Stop Talking to Each Other and Start Buying Things: Three Decades of Survival in the Desert of Social Media
I bet you're wondering how we got here...
I’m just so angry.
It’s been boiling and bubbling (and toiling and troubling) for awhile now. Not just since a spoilt, sadistic emerald heir stole—and yes, I am using that word; I’m using it deliberately and with fury aforethought—Twitter out from under the people who created it and made it the “town square” that so many seething gargoyles want to control.
Not even (only) since 2015 when that same space became a fascist’s favorite trench from which to bomb democracy. Since the mid-aughts, really.
Maybe the early 90s, if I’m being honest.
I’m sure you can already tell from those numbers that this is going to get long. That’s what fucking happens when you smear shit all over the microblogging platform that corralled my primal screaming into a character limit. Take that away and I don’t have to replace ands with ampersands or pick and choose what profane adverbs to use. I get them all back.
So strap the fuck in because I am livid and I’ve trimmed a lot of goddamned words in the last 14 years. Having a Substack means I don’t bloody have to anymore.
LET’S DO SOME HISTORY SHIT.
I’ve always rather liked the year I was born, 1979. The cuspy Oregon trail Xennial micro-generation to which I belong. It means I’ve seen a lot of transitions I might have missed had my parents not both been oldest children who had me young. All my siblings are significantly younger than me and missed a great deal of what I remember. Add to that a very politically active mother, a digital early-adopter father, and a creepily good memory and you have an elder millennial who nevertheless recalls some key Gen X touchpoints from a tiny child’s point of view. I’ve always valued that perspective as time and the internet has gone on, and it sure as fuck makes me madder now than I ever would’ve been if MySpace was my introduction to social media networks.
So this clown car isn’t just going back to the turn of the millennium or GeoCities, but to Granddaddy Prodigy.
Prodigy, for the youngs, was a kind of proto-AOL pre-internet. It strove to do the same thing AOL eventually did: make “going online” a thing any regular person could easily do, instead of a technical process only technically-minded people even knew about. It was silo’d and its UI made simple and a little cartoony so random suburban children could use it. There wasn’t a TON to do besides the most rudimentary online shopping, a few games that you could play with strangers, and something like chatrooms and email, though neither were called that. (I don’t remember what they were called as I was a tiny baby 12 year old at the time. I remember a yellow and black interface and that’s about it.)
The thing I liked most on Prodigy was a kind of penpal service where you could be matched with other users and send messages back and forth. The process was much more like email/letters than instant message—nothing about Prodigy was instant, I cannot fully express how 1991 all this was. I had nice conversations with old ladies in the Midwest and for a lonely kid, that was everything. I wasn’t judged for being a kid; I was a good writer even then and it was never obvious how young I was. It was a nice place where people wanted to talk to me, a thing I found vanishingly difficult to acquire in the real world. And because Prodigy was the safe plush padded rubber bounce playground version of the internet, I literally never saw anything that would so much qualify as “not that nice.” It wasn’t Usenet, where forum culture was already a thing and you could run into some very nasty treatment (and topics) without warning. It was just…nice.
But this is what I remember most about Prodigy, and I have thought about it just about weekly since 1991. That’s not hyperbole. I think about it every time something I enjoyed online gets ruined by greedy companies or narcissistic despots and/or billionaires or just plain users who love witnessing pain more than anything else in their lives.
I saw an article in my dad’s morning newspaper about Prodigy. And I obviously wanted to read it immediately because I already felt this was an important, powerful thing that I loved. This ability to talk to other people and connect with them without cruelty or judgment.
The headline was:
PRODIGY SAYS: STOP TALKING TO EACH OTHER AND START BUYING THINGS
I was stung. I was hurt. I was…doing something wrong? Something Prodigy, the best thing ever, didn’t like? Just by talking to a nice granny in Minnesota? I was twelve. I didn’t understand. A minute ago it hadn’t even been possible to buy things without physically going to a store. In many ways, it really still wasn’t. There was no Amazon. No eBay. The crap you could buy on Prodigy was random, weird, often useless, the kind of tat you’d see in a bargain bin at the grocery store. And anyway, I was a kid. I couldn’t buy anything on Prodigy. This was not an era where many parents even had credit cards, debit cards didn’t exist, online currencies like Robux were barely even science fiction, and I certainly didn’t have access to anything approaching invisible lightspeed money. It was baffling. You couldn’t put a dollar into a screen. What the fuck? What did Prodigy want from me? I was just lonely and no one listened to me except Granny Minnesota who told me how to make eyeshadow look not-insane and said it was okay to mostly like books more than people, because mostly she did too.
