The Internet has become the new television

The Internet has become the new television

In 2015, now a decade ago, Hossein Derakhshan's online essay The Web We Have to Save caused quite a stir. It was written by an Iranian author who had spent the previous six years in prison due to his political and publicist activities. The essay told of the author's experience with the internet before and after prison: from a network that resembled a library, from which it was possible to move from one content to another by freely following the links, to a network much more similar to television, where the contents were offered in a continuous flow, driven by algorithms whose purpose is to keep viewers as much as possible within the platforms where that contents are circulated. In short, the web had changed radically over the years Derakhshan had spent in prison. Since the release of that essay - which in the meantime has been cited excessively, becoming a small classic of digital advertising - another ten years have passed. Ten years in which, however, the internet has remained at the same point.

It has been said in many formulas, the way in which the internet is discussed in the public debate has changed radically in recent years, with important oscillations between utopian and dystopian tones, always mostly emphasized and not very substantial . It is at least since the explosion of the Cambridge Analytica case that techlash has reigned, we could say, a spirit of the times that is particularly adverse and critical of the web and its main technological and economic players: being part of it is a mixture of rancor against disappointed hopes, scandals, moral panics, managers brought to testify in Parliaments and the collapse of funding and earnings. And yet, despite this climate, nothing ever "happens" online: the big platforms can lose important slices of users, a few billion in capitalization, burn products and projects considered strategic, but it doesn't even seem possible to imagine a paradigm shift compared to what these companies have imposed.

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A new tv

Derakhshan's idea, that the internet would become the new television, seems to be truer than ever: surfing the internet – if this image still has still makes sense when smartphones and apps are the most used tools around the world – today it is in every way a television experience. Dominating are videos and reels, especially on platforms controlled by Meta, and pumped by the algorithms at the heart of our online experience. TikTok, with its exponential growth, is driving the trends and dynamics of digital capitalism, also influencing the strategic choices of the competition, the styles and formats of digital communication, fashion, audio and video production and essentially everything else. We live, in essence, in a world whose mainstream imagery increasingly resembles that of Chinese platform videos and with a growing expectation that everything resembles how things work on TikTok itself. Ballets included, dystopia included .

Blake Chandlee , president of TikTok's global business solutions, in an interview published by the New Yorker in 2022, clearly remarked on the differences between the platform he works for and Facebook: they they are a social platform , we are an entertainment platform . It seems like a trivial statement, but it candidly sums up the paradigm shift that has taken place in recent years with regard to our online life. As academic Christian Fuchs has written, the rhetoric of web 2.0 prevailing in the early 2000s wanted network platforms – or at least their ideological portrait emptied of any economic-political trait – to be intrinsically participatory and capable of providing empowerment opportunities for their users. It cannot be denied that to some extent this has happened, as demonstrated, for example, by the important role of social media in coordinating protest movements. In large part, however, that idea – as part of the broader ideology of the digital revolution, as media historian Gabriele Balbi defined it – tried to describe something that did not materialize.

It is almost impossible to see some participatory trait in the zapping that characterizes the use of content on social media today and it is quite unthinkable that the cannibalization of digital spaces by brands, companies and influencers could have any possibility of real emancipation. Certainly these were questions to be asked back in the day, when in the face of the emergence of these spaces the discourse around their corporate nature and their consequent intrinsic asymmetries in terms of visibility and attention was completely put aside. Even on YouTube, the most viewed content in its history is a video for children published by a Korean production company (12 billion and more views) and the video clip of Despacito (about 8 billion views), obviously produced by a major.

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Audience passive

No wonder, today, this is the state of things on the internet: the ideas that web 2.0 would transform the passive audiences of analogue mass media into active and content-creating communities, overturning the hierarchies of power, were themselves an illusion. As early as 2009, that rhetoric was being scrutinized by, for example, José van Dijck. First, media audiences have never been truly passive even in the past; secondly, even in the new web 2.0 paradigm, it is only a very narrow minority of users who actually create content.

If the dominant online capitalist dynamics are added to this equation, a picture emerges where the real work of audiences is above all to produce data, collected en masse by platforms for their profit purposes. The same dynamics have then made digital spaces into arenas where the battle for the audience's attention has created a war of all against all and an internet inevitably led to scrolling, where videos from natural disasters, conflicts or other issues of social and political relevance compete to be seen alongside journalistic overproduction, sponsored campaigns, videos of dogs singing and brands that monetize political activism around the issues of the moment.

In a recent article, The Atlantic reporter Megan Garber proposed an interesting thesis: the metaverse, a " bullshit " that maybe we will be spared after the reality check of the last few months, is actually what we already have on social media, i.e. a continuous distraction device and entertainment that exists to take us elsewhere, out of this world. What are the Reels and their almost hypnotic effect for if not to reinforce the impulse to seek distraction at every possible moment, "to avoid tedium at all costs" . Mark Fisher would call it "depressive hedonism": a spasmodic search for entertainment and pleasure, however wrapped in a blanket of cumbersomeness and gloom, a hedonism inflicted, moreover, by the calculations of algorithms and surveillance capitalism. Perhaps this is also why nothing has happened on the Internet in the ten years since the publication of Derakhshan's essay. In Radical attention, the researcher Julia Bell wrote about the repetitive cycles in which online life seems blocked, a constant flow that seems to almost deprive of the very sense of time: on the screen, Bell writes, everything looks the same.

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