extremely online

The Internet’s Most Hellish Year

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Getty

We have officially settled into “precedented times.” The many shifts, cataclysms, and major changes of the last few years have now plateaued into a sleepy sense of normalcy. And throughout it all, we memed: COVID, lockdowns, the January 6 insurrection, mass protest movements. In February, when Russia invaded Ukraine — with actual tanks — the onslaught of World War III memes on Twitter and TikTok was not only expected, it also felt upsettingly natural. At one point, the more twisted, taboo, and fucked up the memes, the more my own ability to keep a straight face suffered.

The internet reacted in other ways too, of course, all of them similarly routine in 2022: big headlines followed by quote-tweets criticizing or reacting to those headlines, cute slideshows and sad slideshows and slideshows that really should’ve had a content warning, influencer activism, solidarity profile-picture changes, and swirls of misinformation. Footage of mass migration and literal war wallpapered the internet, and it just became more content in an already crowded space.

Somehow, we’ve grown to feel compelled to always “say something,” to respond to events as devastating as war in the most derailing and asinine ways on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, anywhere online and public. We respond to devastation with mild online performances that signal how much we know and how good we are at caring. While this isn’t entirely new, looking back at the last 12 months, our online behavior has felt like a fun-house-mirror version of years past — more reckless, more unhinged, and more shameful.

It makes sense then that we refer to the places we spend the most time online as “hellsites.” The hottest of these is, of course, Twitter — currently on literal fire since Elon Musk’s acquisition of it in October — where QAnon theorists can now purchase verification, COVID misinformation is a nonissue, and Trump is back. It’s demon time, baby!

And then there’s the current state of discourse on those hellsites. This spring, a whole cottage industry of commentators, “reporters,” conspiracy theorists, fans, and opportunistic content creators got to work fanning the flames of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s very public trial. YouTube creators with just a handful of followers could make videos — something as simple as an Amber Heard villain edit — earning millions of monetizable views. Many of these creators were lawyers, people whose jobs allegedly held them to a strict ethical standard. You could say they were tempted or seduced into acting out of character or in shameful ways, as if a demon forced their hand.

But those thousands of creators, in the case of Depp v. Heard, were able to make money off of a winning formula of bad-faith engagement, anti-intellectualism, and hate because social-media platforms are optimized to do so. Even if you think you are too good to be bedeviled by the internet, you can’t deny that to the extent that we are turned into data — to be mined and sold — we are, in fact, possessed. And our dispossession is fed back to us as empowering data, the ultimate form of self-knowledge, everything you need to make the right purchases.

In hell, the ultimate punishment is often endless repetition, and the internet is now saturated with nostalgic “trends” that look to the too recent past for content, as if we’re running out of distant history to repeat. Trends like “stay-at-home girlfriends” and “thin is in” are trends not because they are new, but because they are repetitive. From “Old Money” to Catholicism, we’re seeing the same, and often oppressive, ideas being repackaged and recentered. Viral aesthetics and subcultures, like coquette (known for its nostalgic performance of hyperfeminine girlhood), are blurring the line between conservatism and subversion. For some, aesthetic subcultures are just guides for how to dress, but for others, they are a way of test-driving a more regressive set of values — what the New York Times labeled as “reactionary chic.

This lack of newness — and I mean the kind of large-scale newness that makes it feel like shit is happening, the kind of shift that makes the ground shake a little — is often called a Dark Age. When presented with hell’s bright flames, we turn inward, receding into our own darkness, finding comfort in the familiar ideas that once helped the world make sense. We’re stuck, in both fight and flight mode at the same time.

Trend forecaster Venkatesh Rao thinks it’s possible we’ve been in our own Dark Age since 2017. For Rao, who labels millennial and Gen-Z cultures with amusingly accurate terms like “premium mediocre” and “domestic cozy,” a Dark Age is “a collapse of historical motion.” As Rao on his website Ribbonfarm, “The weird thing about the last few years is that the general atmosphere has been charged with energies that feel like they should spark trends, but don’t.” So perhaps this constant reinterpretation of the past signals a discomfort in the present and a lack of hope for the future.

All this talk about hell helps us articulate a loss of control, of connection, and of direction we often rely on to help us make sense of our lives. Which is why, historically, a Dark Age can be a time of religious zeal, witch hunts, and reactionary conservatism. (No shit: The Satanic panic is actually making a comeback, thanks to QAnon.)

In New Dark Age, writer and technologist James Bridle explains that technology today works to hide and obscure the aforementioned dark forces: “that which was intended to enlighten the world in practice darkens it.” Sure, technology can help us learn more about ourselves and the world around us, but the reality is that it’s currently more likely to overwhelm us. Being in the dark is not an excuse to lose all hope, though. We just need to look for hope in different places.

I’m partial to this hell metaphor because it’s funny, irreverent, immature, and, frankly, liberating. (All the memes say there is more fun to be had in hell.) In a way, it’s a hopeful way to look at things. A Dark Age can be a turning point or, as Rao would say, “It’s like being in becalmed weather that is always threatening to turn stormy but never does.” Being stuck doesn’t have to be a tragedy; it just buys us more time. We tend to move through the dark with our arms stretched out; our bodies move more slowly, and we panic at first, but then our vision adjusts.

So maybe these times and chaos and disorder are crucial in moving toward flexibility and resilience. My hope for next year, and the many years after, is for us to stop talking and thinking about technology as if it were some occult practice that deals in powerful clouds or mystical algorithms. It’s the cumulative application of human knowledge, and that’s all our knowledge. If we can make memes and discourse, we can certainly dream up a better internet. And hell, with its big bright flames, might just be the twisted source of light we need to see the future we actually want.

The Internet’s Most Hellish Year