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Everyday users are complaining that the internet is more chaotic than ever

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If you've been on the internet lately, you might have noticed that something seems different. Search results are increasingly full of junk. Social media feeds are mucked up with spam. Maybe you have wondered what's going on. NPR tech correspondent Bobby Allyn had the same question.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: There are few people more chronically online than Choire Sicha. He's the former editor-in-chief of the website Gawker. He's now an editor at New York Magazine, and he's always scrolling. Not too long ago, he got COVID and wanted to know how badly the virus was spreading and when he could return to work.

CHOIRE SICHA: I literally couldn't - I just gave up. Like, it was just dead links and random spam and just sponsored garbage and old pages. It was just absolute nonsense.

ALLYN: Sicha is not alone. More and more, both professional observers like Sicha and everyday users are complaining that the internet is more chaotic than ever, and it's not just a handful of anecdotes. Experts say there is a real shift underway. The quality of online platforms is degrading. Yet, for the big ones at least, most people feel like they have no other choice. Google is being inundated with AI-generated clickbait, and social media feels like an online shopping mall. Zizi Papacharissi studies internet trends at the University of Illinois Chicago.

ZIZI PAPACHARISSI: Facebook, Instagram - many of these platforms have been excessively commercialized to the point where they lost their immediacy, the sense of place they afforded, the sense of community they facilitated, the sense of belonging they offered.

ALLYN: Facebook has driven away its youngest users. Elon Musk's changes to the platform formerly known as Twitter have led to an exodus. Papacharissi says people are moving away from posting publicly on social media.

PAPACHARISSI: They felt fake, you know? So people started turning elsewhere.

ALLYN: By elsewhere, Papacharissi means people are spending more time sending private direct messages and text messages, and they're flocking to smaller online communities found on sites like Reddit and Discord. It's more personal, less cluttered, and you probably won't run into creepy product placement. There's, of course, a downside, too, and it might sound like an old problem. Echo chamber, anyone?

MAX READ: If you retreat just to spaces where you're with people you already know, then you lose a lot of what made social media and makes a website like Twitter so fascinating and engaging, which is encountering new people and new ideas.

ALLYN: That's technology writer Max Read. He says, while being in a filter bubble is certainly nothing new, the algorithms that determine what people see on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube have gotten hyper-individualized.

READ: And then maybe you don't have the same kind of universal experience that you might have felt. And I would argue that this is not that different from if you were a frequent user of the internet in the 1990s or in the early 2000s.

ALLYN: Back when going online meant visiting an individual website. Imagine that - the time before Google, Amazon, Twitter, Instagram and the rest became the main tunnels we use to navigate the messy world of the internet. One thing New York Magazine editor Sicha has noticed - being new is no longer a priority on many social media feeds, which, he says, is adding to this moment of being disoriented online.

SICHA: Now TikTok, Instagram, even Twitter - stuff is days, weeks, months old when you see it. And it's wild because you're just seeing this thing, and you're, like, oh, well, this is happening. And that's not what that means anymore if you're just seeing it.

ALLYN: For Sicha, at least, one bright spot of the newly chaotic web has been, well, email.

SICHA: I got an email from an old friend the other day, and I was like, oh. Like, she had news, and she was, like - I was like, wow, I'm opening an email and answering it. This is like - this is wild. It was like a real flashback experience.

ALLYN: It says a lot about the state of the internet in 2024 if the best interaction you have online comes in the form of an email.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHARELL WILLIAMS AND KANYE WEST SONG, "NUMBER ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.