Every generation grows up with a cultural decade of yore. A better time, hyped up to the point of fiction, used as a barometer to make the next generation aware that it just “ain't the way that it used to be”—a starting point for moodboards and nostalgia-porn.
As a Zillennial—born in the mid-'90s but growing up in the turn of the century—that cultural decade was the ‘80s. It was a wild time before the Internet collapsed the distance between us all, before the constant panopticon of Big Tech, and yes, before cell phones became the window through which we observed our world. I may not be old enough to have lived through the 80s, but we’ve all collectively lived very much in its wake: through music, movies, television, and stories.
As we approach the halfway point of this current decade, it’s hard to imagine a time plagued by more uncertainty and doubt. Everything feels like it’s barely holding together; if it hasn’t literally and figuratively already fallen apart. In hindsight, it was inevitable. And just a decade ago, our collective ‘tomorrow’ felt as if it were on track to a brighter, better future.
And no promise was greater than the Internet.
Yorecore: Nostalgia for the 2010s
The '80s were marked by a burst of cultural and technological innovations—think neon-lit arcades, the Walkman personalizing audio, and television becoming a household staple—the 2010s were defined by their own digital breakthroughs. The Internet became the new playground where creativity met connectivity. Every click promised new discovery, and new social media platforms weren't just tools for connections, but canvases for culture.
We now go online to consume and be consumed.
In the ‘10s, the Internet felt big. Massive, even. You could spend hours clicking deeper and deeper into StumbleUpon, a network of sites that randomly took you to new and weird corners of the web (may it rest in peace), and end up on far corners of the Internet. Now, almost all Internet traffic is consolidated to a handful of platforms, and we have become like digital polar bears, standing on increasingly smaller and smaller ice floes of virtual real estate.
Speaking of platforms, social media felt… fun. Before being used as a psy-op for swaying elections or a bottomless dopamine pit, social felt like a digital third space to hang out with your friends and meet people. Facebook and its soon-to-be adopted sibling Instagram, dare I say it, were cool—way before your aunt and uncle invaded the space and made it decidedly un-cool.
The term ‘social network’ itself felt apt: platforms that facilitated social interactions between actors that ranged from your current crush to someone you met on a cruise ship that one time. They were a way to foster connections to take offline and into the real world. It’s difficult to imagine how the term ‘social network’ applies anymore.
We now go online to consume and be consumed, in ever-personalized digital shopping malls powered by our personal data. Big Tech’s incentives have become so perverse that any time you spend off of your phone is lost profit, and missed opportunities to inject ad inventory directly into your eyeballs. Your precious attention is sold to the highest bidder. Don’t be present, scroll, damn it.
Them Days Are Gone
It seems crass to say now, but in the ‘10s, Internet startups capitalizing on this world-changing opportunity weren’t as focused on making money as they were on disruptive growth— and consumers’ pockets benefitted in turn. An abundance of VC dollars, a zero-interest rate policy (ZIRP) environment, and a ‘grow at all costs’ mentality meant that we enjoyed a blanket Millennial Subsidy: Airbnb getaways that cost a fraction of a hotel stay, free Uber ride credits to zip around town, and a seemingly endless library of film and television for a sum of money that could be scrounged from between your pillow cushions.
As much as the two decades—the 1980s and the 2010s—parallel each other in their advancements, their dissimilarities are equally telling. The 1980s, with its physical gadgets and gizmos, offered a sense of tangibility; you could touch a vinyl record and feel the buttons of a video game console. Meanwhile, the 2010s ushered in an age of digital intangibility—where experiences, connections, and even identities became cloud-based and ethereal. This shift from the physical to the virtual realm, while revolutionary, also brought with it a sense of loss. The personal, tactile experiences of the '80s gave way to the impersonal efficiency, hyperscale model of the 2010s.
This may have been the Big Opportunity to create new, personal brands.
The direct-to-consumer (DTC) wave had not yet hit critical mass, and new brands felt exciting. What followed was a Cambrian Explosion of brands; so much so that we needed curatorial media in order to consume better. Every week, someone would bring up a consumer brand in conversation, and we’d be shocked that “there’s a brand for that?”. The real world had stores with limited shelf space. Curation was required. The Internet brought to us an infinite shelf, and venture dollars answered with DTC plungers.
The point here is that the Internet's infinite possibilities delivered on its promise for a short time—only for as long as it remained commercially unsuccessful. The advent of Meta’s advertising platform and the aggregation of audience attention to a handful of social media sites and news sources had a chilling effect on internet culture; for ten years it made the Internet the default place to begin a business, and insodoing it homogenized the Web. The diverse tapestry of weird and wonderful websites was channeled into weird and wonderful brands; with surprisingly little creativity or diversity in the ways and channels in which they were marketed and sold.
The boringness of the Internet also had an effect on culture, and in turn, the workplace. Previously, taboo categories like sexual wellness were pushed into the mainstream, and corporate pitch decks used words like “vibrator” and the “pleasure gap” freely, when only years before, these very searches could have sent you to an awkward conversation with HR.
Let’s not forget the “millennial aesthetic”—a cocktail of cute pastels, sans-serif fonts, and curated minimalism—it felt premium, and it was fresh. We ate it all up. It’s easy, in hindsight, to trash-talk the wave of ‘blands’ that were churned out by a cabal of coastal creative agencies; but at the time, it felt like we finally had brands that were built by us, for us. This ain’t your mother’s mattress company, this is a Casper.
They Don't Make 'em Like They Used To
Looking back, the shift from the physical to the virtual across these past thirty years, while revolutionary, has also brought with it a sense of loss. The personal, tactile experiences of the '80s gave way to the impersonal efficiency of the 2010s' digital realm. Is it any wonder we’re in a loneliness epidemic and loss of third spaces? Where once there was a diversity of platforms and websites, akin to the myriad subcultures of the '80s, the 2010s saw a consolidation, a homogenization of the digital landscape, echoing the commercialization and mainstreaming that eventually overtook the vibrant countercultures of the '80s.
I’m not an old crank, luddite, or pessimist. On the contrary; every day I’m inspired and optimistic about what can be built online. Incredible things are happening everywhere if you know where to look and you’re not afraid to step beyond the trodden lines.
But, man, the Internet just ain’t the way it used to be.