The Internet I Admired is Dead
Just a few weeks ago, the Internet I admired passed away. This happened on April 20th, when Twitter took away the blue “verified” checkmark that signified that you were really who you said.
I had one of those checkmarks. I sent Twitter a scan of my driver’s license to prove I was me. The checkmark’s gone now, and I felt a twinge when they took it away, because I thought I had earned it. Twitter trusted me to be me and I trusted Twitter.
It’s not just a blue checkmark that I’m missing, it’s the trust and safety that the blue checkmark represented. On the Internet, anybody can be anybody, and this was never proven more completely when Elon Musk abolished the legacy checkmarks and replaced them with a blue checkmark that you could buy. Fake accounts, with paid-for blue checkmarks, appeared for New York Governor Kathy Hochul and New York’s Mayor Eric Adams. Eventually, Twitter gave a Kathy Hochul account a gray checkmark, but there is another with her name on it without verification. Some IRS accounts on Twitter have gray verification checkmarks, while others don’t.
Accounts that you’d like to trust, like the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, and New Jersey Transit, aren’t verified. An account that says it’s the Santa Monica PD doesn’t have a verification checkmark.
Technology is the heart of everything, and when online identity breaks down, the social contract also breaks. The next time wildfires hit California, I won’t know which Twitter account to believe when I look for rapid response information. When a celebrity or government official uses Twitter to make an announcement, I’ll wonder if it’s true or an imposter having some fun. (Last November, an account impersonating Nintendo of America tweeted a picture of Mario giving the world the finger. Nice.)
This would be funny if it weren’t sad. There was a time when I valued the Internet for the people I would meet. If someone had a passion for Gibson guitars, Japanese-made pencils, handmade computer keyboards, or annotating the dreams of Vladimir Nabokov, I could find them and we could compare notes. If I wrote a blog, there would be comments (thoughtful comments!) from friends and strangers. We would have online conversations that crossed time and distance. I could chat with a client in Adelaide, or follow along with a tennis match in Paris. It all sounds innocent now, and maybe boring. But those moments are lost.
Twitter has often been nasty, and the next wave of nasty is coming. Deepfakes can simulate reality. There was a fake photo online of the Pope wearing a white Balenciaga puffer jacket. It went viral. There have been faked videos of Nancy Pelosi slurring her words and Joe Biden mangling sentences, and faked audio recordings of Steve Jobs speaking platitudes.
There is coming a time, pretty soon, when you won’t be able to trust the person on the other end of your phone call, your email, or even your video call, unless you know them well.
This might mean a renaissance to taking meetings in person, not only to get the vibe of the person facing you across your barista drinks and to capture the nuances that pixels can’t offer on a screen, but also verify that they really are who they say. Maybe this isn’t as weird, or as bad, as it sounds. Trusting our instincts about people, exercising that muscle again, will be valuable.
The Internet is Dead. Long Live the Internet.
Let’s pour one out for the Twitter we knew (dying, probably bankrupt within six months), BuzzFeed News (already dead), answering the phone when it says Unknown Caller (a robocall), newspapers (a quarter of all US newspapers have died in the past fifteen years), and Vice (close to bankruptcy) and say hello to — what?
I’ve written about Mastodon before; I like its friendly earnestness. And I got an invite to Bluesky, Jack Dorsey’s “Twitter replacement,” and I have to admit it brings the same silliness that Twitter brought, and sucks down time just as agreeably.
But say we don’t want to waste any more time online. Is there a better way? What about serialized stories that play out over Instagram and email? Question Mark, Ohio, is one such project, created by Dan Sinker and Joe Meno. There’s a website that shows off everything about the town, from local concerts to local government, and an Instagram feed that breaks out stories into smaller pieces. I tried something like this with two short form fiction series, Computational Error and The Counter Narrative.
Novelist Matt Gemmell will send you a new story every week if you subscribe to his newsletter. Matt is the guest on the FutureX Podcast this week.
Lexi B, who is the guest on the podcast next week, will invite you to a live Coffee Chat on LinkedIn to discuss how to optimize your career.
It’s not over. The Internet that I knew is dead. There is a new one being born.
Sources and References
Blue Checkmark Chaos, From The Hill
Twitter Impersonators, from Yahoo News
Pope Puffer Jacket, from Slate
Vice Media considering bankruptcy, from MSN
What is Bluesky and How Do You Join, from ABC News
Question Mark, Ohio
Novelist Matt Gemmell will send you a new story.
Lexi B, who is the guest on the podcast next week, will invite you to a live Coffee Chat on LinkedIn.
Short form fiction series, Computational Error and The Counter Narrative.