Our Endless Search For The Internet’s Defining Moment

With every news event, a scramble to redefine the entire internet.

Nobody thinks twice when they see someone claim of a story or photo or person: “This is why I love the internet.” Its inverse comes just as easily: This is why I hate the internet.

There are innumerable reasons to love the unprecedented ability to connect, share, find, buy, and sell that we experience when using the internet; likewise, it’s through the internet that we can find endless reasons to be angry, or fearful, or to just feel bad. And yet that statement — “this is why I love the internet” — is a profoundly strange one. The internet is so vast it defies categorization. And yet, as long as it has existed, its users have had an insatiable desire to exalt, vilify and, classify it.

Yesterday, Justine Sacco, a now-former IAC (InterActivCorp.) PR representative, tweeted a racist joke (whose intent she hasn’t yet explained) before boarding a long international flight without internet access. This created a kind of reality TV finale, played out almost entirely on Twitter. The event, which was quickly immortalized with its own hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet, was captivating and unnerving. Twitter’s soon-to-be chief of news weighed in:

Others, of course, saw it as a reason to love the internet.

Events like this, which on the surface seem to transpire and exist almost exclusively online, create an irresistible urge to blame or give credit not just to their players, but to the internet as a whole. Last night a quick search through Twitter revealed hundreds of people, myself included, grasping to redefine the service, and the internet in general, through the narrow, distorted lens of this specific event.

“The internet is a tool for defining itself.” There. See how easy that was? And how little it actually means?

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, amid a particularly chaotic and messy explosion of rumors and corrections, John Herrman wrote on BuzzFeed :

Twitter beckons us to join every compressed news cycle, to confront every rumor or falsehood, and to see everything. This is what makes the service so maddening during the meta-obsessed election season, where the stakes are unclear and the consequences abstract. And it’s also what makes it so valuable during fast-moving, decidedly real disasters.

Perhaps “beckon” was the wrong word here. The internet’s existence causes us to join discussions — at a certain size, they develop a gravity of their own, regardless of their virtues or stakes — but the medium of the web has no real agency or intentions. I challenge anyone to find evidence of the essential character of the internet in what happened last night.

What does this entire Justine Sacco ordeal actually tell us about the internet? Not much. It tells us something about race, about humor, and about professional expectations. It tells us about private and public personas. It says something about our collective mob mentality, and reveals a good bit about our disturbing inclination to take pleasure in someone else’s pain. It tells us something about Justine Sacco, but not much. To reduce it to a property of the internet is a nearsighted, and a mistake.

The internet is not “the best” or “the worst.” It contains objects and people that are world-changing, supremely important, troublesome, inequitable, awe-inspiring and deeply weird, all at once. It is, more and more, a direct reflection of our reality and humanity.

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