet. This is an admission of defeat. It’s an acknowledgment of my worst tic, the one where I lie in bed until 3 or 4 a.m. and pull-to-refresh, pull-to-refresh, pull-to-refresh, until Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or my email—or, in my lowest moments, Nextdoor—brings me something, anything new....