If I didn’t figure out how to buy things from the screen, would this one solitary place where I felt like I mattered be taken away from me?
Well, turns out…kind of. Yeah.
Prodigy was upset that people were, by and large, using the free communication service they tossed on there just to have more content and not their weird Random Garbage You Don’t Need Storefront. And in many ways, that complaint has only gotten louder over the decades. Stop talking to each other and start buying things. Stop providing content for free and start paying us for the privilege. Stop shining sunlight on horrors and start advocating for more of them. Stop making communities and start weaponizing misinformation to benefit your betters.
It’s the same. It’s always been the same. Stop benefitting from the internet, it’s not for you to enjoy, it’s for us to use to extract money from you. Stop finding beauty and connection in the world, loneliness is more profitable and easier to control.
Stop being human. A mindless bot who makes regular purchases is all that’s really needed.
Over and over again since that prodigal moment of shame and hurt and confusion, I’ve joined online communities, found so much to love there, made friends and created unique spaces that truly felt special, felt like places worth protecting. And they’ve all, eventually, died. For the same reasons and through the same means, though machinations came from a parade of different bad actors. It never really mattered who exactly killed and ate these little worlds. The details. It’s all the same cycle, the same beasts, the same dark hungers.
Internet good! Want to make website.
Oh no need users. People no use non-storefront site with nothing to do on it.
Provide a bunch of loss-leader tools to let users make their own reasons to use the site. Chatrooms, blogs, messaging, etc. Use good moderation to make non-monster humans feel safe expressing themselves and feel nice about site so they use it more.
People love site! Use all the free tools to connect with each other and learn and not be lonely and maybe even make a name for themselves sometimes.
Hey stop talking and start buying things. Internet not supposed to make only some money. Internet supposed to make all money. It’s the rules.
People don’t really want what little a site that’s now solely supported by the free content created by the community has to offer. They want the community.
Yell about it. Insult userbase. Blanket site with ads. Get rid of moderation. Moderation keeps out users who will spend money to be mean. Oooh right-wing press LOTS of dollars into screens. Sell user data to anyone who wants it. Crack down on marginalized communities because your advertisers/investors don’t like them. Get VC capital. Do an IPO. Splinter formerly-free services and start charging for them. Probably don’t pay any attention to the oncoming train of changing trends and don’t bother adapting to them, because with the help of evil dickholes, you’re making money now, so why bother?
Everyone is mad.
Sell the people you brought together on purpose to large corporation, trash billionaire, or despotic government entity who hates that the site’s community used those connective tools to do a revolution.
Everyone who invested their time, heart, labor, love, businesses and relationships into this site is shit out of luck and scattered to the winds. Maybe they find what they had again, maybe they don’t. But your shareholders and/or buddies have more money so who cares?
In a couple of years, what happened finally comes out, but it’s just a Wired article no one reads. The site may or may not still be technically accessible, but it doesn’t matter. What made it good is gone, because what made it good was us.
Use new money to fund weird right-wing shit that hurts the people who made website popular because right-wing shit says no taxes and new money hates taxes.
Lather rinse, repeat. Prodigy, geocities, collegeclub.com, MySpace, Friendster, Livejournal, Tumblr, Twitter. More besides. More next. And if one were to get big enough, like Facebook, this cycle doesn’t stop, it just sort of happens all at the same time without interruptions in service. All while we diaspora from site to site hoping there’s at least one more goddamned Diaryland Andrew out there who gives a fuck about the little universe they created and tempted human beings to set up their lives in.
