Over the next week at The Ringer, in honor of the release of Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, we will explore events that changed the world as we knew it—specifically ones that marked the ends of established eras and triggered the beginnings of then-unknown futures. Some will be overt and well established. Others will be less trodden and perhaps more speculative. But all will entertain an immovable idea that when things die, there is someone or something that pulled the trigger. Welcome to This Is the End Week.
From my desk in a high-rise office building at the southern end of Manhattan, I click and scroll and scroll and click. Sometimes idly, with one eye on the clock; sometimes desperately, in lieu of the work I know I ought to be doing. I skim the sweaty Getty images on the celebrity fashion blog Go Fug Yourself and peruse the latest tidy musings from Felix Salmon, an arch Reuters blogger who covers high and low finance alike. I read everything published on The Awl (tagline: “Be less stupid”) and most things published on Consumerist. (Emboldened by that site’s recurring pieces of advice, I decide to push back one day, out there in the real world, against one of those little “$10 card minimum” signs at a grocer in SoHo. It does not go well and I will never attempt it again.) It’s the year 2011, and I can’t get enough of the internet.
I stare at The Big Picture’s gripping photos of deadly catastrophes around the globe. I parse cryptic, confusingly formatted bursts of internecine drama between tiny yet mighty Tumblr accounts helmed by people whose various blog iterations I have parasocially followed since I was in college. I read posts about ConLaw and SantaCon. I mostly keep a poker face, but when I do slip up and accidentally snicker or whisper “huh!” out loud, I play it off as though I’m reacting to something Jim Cramer or Maria Bartiromo just said on CNBC. With a critical eye I scan my own sub-rosa Tumblr as if it belongs to another, trying to imagine how my squirrely curio of online fascinations—Jason Kottke reblogs; slideshows of Martha Stewart getting stitches; links to my own unhinged and unpaid rants about concepts like “preemptive irritation”—must come across in the eyes of another person.
All of this is facilitated by Google Reader, a slim workhorse of a site launched in 2005 that uses pre-existing RSS feed protocols to turn the chaos of the web into a pleasant lazy river of content. Google Reader is not the world’s first RSS newsreader, nor will it be the last, and over the years plenty of internet power-users will sniff that it’s not even the best. But it’s the one that caught on. And using it requires little effort to yield satisfying, orderly rewards, kind of like tossing spare coins and crumpled bills into an old ceramic piggy bank and finding out, in return, that you have been granted access to a sleek, organized, and free Swiss bank account.
Google Reader never judges, nor does it showboat. It swans under the radar, with a URL that isn’t blocked by my office computer system the way louder social networks like Twitter and Facebook are. It has a look that is intentionally left blank. There are ads here and there, but way fewer. Even its black box functionality, introduced in 2009, is labeled with wry charm: A user can sift through feeds in chronological order or can choose to, in Google’s words, “sort by magic.”
I decide to see what happens if I sort my life by magic, too, and I leave that career for a totally new one. None of my loved ones are surprised, even if they can’t completely relate: the majority of them use the internet almost exclusively for work emails, online shopping, fantasy football, and/or keeping tabs on exes. They say well-meaning things to me like, “Ah, you and your blogs!” In my new job, Google Reader becomes less of a diversion and more of a vital resource. I add a sub-category just for hockey blogs; I use the search function almost daily to resurface things I know I’ve read somewhere and want to quote in my work; I comment on the links shared by my colleagues. I can’t possibly know it yet, but life online is about as good as it will ever be.
It’s the year 2021, and I can’t get enough of the internet. This is an admission of defeat. It’s an acknowledgment of my worst tic, the one where I lie in bed until 3 or 4 a.m. and pull-to-refresh, pull-to-refresh, pull-to-refresh, until Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or my email—or, in my lowest moments, Nextdoor—brings me something, anything new.
