With just a few weeks left in the decade, there will inevitably be countdowns and lists marking the best and worst moments of the 2010s. But the end of good internet didn’t make it to the end of 2019. The good internet died on Dec 1. 2019, when the internet-famous cat Lil Bub passed away.
Since the world first logged on, a number of internet eras have come and gone. The chatroom and AIM era of the late ’90s was eventually replaced by networks like Livejournal, Myspace, and finally Facebook. Then came the era of the good internet, made possible by two pieces of technology: powerful phones with good cameras like the iPhone 4 and HTC Evo, and 4G /LTE wireless.
We logged on … everywhere
With the ability to record, watch, and upload videos, photos, and text from practically anywhere in the world, internet culture became everyday culture, impacting the real world beyond our tiny screens. Sure, internet culture bled into and affected social norms before, but relatively cheap and fast internet access at our fingertips meant for the first time that we were always online.
Facebook released a mobile app, Reddit truly became the frontpage of the internet, and thanks to the launch of Imgur in 2009, anyone could host images anonymously and free without needing to sign up for an account.
Tumblr allowed for endless hours of mindless scrolling, people checked in on Foursquare, and Twitter started to seem more accessible and less confusing.
This time on the web was fun. People were goofy and weird and awkward and cringey and nobody really knew how to present themselves online. Internet memes like Advice Animals and Rage Comics became a way of communicating through text and images.
People were sharing more and more about themselves online, building a social presence on newly released apps like Instagram (2010) and Snapchat (2011). And then there was Vine (2012), which launched a new wave of young new internet stars who ultimately became today’s “influencers,” like the Vlog Squad and the Paul brothers.
The viral star
Online media caught up and sites like BuzzFeed dominated by aggregating the viral internet. Mashable launched Watercooler in 2012, despite an uncountable number of comments telling us to “stick to tech.” That same year, CNN was rumored to be in talks to buy Mashable, a deal that never materialized. Facebook turned on the traffic faucet and the newsfeed was clogged with articles and listicles as venture capital money flowed into digital media. The viral internet was becoming big business.
With the rise of viral media came the viral media star. Dozens of personalities were launched to stardom for sometimes doing nothing at all. A single video, image, or screenshot could turn a normal person like Laina Morris into a meme like Overly Attached Girlfriend. Anyone could make tens of thousands of dollars with a single viral video.
And of course, there were the viral animal stars. The first big wave of viral animals were, well, a little fucked up. Grumpy Cat, who was born with feline dwarfism, was catapulted to stardom in September 2012 and became a global star worth millions of dollars. Lil Bub and her flappy tongue launched a YouTube channel in November 2011, and became positive force on the internet by using her star power to raise money for animals in need. By 2014, Marnie the Dog with her tilted head and tongue out, became the most famous dog on Instagram.
Now, seemingly every pet has their own Instagram account. A recent report found that a shocking majority of young people want to be influencers. A meme can’t exist without a brand using it to sell a shitty chicken sandwich.
The end of the good era
It’s not exactly clear when the internet started to lose its weirdness and become more normalized. After all, even in the fun era, things were still bad. Comment sections were often (and still are) littered with vile attacks, Reddit was the home to r/jailbait, a place where users posted “sexualized images of underage girls,” and racism was rampant.
We can blame Donald Trump and the invention of the unfiltered social media president, we can blame the media for taking advantage of every click, and we can blame Facebook’s pivot to video. Online movements like GamerGate tore us apart, our kids were gamed on YouTube, and Russian trolls exploited meme culture and infected just about every platform to stoke conflict.
And though we’ve been steadily losing it for a while now, the good internet finally feels like it’s ended, buried with the viral animals that once brought us simple joy. Net Neutrality is gone, the old memes are dead, internet stars have been canceled, and random people unworthy of idolizing that went viral have been milkshake ducked. When Grumpy Cat died in May 2019, things felt different. Lil Bub’s death coinciding with the end of the year and end of the decade feels like closure.
The memes will continue and there will be other viral internet stars and animals. Teens will change the world with TikTok or whatever app comes next. We’re probably already halfway through the next era of the internet. We’ll continue to fight propaganda and maybe we’ll even be successful in protecting our elections from disinformation and foreign influence.
Maybe I’m being nostalgic, maybe I’m being dramatic, but this era will be in history books for the rest of time. The internet clicks on, but the good era is over.