That’s right, fucking Diaryland, of all those places and their kin, is still up, still run by Andrew out of, presumably, ancient Prothean servers run by the multi-generational families of spiders living in them. It still has the same site design it always did. It still has some users. A few new ones every day, even. If you go through a retrieval process, you can still get back your old content. If you pay two bucks to sign up to prove you’re not a bot, you can live the old life again. It’s never been on the stock market or cannibalized by corporations or politicians, though with 2.2 million users in the year 2000, he certainly had offers. I can’t imagine it’s profitable. I have a hard time believing it ever really was. Diaryland was the first networked blogging site. It started in 1999. Created by a Canadian kid because “I just like making little things.” Before Livejournal or MySpace or Facebook or any of them. just a guy making a thing that people liked and giving a shit about it.
All the rest are gone. Dismantled for parts and sold off with zero understanding that the only thing of any value the site ever offered was the community, its content, its connection, its possibilities, its knowledge. And that can’t be sold with the office space and the codebase. These sites exist because of what we do there. But at any moment they can be sold out from under us, to no benefit or profit to the workers—yes, workers, goddammit—who built it into something other than a dot com address and a dusty login screen, yet to the great benefit and profit of those who, more often than not, use the money to make it more difficult for people to connect to and accept each other positively in the future.
And because these rich men and their unconnected hearts trading our online homes back and forth don’t understand that, they inevitably fuck up the place so badly they have to sell it for pennies within a few years, so it was all for nothing but like four guys buying boats, and THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS EVER.
It just keeps happening.
Stop talking and start buying things.
I want to say that because I am an elder millennial, I am sanguine about it. The ebb and flow of the social media life cycle. The inevitability of exodus. The inexorable headlong entropic rush toward the heat-death of anything good on the internet. I want to say it’ll be okay if we all lose Twitter, we’ll make a new place like we always do. I want to be a nice zen Granny Minnesota for you, and tell you there are eyeshadow shades other than electric blue, the lightest color gets dusted gently across your browbone, and when you’re lonely, I’ll always be there on the other side of this screen. Nothing gold can stay, mono no aware, attachment is the beginning of suffering. Twas ever thus, and ever thus ‘twill be.
But I’m just so angry.
Twitter is bigger than the sites this usually happens to. Maybe the biggest yet—the internet is still young, after all. Its level of cultural penetration can barely be understood, and far outstrips the raw number of its users, its profit, its share price, its features. It took a lot to make it possible to treat Twitter like Livejournal.
And while Twitter hurts, I’m not sure anything will ever hurt as much as Livejournal did. It feels like no one even remembers anymore what happened to lovely, flawed, dog-eared, wacky old LJ in the twilight of the aughts and the dawn of the tens. Even though in this year of our lord 2022, when there are some pretty fucking good reasons to remember it, and learn its lessons.
At the time, like many of these strange movements to weaponize human connection, it was so hard to see the whole picture. But the long and short of it is: Russia killed Livejournal. The Russian government, using corporate entities. Before that government (not it alone, never alone, but in concert with the worst of many natures) helped to give us Trump and the reboot of fascism and deployed a hundred quiet tools to divert our friends and neighbors and relatives into a deep well of dark illogic, pain, hate, and violence, it took a silly little space where a bunch of nerds and writers and artists and fans made a digital home.
Because the other people who made Livejournal their home were Russian dissidents. Most of English-speaking Livejournal never even knew how heavily the site was used by Russophones, how active it was in organizing intellectual and real world resistance to Putin’s tightening power and repression of thought. It all happened in Cyrillic, and we were busy finding out what Buffy character we were, and Livejournal never really had the tools to connect large inter-communicating islands in the sea of its total userbase. You grew audiences through connections and meta-connections you already trusted. Most people just wrote about their day. American politics were discussed, but never a huge subsection of the discourse. There were very few “celebrities” beyond SFF writers and big name fans (because it took a lot of effort to make regular long-form posts. REALLY A LOT I CANNOT BELIEVE I USED TO WRITE PIECES LIKE THIS FOUR OR FIVE TIMES A WEEK JESUS EFF) and if something blew up, it usually did so by getting picked up by a more popular, outside site.
So that there was this massive portion of Livejournal all conducted in Russian was just…not widely known. Certainly not that Russian LJ was bigger than English LJ. Certainly not that it was being used to productively protest and agitate against a growing fascist government. Hell, back then, most regular people thought Putin was pretty okay. It was all just…taking place on the other side of a garden wall that no one thought was a wall.