Sometimes it’s that blasted “oh hello, are you doomscrolling?” Twitter bot getting retweeted into my feed, or a growth-hacking prompt asking for a time you were so totally you back in the day. Sometimes it’s a blurry photo of a former coworker’s third kid with the caption “tfw you’re the third kid…” or a comment thread in which a friendly neighbor unironically and repeatedly calls the California governor “Gavin Newsuck.” Often it’s sponsored content, and I can never tell which service’s offerings leave me more unsettled: Twitter’s bizarre ads and sponsored posts tend to feature either days-old, extremely specific midgame NBA score updates or The 15 Wacky Photobombs You Have to See To Believe!, whereas on Instagram, the DTC marketing strikes are so hyper-targeted, so surgically precise, that they’re able to routinely home in on exactly the lamp made out of 3D-printed corn that I’ve always wanted in my life.
Such is the duality of the internet these days: It is both worse and better than ever, growing tackier as it strives for bespoke, hosting information so limitless that you can’t find any of it anymore.
Logging on feels like participating in the setup to a Yogi Berra 2.0 “terrible food, and such small portions!”–style joke—except that the punch line is about, like, public health statistics instead of prime rib. In the past week alone, the president of the United States and Facebook, each citing the tech company’s handling of pandemic info, have bickered publicly about, oh, just Facebook’s ratio of murderousness to societal benefit. (In other news, there’s a new Space Jam movie out with a villain who is an evil computer named “Al-G Rhythm.”) Online is no longer primarily a furtive escape or a cherished outlet. It’s just where everyone always is: my parents, my job, my frenemies, Joe Biden, my kids’ preschool teachers, this one fuckin’ guy who once sat down next to me in a press box, introduced himself, and immediately asked why I’d unfollowed him.
Pull-to-refresh. Pull-to-refresh. Pull-to-refresh!!!
The internet lasts forever, the internet never forgets. And yet it is also a place in which I feel confronted with an almost unbearable volume of daily reminders of its decay: broken links, abandoned blogs, apps gone by, deleted tweets (miss you always, ah-well-nevertheless!), too-cutesy 404 messages, vanished Vines, videos whose copyright holders have requested removal, lost material that the Wayback Machine never crawled, things I know I’ve read somewhere and want to quote in my work but just can’t seem to resurface the same way I used to be able to.
Some of these losses are silly and tiny, but others over the years have felt more monumental and telling. And when Google Reader disappeared in 2013, it wasn’t just a tale of dwindling user numbers or of what one engineer later described as a rotted codebase. It was a sign of the crumbling of the very foundation upon which it had been built: the era of the Good Internet.
“I don’t know about you, but I think Google Reader is among the best and most important pieces of technology in my life,” a health care blogger whom I followed via Google Reader wrote in October 2011. “I’d give up my microwave way before my Reader.” The offering certainly was, over the course of its 2005 to 2013 existence, an ideal showcase for some of the web’s prevailing strengths at the time—one of which was the emergence of the blogosphere, that backbone of what the Good Internet could be.
Thanks to platforms like Blogger and WordPress, blogs—sorry, web logs—became simple for people to set up and maintain and explore. And those people were creative and fucked-up; brilliant and totally full of it. Music tastemakers uploaded new MP3s at the same, much-anticipated time every day. Econ and politics and baseball wonks—having already studied the blade in message boards and forums—seamlessly transitioned to their new digs, engaging in endless, pedantic, blockquote-heavy arguments and harboring grudges among one another for years on end. (I say this with respect: I loved that shit.) Stoners mined YouTube for gold and blessed us with “highdeas” involving, variously, glue, Al Gore, and the concept of “breakup camp.” Young Mormon mothers wrote photo-heavy dispatches about their faith and their families and then went on to launch empires.
The web seemed stubbornly decentralized yet also collaborative. Even the antagonistic dudes out there (especially the antagonistic dudes!) were generous with their credit and links. Writers began teaming up like irreverent Voltrons at smart and scrappy group blogs, which drew lively and weird bunches of disparate commenters, many of whom started getting together at IRL meetups. People even began to go pro, getting paid to blog. Imagine that: paid to blog!
