Is the internet dead? Proponents of the Dead Internet Theory believe that the internet, as we understand it, doesn’t exist. It died around 2016, and since then, everything we see online, from Instagram pictures to this post on Lifehacker, has been generated by artificial intelligence and fed to consumers by a shadowy cabal of corporate CEOs and governments in order to control people’s thoughts and keep them consuming. They’re partly right, but the things they get wrong are dangerous.
The history of the Dead Internet Theory
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Ground zero for the spread of the Dead Internet theory is a September 2019 thread on 4chan where anonymous users put their heads together to try to figure out how much of the internet is legit. They concluded that it’s almost all fake, but it used to be real. The evidence on the thread is internet-spotty—younger people having the feelings that something just isn’t right, older users remembering the glory days of the early Internet—but 4chan’s posters managed to draw a rough sketch of a conversation that’s been going on in academic and technology circles since at least 2010. Anyone paying attention could see that advances in AI technology and the rise of content-curating algorithms are changing the internet from a digital Wild West to something “safer,” blander, and perhaps more sinister. But the transformation isn’t complete, and it’s not evidence of a top-down imposition of “The Man’s” sinister plans, as most Dead Internet Theory people believe.
The problem with the Dead Internet Theory isn’t that it’s totally wrong—bots and algorithms really are changing the online experience in fundamental ways—but some proponents of the dead internet theory are ignoring context and drawing unwarranted conclusions to support a larger narrative that isn’t supported by evidence—like any conspiracy theory. Also like any conspiracy theory, the dead internet theory is being used to justify prejudice and hatred.
The internet is this way because people like it this way
It’s easy to wax nostalgic for the days when anything could be posted anywhere on the internet. It was free! It wasn’t designed to sell you things! But people who do this weren’t there, or they’re viewing what there was like through rose-colored glasses. In reality, the online world, as a whole, is going through a larger version of the process that just about every internet space has always gone through when it gained popularity.
It goes like this: Some small group gathers somewhere to exchange ideas in a totally free, anything goes environment. It’s cool, but messy—lots of new, challenging ideas, but no real means of filtering them.
The space eventually gets noticed by more people, and some of these newbies are bad actors—spammers, trolls, or worse—and their conversations and ideas starts to crowd out the original posters and the space becomes unpleasant and unusable.
This leaves the people who run the site with a choice: They can either hold to the ideals of “free speech” and let everyone be free to do what they want, or they can impose some rules and organization to try to preserve what people originally liked about the space.
Neither option is great. If they take a hands-off approach, the space becomes the property of the trolls and bad actors, driving the original population elsewhere (see: 4chan). If they moderate and put up safety rails, they lose the freedom that made the place interesting to begin with, and the space ends up a watered-down, dumber place. It’s welcoming to new users, as long as they’re non-controversial (see: Reddit).
The problem is, those “new users” who prefer safety and security over anarchy represent almost everyone. I think it’s fair to say that most people would pick an algorithmically curated feed of “videos that I would probably like” on YouTube over being left in the middle of GeoCities and told “dig something useful out of this gigantic mountain of crap.”
The existence of the dead internet theory proves it’s false
If there were really a central power controlling everything on the internet, you’d think videos and articles explaining the Dead Internet Theory would be excluded by the algorithm, lest the sheeple finally wake up. But it’s not hard to find information about the grand plan (or any other conspiracy theory) because people can make money from it in a way that they can’t make money from hate-speech and trolling.
For believers, conspiracy theories are enraging without being challenging. The anger over the unfairness of the bad people in control of our lives is addictive, and algorithms have been fine-tuned to keep people watching and clicking. That creepy science forces us all into smaller and smaller ideological echo chambers, but there’s no central power looking down on us and saying, “Good! Now they’ll be compliant!” There’s just us, and our prejudices and our messiness, and the people profiting off us by giving us exactly what we want.
The rise of the NPC
One of the harmful offshoots of the Dead Internet theory is the idea of the NPC. Taken from the initials of “non-player character,” darker, dumber corners of the internet have been describing people they disagree with as NPCs since the meme first appeared on 4chan (of course) in 2016. According to the theory, most people aren’t fully human. Instead of thinking for themselves, they’re programmed to “follow group-think and social trends in order to appear convincingly human.”
While most people who started thinking of others as NPCs meant it in the “they’re just brainwashed sheeple” sense that’s so common among stupid people with “ideas,” some Dead Internet Theory conspiracy theorists take it literally. They believe that anyone who disagrees with them online is an AI. Dehumanizing ideological enemies is a troubling step toward political violence, but in the Dead Internet sense it’s also a contradiction. If you long for the freedom of ideas that you think the internet once stood for, why would you not welcome people with challenging ideas? If you like freedom, why create a worldview where waving away inconvenient facts is easy as saying “that’s just what the machines want you to believe!”
Solipsism and the Dead Internet
At its core, the Dead Internet Theory is a kind of digital solipsism—the idea that the self is the only thing that exists. Solipsism can’t really be disproven, but it’s hard to take seriously when you’re talking to another flesh-and-blood person. If you perpetually live online, where tools already exist for computers to fool most of the people, most of the time, it’s easy to believe that those tools are being employed always. They aren’t—I’m a real guy who really wrote these words—but as more and more of the human element of the internet is replaced by computer programs, the terrifying vision of a Dead Internet may come to exist. But we have at least six months, so don’t sweat it.