I don’t need to tell you that being online is less fun than it used to be.Â
The internet has, of course, always sported a vicious underbelly, particularly for members of marginalized communities. Now, though, the whole thing has been boiled down into two halves: the dreadful, perpetually memed news cycle and our increasingly futile attempts at escaping it.
The primary complaint about Twitter, or at least the stereotypical one, used to be that “no one cares what you’re eating for breakfast” â that the network was too crowded with personal minutiae to be of use. Well, at least that boring stuff was non-toxic. Now, our president’s preferred way to communicate with the public is on that same platform, which had been plagued with Nazis, trolls, and bigots even before his rise to power.
After the 2016 election, a lot of people became hyper-engaged with politics. In many cases, this took the form of engagement with political memes (#TheResistance) across social media platforms. From the “this is fine” dog to making fun of Trump’s typos to that godforsaken photo of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama laughing in the same room, internet culture became the primary medium through which people expressed (or performed) their political opinions.
The effect was twofold: political discourse short-circuited into a 280-character version of itself, while viral internet culture â once somewhat enjoyable â became inextricably tied up with our post-election trauma.Â
Even before the election, Pepe the frog, once a silly cartoon, had became a hate symbol. But once Trump took office, the news cycle and the meme cycle became completely indistinguishable â each made worse by the other.Â
In the news, single tweets function as major political events. The president retweeted a violent pro-Trump Reddit meme about CNN. The New York Times reported on it.
The fun internet as we knew it was dead.
That’s not to say there’s nothing enjoyable online anymore. Anyone who’s ever seen the Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary Facebook page will tell you that. But the “fun” stuff online â the stuff still, somehow, divorced from politics â occupies a different space than it used to. Today, it’s become more of a therapeutic tool, a means of escaping the bad part of the internet.Â
It exists in opposition to something else, something from which we need a break.
Consider the internet’s wide array of “satisfying” videos. The viral slime economy, for example, is booming on Instagram, with several accounts boasting millions of followers and teen slime entrepreneurs turning thousands in profits per month. On Etsy, there are thousands of slime kits for sale. Then there are the soap-making videos, the hot knife ASMR, the kinetic sand. The list goes on.
To be clear, people enjoying satisfying visuals is not a phenomenon unique to our post-election world, or even to the internet. But it has taken on a new tone. The way we’ve begun to frame soothing content is less “simple, fun sensory experience” and more “way to cope.” The art of self-soothing has become its own viral ecosystem.
The art of self-soothing has become its own viral ecosystem.
The idea is captured most succinctly, perhaps, by the subreddit r/Eyebleach, a forum where users post and discuss “wholesome” images and videos. Generally speaking, r/Eyebleach is a pretty pleasant place to be. On one recent photo of a smiling dog named Jake, the top comment is: “I’ve got this feeling Jake might be a good boy.” Below it, there’s only one reply. “Might,” it says. “Excuse you?!?!” This is about as contentious as things get.
The subreddit is not explicitly framed as a way to escape toxic political discourse. Its “about us,” section, though, reads “After a long day of seeing what internet anonymity can do to people, you’re bound to need some eyebleach.” In 2018, we know exactly what internet anonymity can do to people â we’ve watched it ruin the internet.
But even if the sub had no tagline, the name “Eyebleach” would say it all. Our eyes need cleaning because the world is bad. The pleasant, once allowed to be independently good, exists online as a direct response to the horrible.
Media outlets play a huge part in creating this ethos. They constantly publish stories about how to curate a calmer feed, how to find soothing videos to watch, how to ignore politics and just look at dogs for a while. (Mashable, in fact, has a whole column called “Hard Refresh.”)
As you might guess, the idea of using the internet to escape from the internet is not foolproof. (Self-care bots abound on Twitter, but the tweets reminding us to drink water are still directly next to bad-faith meta memes about Russian election meddling.) The better approach is to take a full break: to read a book, to begin an exercise regimen, to drive down a country road or put your face in a pillow and scream for a while. No matter what you’re doing online, you’re still likely logging off in a worse mental state than when you logged on.
This is not to say that there’s anything inherently wrong with fun content that’s also therapeutic. I enjoy a 3 p.m. slime video as much as the next person. The issue lies with framing anything pleasurable as strictly reactive. The world is bad, so here’s a corgi. Right now, someone is being harassed on Twitter, which is the reason you should enjoy yourself instead. These ideas no longer feel like genuine efforts to make anyone actually feel better. They’re overdone, part of the regrettable “dumpster fire” ethos. They oversimplify the experience of engaging with the world’s suffering. And, more and more, they’re beginning to feel like whispered efforts at keeping us logged on.
Because the truth is that we know everything is bad. We don’t need to speak it into context every time we feel joy. We feel joy anyway. It’s a rebellion in and of itself.Â
So, sure, the fun internet is dead. But long live fun.