Google had purchased Blogger back in 2003, and in an interview with Playboy in 2004, founder Sergey Brin outlined a vision for his company that felt extremely bloggy: “We want to get you out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible,” he said. But nothing gold can stay, and as smartphones and tablets and apps and social networks began to supplement and then supplant the simple-text-on-a-desktop experience near the start of the 2010s, Google’s corporate frame of mind shifted ever-inward. In late 2011, the company announced that it would be phasing out things like those handy Google Reader commenting features to make way for a more shoehorned-in integration with the company’s newest soon-to-be-failed ambition, Google+. The decision to tinker with Google Reader riled up online factions ranging from Iranian protestors to inquisitive grad students, one of whom started a petition that garnered a hundred thousand signatures and media attention but ultimately led nowhere, at the same time that other tech companies were suddenly everywhere.
A few months later, in early 2012, Facebook leveled up, buying Instagram and holding a $16 billion IPO, a big step in its march toward domestic and geopolitical domination. By late 2013 Twitter went public, too, formalizing the rise of another social media service whose link- (and take-!) sharing capabilities had slowly encroached upon Google Reader’s turf for years. By that point, though, Google Reader didn’t really have turf left. It wasn’t just the program’s sharing features that had been disabled by corporate mandate. It was the whole thing, shuttered in its entirety in July 2013 by its mothership. I do hope that guy kept his microwave.
That I continue to dwell on this so many years later makes me a total cliché, an online version of the person who insists that all the best music, greatest sports dynasties, and funniest episodes of Saturday Night Live were the ones that just so happened to come out or take place when they were in high school. “You Don’t Miss Google Reader,” wrote Tom Fish on his Substack last fall, after reports that the hip email-newsletter service was going to test out a centralized feed-style hub drew numerous nostalgic comparisons to the late website, “You Miss College.” Buddy, I had already graduated, thankyouverymuch!
my friends: you need to let it go and move on with your life— Matt Haughey (@mathowie) August 28, 2020
He does make a good point, though, one that dovetails with an email to me from Brett Keller, that once-upon-a-time grad student who started the Save Google Reader petition. The end of Google Reader “looks more like a symptom than a cause of the decline,” Keller says. “There was definitely this slow shift away from blogging on open platforms and linking back and forth.” Services like Digg Reader were hastily fast-tracked in the post–Google Reader vacuum, and other RSS programs had existed for years. But they didn’t achieve the same sort of mainstream attention, in part because a great deal of the content that they were designed to handle best had already started to change.
In reality, those traditional blogs had been going dormant for years, and the medium continued to lose people and places—to the lucre of YouTube or Instagram, or to the litigious tag-team of Hulk Hogan and Peter Thiel, or to the micro-ease of Twitter or Tumblr. (The trajectory of Tumblr was ultimately a canary in the coal mine all its own: The once-trendy microblogging platform was purchased for more than a billion bucks by Yahoo! in 2013, in a deal that involved CEO Marissa Mayer promising, “We will not screw this up” and lots of arguments over porn. In 2019, the remnants of Tumblr were purchased by WordPress operator Automattic for less than $10 million, reportedly.) It makes sense to create content in the same place you consume it. Why futz around with a separate blog when you can just post stuff on Facebook and Snapchat? Did a Good Internet ever even exist, or am I just nostalgic for my youth?
If you were to ask me to name the world’s greatest living blogger, I would immediately name Alex Balk, whose grumpy, self-referential blog The Minor Fall, The Major Lift is widely acknowledged Good Internet canon alongside The Awl, the website he cofounded with Choire Sicha. And no less an authority than Balk has, over the years, gone on record with several incontrovertible internet laws. One of them is that “everything you hate about the internet is actually everything you hate about people.” Another is that the worst thing about the internet is “knowing what everyone thinks about everything.”
The last is the one that, in light of everything we’ve been through since he wrote it in 2015, is almost scary to contemplate. “If you think the internet is terrible now,” he wrote on The Awl, in the tone of an ER nurse who has truly seen it all, “just wait a while. The moment you were just in was as good as it got. The stuff you shake your head about now will seem like fucking Shakespeare in 2016.”
