How the Internet Turned Us Into Content Machines

In the beginning, there was the egg. In January of 2019, an Instagram account called @world_record_egg posted a stock photo of a plain brown chicken egg and launched a campaign to get the photo more likes than any online image had before. The record holder at the time was an Instagram shot of Kylie Jenner’s daughter, Stormi, which had more than eighteen million likes. In ten days, the egg’s like count rocketed beyond thirty million. It remains at the top of the chart to this day, with more than fifty-five million. The account’s creators, who came from the advertising industry, later teamed up with Hulu for a mental-health P.S.A. in which the egg “cracked” owing to the pressures of social media. The egg’s arc was the epitome of a certain kind of contemporary Internet success: gather a big enough audience around something—anything—and you can sell it off to someone.

For Kate Eichhorn, a media historian and a professor at the New School, the Instagram egg is representative of what we call “content,” a ubiquitous yet difficult-to-define word. Content is digital material that “may circulate solely for the purpose of circulating,” Eichhorn writes in her new book, “Content,” which is part of M.I.T. Press’s “Essential Knowledge” series of pithy monographs. In other words, such content is vapid by design, the better to travel across digital spaces. “Genre, medium, and format are secondary concerns and, in some instances, they seem to disappear entirely.” One piece of intellectual property inspires a feeding frenzy of podcast, documentary, and miniseries offshoots. Single episodes of streaming-service TV can run as long as a movie. Visual artists’ paintings appear on social media alongside their influencer-style vacation photos. All are part of what Eichhorn calls the “content industry,” which has grown to encompass just about everything we consume online. Evoking the overwhelming flood of text, audio, and video that fills our feeds, Eichhorn writes, “Content is part of a single and indistinguishable flow.”

Over the past decade, a number of books have tried to take stock of how the Internet is influencing us, and what we should do about it. Eli Pariser’s “The Filter Bubble,” from 2011, demonstrated, early on, the homogenizing effects of digital feeds. After Facebook and its ilk became much more mainstream, the pioneering technologist Jaron Lanier wrote a book called “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” (2018). Shoshana Zuboff’s book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” published in the U.S. in 2019, diagrammed the systemic problems of mass data absorption. Eichhorn’s is one of a new crop of books that focus their attention on the user experience more directly, diagnosing the increasingly dysfunctional relationship between lone individual and virtual crowd.

Once upon a time, the Internet was predicated on user-generated content. The hope was that ordinary people would take advantage of the Web’s low barrier for publishing to post great things, motivated simply by the joy of open communication. We know now that it didn’t quite pan out that way. User-generated GeoCities pages or blogs gave way to monetized content. Google made the Internet more easily searchable, but, in the early two-thousands, it also began selling ads and allowed other Web sites to easily incorporate its advertising modules. That business model is still what most of the Internet relies on today. Revenue comes not necessarily from the value of content itself but from its ability to attract attention, to get eyeballs on ads, which are most often bought and sold through corporations like Google and Facebook. The rise of social networks in the twenty-tens only made this model more dominant. Our digital posting became concentrated on a few all-encompassing platforms, which relied increasingly on algorithmic feeds. The result for users was more exposure but a loss of agency. We generated content for free, and then Facebook mined it for profit.

“Clickbait” has long been the term for misleading, shallow online articles that exist only to sell ads. But on today’s Internet the term could describe content across every field, from the unmarked ads on an influencer’s Instagram page to pseudonymous pop music designed to game the Spotify algorithm. Eichhorn uses the potent term “content capital”—a riff on Pierre Bourdieu’s “cultural capital”—to describe the way in which a fluency in posting online can determine the success, or even the existence, of an artist’s work. Where “cultural capital” describes how particular tastes and reference points confer status, “content capital” connotes an aptitude for creating the kind of ancillary content that the Internet feeds upon. Since so much audience attention is funnelled through social media, the most direct path to success is to cultivate a large digital following. “Cultural producers who, in the past, may have focused on writing books or producing films or making art must now also spend considerable time producing (or paying someone else to produce) content about themselves and their work,” Eichhorn writes. Pop stars log their daily routines on TikTok. Journalists spout banal opinions on Twitter. The best-selling Instapoet Rupi Kaur posts reels and photos of her typewritten poems. All are trapped by the daily pressure to produce ancillary content—memes, selfies, shitposts—to fill an endless void.

The dynamics Eichhorn describes will be familiar to anyone who uses social media with any regularity. She doesn’t break ground in our understanding of the Internet so much as clarify, in eloquently blunt terms, how it has created a brutal race to the bottom. We know that what we post and consume on social media feels increasingly empty, and yet we are powerless to stop it. Perhaps if we had better language for the problem, it would be easier to solve. “Content begets content,” Eichhorn writes. As with the Instagram egg, the best way to accrue more content capital is to already have it.

Eichhorn’s sense of a path forward is unclear. She briefly notes the idea of “content resisters,” who might consume vinyl records and photocopied zines instead of Spotify and Instagram. But such solutions seem quaint, given the degree to which the Internet is embedded in our daily lives and experiences. Like so many technologies that came before, it seems to be here to stay; the question is not how to escape it but how to understand ourselves in its inescapable wake. In his new book, “The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is,” Justin E. H. Smith, a professor of philosophy at the Université Paris Cité, argues that “the present situation is intolerable, but there is also no going back.” Too much of human experience has been flattened into a single “technological portal,” Smith writes. “The more you use the Internet, the more your individuality warps into a brand, and your subjectivity transforms into an algorithmically plottable vector of activity.”

According to Smith, the Internet actually limits attention, in the sense of a deep aesthetic experience that changes the person who is engaging. The business model of digital advertising only incentivizes brief, shallow interactions—the gaze of a consumer primed to absorb a logo or brand name and not much else. Our feeds are designed to “prod the would-be attender ever onward from one monetizable object to the next,” he writes. This has had a deadening effect on all kinds of culture, from Marvel blockbusters that optimize for attention minute to minute, to automated Spotify recommendations that push one similar song after another. Cultural products and consumer habits alike increasingly conform to the structures of digital spaces.

“The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is” begins as a negative critique of online life, particularly as seen from the perspective of academia, an industry that is one of its disrupted victims. But the book’s second half progresses into deeper philosophical inquiries. Rather than a tool, the Internet might best be seen as a “living system,” Smith writes. It is the fulfillment of a centuries-old human aspiration toward interconnectivity—albeit a disappointing one. Smith recounts the story of the Frenchman Jules Allix, who, in the mid-nineteenth century, popularized a kind of organic Internet made out of snails. Perhaps drawing upon the physician Franz Mesmer’s theory of “animal magnetism,” which postulated the existence of a universal magnetic force connecting living things, it was predicated upon the idea that any two snails that had copulated remained linked across great distances. The technology—a telegraph-like device that used snails to purportedly send messages—was a failure, but the dream of instantaneous, wireless communication remained until humanity achieved it, perhaps to our own detriment.

Smith hunts for the most effective metaphor for the Internet, a concept that encompasses more than the vacuity of “content” and the addictiveness of the “attention economy.” Is it like a postcoital-snail telegraph? Or like a Renaissance-era wheel device that allowed readers to browse multiple books at once? Or perhaps like a loom that weaves together souls? He doesn’t quite land on an answer, though he ends by recognizing that the interface of the Internet, and the keyboard that gives him access to it, is less an external device than an extension of his questing mind. To understand the networked self, we must first understand the self, which is a ceaseless endeavor. The ultimate problem of the Internet might stem not from the discrete technology but from the Frankensteinian way in which humanity’s invention has exceeded our own capacities. In a sense, the Instagram egg has yet to fully hatch.