These days, I lean heavily on Ryan Broderick’s Garbage Day newsletter to know what’s going on in the areas of social media I don’t pay much attention to. In other words, TikTok, Instagram, and… well, most of it.
However, as Broderick himself points out, nobody really knows what’s going on, and there is no centre, due to the fragmentation of the (social) web. This used to be called ‘balkanization’ but because the 1990s is a long time ago, Broderick has coined the term ‘the Vapor Web’. He claims we’re in a ‘post-viral’ time.
I don’t think ‘The Vapor Web’ will catch on as a term, though. At least not amongst British people and Canadians. We like our ‘u’ too much ;)
My big unified theory of the internet is that the way we use the web is constantly being redefined by conflict and disaster. I brought this up in an interview with Bloomberg last month. If you look back at particularly big years for the web — 2001, the stretch from 2010 to 2012, 2016, 2020, etc. — you typically find moments of big global upheaval arriving right as a suite of new digital tools reach an inflection point with users. Then, suddenly, we have a new way of being online.
Unlike previous global conflicts, however, this time around, the defining narrative about online behavior is not just that there is, seemingly, an absence of it, but that it also still, partially, works the way it did 10 years ago. Every millennial is experiencing an overwhelming feeling that, as WIRED recently wrote, “first-gen social media users have nowhere to go,” but that’s not actually true. It’s just that TikTok is where everyone is and TikTok doesn’t work like Facebook or even YouTube. Which is why the White House is agonizing over the popularity of TikTok hashtags right now instead of canceling my student loan debt.
Let’s do one more, to bring us back to Israel and Palestine. In the last 120 days, the #Israel hashtag has been used around 220,000 times and been viewed three billion times. The #Palestine hashtag has been used 230,000 times and has been viewed around two billion times. Yes, Palestine is slightly more popular on TikTok, but nothing out of line with what outlets like NPR have found by, you know, actually polling Americans along political and generational lines. To say nothing of how minuscule these numbers are when compared to how large TikTok is.
Which is to say that the internet doesn’t make sense in aggregate anymore and trying to view it as a monolith only gives you bad, confusing, and, oftentimes, wrong impressions of what’s actually going on.
The best descriptions of the current state of the web right now were both actually published months before the fighting in the Middle East broke out and written about a completely different topic. Semafor’s Max Tani coined the term, “the fragmentation election,” which was a riff on writer John Herrman’s similar idea, the “nowhere election”. Tani points to declining media institutions and dying platforms as the culprit for all the amorphousness online. And Herrman latches on podcasts and indie media. Both are true, but I think those are all just symptoms. And so, to piggyback off both of them, and go a bit broader (as I typically do), I’m going to call our current moment the Vapor Web. Because there is actually more internet with more happening on it — and with bigger geopolitical stakes — than ever before. And yet, it’s nearly impossible to grab ahold of it because none of it adds up into anything coherent. Simply put, we’re post-viral now.