Dave Winer, one of the early creators of RSS, has also pushed back on the idea that the end of Google Reader doomed the Good Internet. In early 2020, responding to a piece on the subject in The New Republic, he tweeted that if there really were a Good Internet—and if it were indeed dead—then it would logically follow that “the billion people using Facebook are possessed by demons and nothing is happening there beyond pure evil.” On the one hand: he admit it! On the other hand, it helps to view the idea of the Good Internet less as a literal value judgment and more like a moniker for, say, an architectural style: recognizable, influential, a marriage of structure and aesthetics, sometimes fresh and sometimes passé.
Which means it is always up for critique—a lot of those old blogs were, objectively, corny as hell!—as well as revival. In 2017, deposed Gawker blogfather Nick Denton predicted at South by Southwest that “the Good Internet will rise up again.” And in some places it already has: Matt Levine’s Bloomberg newsletters are the platonic ideal of the form. Podcasts—another technology buoyed early on by RSS—have that mix of collegiality and conflict that once made blogs so readable. Slack and Discord conversations carry the DNA of both ’90s IRC chat rooms and ’00s comment sections. You want unedited independent voices? Hello, Substack! You’re looking for zany collaboration? We live in a golden age of DIY Ratatouille musicals!!! It’s easy to gaze back over the smoldering ruins of websites past, or to get overwhelmed by where we find ourselves in the über-corporate and volatile digital present. But there are also a lot of people—a lot of skilled, diverse, outrageous people—for whom the online experience is one of plowing forward. Perhaps some of these talented teens on TikTok have a lot of Good Internet in them to share yet.
It’s the year 2001, and I can’t get enough of the internet. Ever since my family got our first modem in the mid-’90s, I have poured all my energies into exploring this strange new cyberspace, operating with the giddy abandon of a kid running through each room in a new house but also the lurking stealth of a shark nosing around, searching for cracks and vulnerabilities in its enclosure. Prodigy and AOL and eWorld discs? Installed ’em all! My dad’s credit card number? Memorized, baby! It has come to a point where a great deal of my human existence has revolved around my strange, and occasionally secretive, online life.
I have been employed by a dot-com chat room startup, and pictured in BusinessWeek, and have traveled to the MacWorld expo multiple times and in multiple cities, basically following Steve Jobs around as if he were the frontman of a band. I have earned stock options that rocketed before expiring totally worthless; I have abided by child labor laws governing the number of hours I could be paid to be a mod. I have acquired jam band concert bootlegs via Usenet and won auctions for NHL light switch covers on eBay. I have lied about my age and my circumstances—though not my name—on message boards and in chat rooms; I have gone so far as to meet men from the internet under these false pretenses. I have lied, mostly by omission, to my IRL best friends about all of this. I am 17 going on 18 years old, a senior in high school.
As a joint graduation/birthday present I receive my first cellphone, a baby-blue Nokia. All the dorms at college are equipped with the latest in Ethernet port technology. Wikipedia is brand spanking new. Facebook and YouTube don’t exist, though by the time I graduate, both will. In 2004, during the summer financial analyst internship that will turn into my first job, I will watch as CNBC covers the news of Google going public for just shy of $2 billion. For several years I will use my company’s mail trays to send back my red Netflix DVD envelopes and feel a small sense of wonder, a little jolt of this is the future, every time the system works.
My roommate will sit down to use my computer to look up some crush or another on Facebook one night and then tease me when my internet browser, upon launch, automatically populates about a dozen tabs’ worth of all my favorite sports and political and entertainment websites. Ah, me and my blogs! Looking for a better system, I will find Google Reader. Over the years—some of them the most formative of my life—I will use it, clicking and scrolling, scrolling and clicking. I will grow overwhelmed by how much there always is that I haven’t yet read, the same way I feel when I enter a bookstore or eye the New Yorkers stacked up at home. I will scroll until I’m certain that I’ve reached the very end of the internet itself, like Jim Carrey at the end of The Truman Show, bumping up against the outer edge of my world.
At some point over the years, Google Reader will start asking me whether I want to sort by magic. I do, and I will click yes. Years later, I’ll still chase that magic, even as I wonder whether it ever existed at all.