So when Livejournal was sold, not to Viacom or Google, but to SixApart, a company no one had ever heard of, it was confusing. As was its refusal to develop anything like a usable mobile app. When fanfic communities started getting banned for gay content in the name of “protecting the children,” it was alarming and confusing. When it started going down regularly due to constant DDoS attacks, the new owner accused the community of trying to blackmail and destroy him for questioning what the hell was going to happen to all of us, when the Russian Prime Minister was commenting on fucking Livejournal, and when Russian users started put posts in English to let others know what was going on…we all just felt so helpless. It was sold to SUPMedia, a Russian company, and by 2016, had moved its servers to Russia and changed the entire site to conform with that good old very free and inclusive Russian law, but by that time, the community had long fled. Which was the point. Make it unusable and unreliable, bleed off the Westerners and the eye of Western media, and use the database to find and shut down dissenters.
And as hard as it was for us to lose that space where so many of us found family and work and connection, I cannot begin to imagine what those brave dissidents lost. What Russia lost. What they are still losing.
It was a small piece of what was to come. Like Gamergate and the Puppies, an experiment to practice taking apart a minor but culturally influential community and develop techniques to do it again, more efficiently, more quickly, with less attention. To lay out a reliable pathway to commit harm and lie about it for so long and in so many ways that by the time the truth is available, it doesn’t matter, because the harm is a foundational part of the system we’re living in. The harm is the new status quo.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
I can’t promise what’s happening with Twitter is just the public meltdown of a malignant narcissist. I can’t promise it’s not more practice. Twitter is much bigger, much more influential, and much more ingrained into the fabric of modern society than Livejournal ever was. It’s a big bite to swallow. But it’s happened before. We know governmental entities with vested interests in eliminating avenues of effective dissent and the dissemination of truth (Saudi Arabia, China, others) provided funding for Musk to complete his purchase when he couldn’t otherwise pull it off. We see him, barely months at the helm, take off any remaining mask of progressivism or moral purpose and speed-run a descent into radicalization while working day and night, not even to make money, but to change anything that might smack of mercy or kindness or acceptance of others. To welcome monsters and ban journalists. To get people who’ve managed not to fall into the right-wing oubliette to turn against Ukraine, turn against vaccines, turn against Jews, turn against LGBTQ+ community but especially gender-nonconforming human fucking beings, turn against fact-checking, turn against economic aid packages meant to benefit them and not him, turn against liberal democracy, turn against each other.
Yeah, Twitter was a mess. Sure. Any sufficiently large gathering of humans won’t always be a great time. But it wasn’t a hell
Stop talking to each other and start buying things. Stop talking to each other and start hurting each other.
Hurting each other is just ever so much more useful than talking and connecting. Leaving people alone doesn’t produce narcissistic supply. It doesn’t feed the need to control and force that some humans, it seems, have always been and always will be born with.
And look, I’m not going to sit here and go full anti-capitalist vision quest on you. I understand these sites aren’t free to run. Servers, bandwidth, coders, mods, everything costs. We all have to eat and the costs involved in the operation of these kinds of networks can get unreal and unwieldy. And until we achieve post-scarcity, all these things must be done by people who also need to eat and live. I surely don’t expect to be handed mature social networks all run by Andrews out of the good of their hearts and the pleasure of making little things.
And I also understand that we are the generation who has to go through this part of it. We’re the ones born in time to be forced to make the rules and defend them. To say hey maybe one guy shouldn’t be able to own the village square. Because it was never remotely possible before. It’s all new and we have to figure it out. To agitate and legislate and be constantly vigilant. Maybe it’ll all seem so obvious and settled in 50 years, but those are our 50 years and no one else is going to have to be the first to have these conversations and try to make policy out of them. That’s us, it’s our lot, and it sucks ass, but this technology is the singularity we geeks have been talking about, and it turns out it’s not just impossible to imagine life on the other side of it before it happens, but it’s really fucking hard to figure out life on the other side of it once you get there, too. This is our actual Oregon Trail. We have to walk it on foot. We have to be the ones who fuck up and we have to be the ones who fix it. We have to be the ones who learn the lessons the hard way and write it all down so someday people get to just hop in a plane and sleep for five hours rather than die in the snow wrapped around our shivering children, praying for a dawn that is far too distant to help us now.
