People in their 30s are already nostalgic about a simpler time. Marie Le Conte, a French-Moroccan journalist, laments these changes in her new book Escape. She examines how the internet has changed over the past two decades.
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The result is a useful cultural history about the internet. She compares the internet with a bar that grows in popularity until it is unrecognizable. She is still in the bar, but she now sits in a corner more alone than ever before.
EL PAÍS spoke via video call with Le Conte, who has lived in London since 2009, where she works as a political journalist. Her internet life began with blogs about indie music. It became a place for anonymity, minor fame, and even sex. Today, algorithms, influencers, passive consumption and less clutter have replaced the clutter. Le Conte has not disappeared. The Internet is still “my home,”She said. It is not an intimate, cozy space anymore. “flat, boring and lifeless.”The Internet was not real life before. It is now. Le Conte spoke with the newspaper to discuss some of the most important aspects of her book.
My new book will be out September 1. Escape is about being part of the first generation to experience the internet. https://t.co/l4N8PgYlRX pic.twitter.com/63bsnWPW6c
— Marie Le Conte (@youngvulgarian) June 8, 2022
1. Nostalgia as a place for geeks
“I’ve identified two periods of the internet,” explains Le Conte. “In my formative years it was very much a place for people who weren’t very attractive in real life: they were very weird, they didn’t have many friends, and their hobbies were weird.”Le Conte is also included in this list: “We all ended up in that space, because in real life we were not doing well,”She adds.
This era was experienced by a microgeneration of people who were born between 1985 and 1995. They spent their teens on the internet, which was launched in 1989. By their teenage years, it was already a popular place —Amazon, Google and Facebook already existed— but they lived their lives on forums and blogs that they read on their home computers.
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Everything changed in the second ten years. “The second phase started probably in early 2010. That’s when literally everyone else joined us. All of a sudden, spending all your time online became completely normal,”She recalls.
That’s when the bar was “invaded.”It was no longer a luxury to be online. The distinction between digital and actual was reduced to zero. “In early 2020, real life and the internet finally completely merged into one world,”She said. Everything that is said or happens online is now real. It has consequences at home and at work, and it is tied to your identity forever.
2. The microgeneration that is lucky
Le Conte was 15 years old when he had an absolutely amazing afternoon. “boring”The 20th century was a great experience. She organized a concert in her hometown with small bands. “What we did was basically piss off my father by printing a lot of brochures on his printer. Then we went to distribute them to the cool parts of the city. At that time it was still the only way to get the word out,”She recalls.
Le Conte’s lucky microgeneration saw the last breaths of the previous era. They were young enough that they could use the internet to simulate adolescence. They were first anonymous. “We had this infinite capacity to reinvent ourselves. Because of the culture at the time, you didn’t use your real name online, but you could also use different pseudonyms on MySpace and in a Messenger forum.”
Second, anonymity also meant that there was a huge distance between digital life and real life. There was no way to cross over to the other side. “I did a lot of stupid things online when I was young and got into a lot of stupid fights. None ever made it to the real world.”
These two online features were complemented by another physical feature: the iPhone was only now being created. The Internet was something that happened at your home. “I already had a cell phone and could send text messages. But I didn’t have internet. That, in hindsight, strikes me as the perfect balance. That is a world that I really miss: having almost everything from the internet, but also leaving it behind when I leave the house,”She said.
3. The strangest porn was made from frozen trout
Perhaps the best example of the leap between the internet and the present is the chapter on the discovery and use of sex and porn. Le Conte was 12 years old when he and a group friends entered a contest. “find the weirdest porn on the internet.”Today, such search results are not publishable. At the time, though, they found videos starring a frozen trout, men dressed as pterodactyls (from the waist up) and a rotting sheep’s head (Le Conte won with this one).
Le Conte sees the discoveries as educational and positive experiences. With the help of her mother, she was able to discover the world through the internet. It didn’t seem like a terrible influence.
However, she changed her mind after writing. She had been suffocated as a game of sex, but she didn’t consent to it. “The chapter was going to have a positive conclusion, but I looked at the data and saw that I couldn’t pretend that this is good. I am sure that it is not just suffocation. Very extreme events have become common,”She said.
Le Conte also sees an age gap: “When I was a child, pornography was everywhere, but it was in pop-ups or images or videos that took a million years to download. Whereas if I had been five years younger, suddenly all the porn pages were there. This era of streaming porn was a bigger change than the Internet in general, because sex has always been on the Internet throughout history. But now it is a question of volume,”She elaborates.
4. The arrival of the beautiful people
The expansion of porn is just one symptom. Le Conte sees several more steps in the internet’s evolution, such as when we all jumped to Facebook and when Tumblr ceased to be a niche network. The most important step was when bloggers gave way to influencers. Le Conte has a great theory about this step. “If you were a blogger, you did it because you liked to share your life and make friends online, while influencers want money, success and fame in real life. This shows the change in internet culture: from wanting to write my thoughts and hopefully get some followers, to basically being a failure if the big fashion brands don’t send you thousands of dollars worth of clothes.”
Her most refined hypothesis about the date when the internet became a real world is “when the beautiful people arrived.” “There are studies that show that attractive people have a more pleasant life. That is in the data. I am not inventing anything,”She promises. They didn’t exist in the pre-Instagram Internet. “The rise of Instagram marked that change: ‘Oh God, we’re doing it again, we’ve reinvented that beautiful people are popular. They are men and women, and they are really beautiful and boring, and it was like the internet became the typical American high school movie.”
5. The algorithm is just like my cat
“People ten years younger have grown up on an internet that I don’t recognize,” writes Le Conte: “I was talking about it with a friend recently and we felt older.”
She uses Twitter and Instagram, Tumblr, and most other common apps, but has designated TikTok as her limit. “I don’t like it. I’m never going to have TikTok on my phone because I tried and I hate that it doesn’t let you search or watch what you want. It is fully algorithm-driven. It’s incredibly frustrating. I am the human. You can suggest things to me, but you can’t dictate what I see,”She said. TikTok’s most popular use is not on the people you follow or on your preferred topics but on what the algorithm decides.
Le Conte doesn’t want the TikTok algorithm to decide for her. Instead, she explains how algorithms have influenced her life by recommending ads and other content. I consider algorithm-driven recommendation engines a cute addition to blogs. Le Conte considers its algorithm to be “like a pet.”
“I am aware that there are people in Silicon Valley who want to control my movements to sell me things, but they are far away and irrelevant,” writes Le Conte. “My algorithm, on the other hand, is small and is here with me. I preferred my life online when I was alone and could decide everything, but they have not given me a choice. Now I have a partner on my travels, and I take it personally when he’s not paying attention to me, which is often.” It’s like her cat, she adds.
6. However, she still has the internet as her only home.
Le Conte isn’t abandoning the internet to concentrate on the real world. She can’t. It is still her home. “I still really enjoy spending basically all my time online, even though my life in the real world has improved. The tension for me is between the fact that the internet is no longer the home it used to be, but at the same time it’s still my home and there’s nowhere I’d rather be.”
“As a space, it’s not as fun and liberating as it used to be. Now it’s shrunk more. It’s flatter. But it is still, I would say, at least for me, something that has a positive impact on my life,”She adds.
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