No Free Fun Online

And Brad saw everything he had posted, favorited, bookmarked, blogged, coded, tweeted, Facebook’d, TikTok’d, Insta’d, MySpace’d, Xanga’d, Tumblr’d, AIM’d, and YouTube’d, and behold, he was very bored.

I’m going to have to repent for that appropriation of Genesis—I’m not Catholic, so no drooping into a confessional booth to bare my soul. Instead, in perfect prot fashion, I’ll cut the middleman and simply request shrift from the Almighty Himself. (Is it really a wonder why Weber conjugated Protestant with an efficient work ethic?)

Brad may be short for Bradford, as in Bradford Pearson, “features” editor for Philadelphia magazine. I could deep-dive Google query Mr. Pearson to find out if he prefers the curtailed “Brad,” as opposed to his full baptismal name. But then I’d get distracted by pop-up videos featuring the new “Loki” series or eBay listings for vintage Pokémon cards that I my kids would… *ahem*… enjoy. So I’ll demur from another bottomless search wormhole for now.

“The internet, by design, subverts patience and concentration,” asserted Nicholas Carr. That’s certainly true about us inveterate online orderers, easily bedazzled by push alerts for 20% off antiquarian books on our “watch” lists. But it’s not true for Pearson—not one byte. He’s bored of the internet. Actually bored. Languishing in an infinity pool of flashing graphics, screaming videos, addictive games, and whirling digits offering up his every need for a low annual fee that includes two-day free shipping.

In a viral tweet, Bored Stiff Brad declared, “I’m 38 years old and I think this is the first time in my internet-using life that there’s just, like, nothing fun to do online anymore. I open a web browser and just sit there with nowhere to go.”

He obviously had somewhere to go—Twitter, or what online obsessive Elon Musk impetuously renamed “X,” to vent about his browsing ennui. One tweet does not a column make, of course. But Bradford’s unamused musing drew affirming head nods from a handful of commentators I personally find ear-battingly annoying, including nerd anchor Chris Hayes and ditzy trust-funder Molly Jong-Fast, MSNBC prattle heads both. Another Twitter user piggybacked off Pearson’s gripe to launch a full-on Marxist critique of cyberspace: “I’ve been thinking about this and it’s a quietly radicalizing realization that rapacious profit seeking has hollowed out so much of what’s fun and community enhancing in our society. So many things just stopped existing because they don’t return 300% to awful people.”

Off the bat, I can think of many long-lasting things that still “exist” because they don’t provide an ungodly 300% to investors. How about McDonald’s franchises, car dealerships, nurseries, family farms, florists, and greengrocers? (I nearly listed the Hallmark store, but then remembered the markup on Peanuts Halloween decor. Maybe Marx wasn’t all wrong about cheap-labor exploitation.)

It’s always nice to see an innocent post hoc fallacy grazing in the world wide digital wilds. Pearson and his like-minded internet critics seem to think capitalism chased away everything cool about, to invoke the late ‘90s phrase, surfing the web. They’re understanding of what the internet is is not just a naive throwback to the techno-optimism of the PayPal Mafia, but a clear category error.

A globalized network of interconnected interfaces initially constructed by military-aligned firms was never meant to be a Platonic portal for wisdom. Sure, some nerds with too much time on their hands created deeply archived chat boards in the early noughties that gave the illusion of the internet as an open-air library, a thought-sharing salon, an arena for debate, mainly about the best Dungeons & Dragons quests. But chatting with other hobbyists was a byproduct of the web. The real purpose—the teleology of the internet, if you will—is data collection. The largest, most monolithic internet giants today run on incalculable troves of user info to do the most basic of human activities: sell, sell, sell!

Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, the whole FAANGing bunch, including their subsidiaries, aren’t here for free fun. They collate your every browser move, click, view, like, share, comment, name, address, and credit-card number, then shove a bunch of bright, circular-style ads in your transfixed face.

Like a picture of your friend’s baby on Facebook? Get ready for Huggies ads. “Heart” a picture of two dogs snuggling on Instagram? Here come kibble discounts. Watch more than 5 seconds of a clip showing President Biden tripping over a pebble? Hope you like Ben Shapiro hawking overpriced razors in your inbox.

Targeted advertising didn’t ruin the internet—it was the internet’s purpose from the start. Even the much ballyhooed “web3,” with its decentralized binary blockchain and fake currencies, is based around commercial ease. As Matthew Walther wrote, “The internet… was always envisioned by the military industrial complex responsible for its creation as a tool for surveillance.” Panopticon’s gonna Panopticon. All while Walmart serves you gleaming adverts for whatever trademarked product you happen to brush past with your trackpad.

Forums for every abstruse interest, niche nostalgic remembrance, baroque sexuality, and offbeat identities are still open. And we as an incorrigibly damned society still let fanfiction.net exist. The display ads that populate half your monitor frame on every single web page you visit are just the price of admission. As the old, pre-internet saying goes, if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.

Marks, all. The internet in two words. Sure beats the late Ted Stevens’s tubular definition.

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Free the People publishes opinion-based articles from contributing writers. The opinions and ideas expressed do not always reflect the opinions and ideas that Free the People endorses. We believe in free speech, and in providing a platform for open dialog. Feel free to leave a comment!

Taylor Lewis

Taylor Lewis writes from Virginia.

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