And we’ve seen very clearly this year that even progress that seems obvious and settled 50 years down the track is always vulnerable to people who confuse the ignorance of their own childhoods with the absence of societal problems.
But ultimately, what happens to our places and what happens to liberal democratic culture is only somewhat about money. If you think that’s not true, that it’s only capitalism that curdles the milk, ask yourself whether you think, even with all the money in the world, you ever could pay Amy Coney Barrett or Marjorie Taylor Green or Lindsey Graham or Josh Hawley or Andrew Tate or Brett Kavanaugh or Jim Jordan enough to become a progressive feminist eco-warrior activist.
There isn’t enough money printed to change who they are. Elon Musk is (or was) the richest man on Earth. He’s losing money like a teenage nosebleed every time he goes further to the right. This is just the shape of his soul, it’s not a feint for profit. It’s not just about making enough money to keep the servers going and buy everyone in the office a house, it’s not even about making shareholders rich, it’s fundamentally about the yawning, salivating need to control and hurt. To express power not by what you can give, but by what you can take away. And deeper still, this strange compulsion of conservatism to force other humans to be just like you. To clone their particular set of neuroses and fears and revulsions and nostalgias and convictions and traumas so that they never have to experience anything but themselves, copied and pasted unto the end of time. A kind of viral solipsism that cannot bear the presence of anything other than its own undifferentiated self, propagating not by convincing or seduction or debate, but by the eradication of any other option.
And I’m so tired of it. I’m so tired of running from that Nothing, that creeping enforced sameness, that self-programming grey goo of empty fear of the Other. Running from oasis to oasis in a desert of uncaring where empathy never wets the sand.
I’m so tired of just harmlessly getting together with other weird geeks and going to what amounts to a digital pub after work and waking up one day to find every pint poisoned. Over and over again. Like the poison wants us specifically. Like it knows we will always make its favorite food: vulnerability, connection, difference. I’m so tired of lunch photos and fanfic and stupid jokes and keeping in touch with family across time zones and making friends and starting cottage industries and pursuing hobbies and meeting soulmates and expressing thoughts and creating identities and loving TV shows and reading books and getting to know a few of your heroes and raising kids and making bookshelves and knitting and painting and fixing sinks and first dates and homemade jam and, yes, figuring out what Buffy characters we are, listening and learning and hoping and just fucking talking to each other weaponized against us. Having our enthusiasm over the smallest joys of everyday life invaded by people who long ago forgot their value and turned into fodder for the death of thought, the burial of love.
These were our spaces, little people who just wanted to connect. And one by one, they get turned into battlefields where we have to fight just as hard to exist as we do in the real world. And every time a few more people you never thought the Absorbaloff of hatred and gleeful sadism would slurp up don’t come along to the next safe place, and start trying to take it away before anyone can get there.
How dare they? How dare they take everyday life and load it into a cannon just to fire it back in our faces?
One awful man should not be able to destroy something the world created together, for good or ill. No, we didn’t create the code or rent the offices, but without the words we put together in those little boxes, Twitter is and was nothing. Humanity made that place, and it is all our best and our worst. One unimaginably rich man should not be able to take away the livelihoods of millions of people just paying the fucking rent—and if I see one more smug post telling people to just delete it and they’ll be better off, I’m going to turn into a fucking dragon and burn this place to the ground.
Twitter is and was the home to so many small artists who clawed their way to an audience, who had the opportunity to be seen by the world without the intermediary of already-established success. It was precious and vital to making a living from art, and not just art but activism and craft industries and intellectual output that so many think should never make anyone’s living. And those people are going to lose so much because Elon Musk needed to drink from the attention fire hose. Those people are going to lose their audience and their opportunities, all for him. I’m going to lose so much. You have to be very famous to be safe from the effects of your biggest microphone being crammed up a rich white man’s ass and set to reverb. I am certainly not. Few of us are.
This man I was assured was going to save humanity for so many years is going to eradicate independent artists’ ability to feed ourselves and our families with our own labor. And if he ever notices, he’ll have a good laugh about it.
I’m just so angry.
I just like making little things.
I want to tell people about eyeshadow and loneliness and Minnesota and Prodigy and how good books can be and how to make cake and how to not despair. It’s all I’ve ever wanted, since a company first made me feel shame for not buying enough product to justify expressing love.
And we will. I’m sure. Somehow. We will find or make another place, eventually. It won’t be exactly the same. It never really is. But we’ll gather again, and they’ll burn it down again, and we’ll start over again. Some of us will lose everything in the cracks between safe spaces. Some of us won’t. It’s impossible to predict who will be who. We just keep trying. Keep trying not to let each other fall. I’m exhausted but that doesn’t mean I get to stop.
Doesn’t mean we get to stop.
Don’t ever stop talking to each other. It’s what the internet is really and truly for. Talk to each other and listen to each other. But don’t ever stop connecting. Be a prodigy of the new world. Stand up for the truth no matter how often they take our voices away and try to replace the idea of reality with fucking insane Lovecraftian shit. Don’t give up, don’t let them have this world. Love things. Love people. Love the small and the weird and the new.
Because that’s what fascists can’t do. They don’t love white people or straight people or silent women or binary enforced gender or forced birth or even really money. They want those things to be the only acceptable or even visible choices, but they don’t love them. They don’t even want to think about them. They want them to be automatically considered superior and universally mandated so they don’t have to think about them—or else what do you think the fury over other people wearing masks was ever about? The need to be right without thinking about it, and never have to see anything that wakens a spark of doubt in their own choices.
Obey, do not imagine, do not differ.
That’s nothing to do with love. Love is gentle, love is kind, remember? They need the attention being terrible brings them, but they don’t love it any more than a car loves gas. Sometimes I don’t even think they love themselves. Sometimes I’m pretty sure of it. They certainly never seem happy, even when they win. Musk doesn’t seem happy at all.
Geeks, though. Us weird geeks making communities in the ether? We love. We love so stupidly hard. We try to be happy. We get enthusiastic and devote ourselves to saving whales and trees and cancelled science fiction shows and each other. The energy we make in these spaces, the energy we make when we support and uplift and encourage and excite each other is something people like Musk can never understand or experience, which is why they keep smashing the windows in to try and get it, only to find the light they hungered for is already gone. Moved on, always a little beyond their reach.
Okay. I think I can do it now. I can be your kindly elder millennial Granny Minnesota. Your pal with a pen. I can see you as you are and love you sight unseen and be lonely with you on the other side of a strange and beautiful square of glowing plastic that contains nothing less than the future.
Because that’s what we have to do. Be each other’s pen pals. Talk. Share. Welcome. Care. And just keep moving. Stay nimble. Maybe we have to roll the internet back a little and go back to blogs and decentralized groups and techy fiddling and real-life conventions and idealists with servers in their closets. Back to Diaryland and Minnesota and grandiose usernames and thoughts that take ever so much more than 280 characters to express. That’s okay. We can do that. We know how. We’re actually really good at it. Love things and love each other. We’re good at that, too. Protect the vulnerable. Make little things. Wear electric blue eyeshadow. Take a picture of your breakfast. Overthink Twin Peaks. Get angry. Do revolutions. Find out what Buffy character you are. Don’t get cynical. Don’t lose joy. Be us. Because us is what keeps the light on when the night comes closing in. Us doesn’t have a web address. We are wherever we gather. Mastodon, Substack, Patreon, Dreamwidth, AO3, Tumblr, Discord, even the ruins of Twitter, even Facebook and Instagram and Tiktok, god help us all. Even Diaryland.
It doesn’t matter. They’re just names. It doesn’t matter who owns them. Because we own ourselves and our words and the minute the jackals arrive is the same minute we put down the first new chairs in the next oasis. We make our place when we’re together. We make our magic when we connect, typing hands to typing hands.
Hello, world. Come in from the cold. This will be a good place. For awhile. And then we’ll make another one.
Stop buying things and start talking to each other. They’ve always known that was how they lose.
And remember, the lightest shade goes over the browbone, as delicate as a new year.
Welcome to Garbagetown is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.