Has the Internet Reached Peak Clickability?
Chasing clicks is now a losing strategy—the rising stars on the web are creating a higher level of engagement.
A recent article left me genuinely shocked. The author, Sam Kriss, predicts the death of the Internet.
At first glance, that’s a ridiculous forecast. Everywhere I go people stare into that tiny screen as if it were a vital life support system. I suspect their last request before the firing squad would be: “Forget the cigarette—can I check my texts instead?”
I’m probably a little like that, too. I need the Internet to manage my life. And I like the cat photos on Twitter.
But Kriss sees things differently. He writes:
In the future—not the distant future, but ten years, five—people will remember the internet as a brief dumb enthusiasm, like phrenology or the dirigible. They might still use computer networks to send an email or manage their bank accounts, but those networks will not be where culture or politics happens. The idea of spending all day online will seem as ridiculous as sitting down in front of a nice fire to read the phone book.
This is pure delusion, and I can’t even imagine it in a sci-fi movie. But. . . .
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But it’s quite plausible that the Internet is losing its coolness and its clickbait appeal. It definitely feels stale and formulaic, more so with each passing month, and I’m not the only person who thinks so. If you dig into the numbers, you find that engagement on the largest platforms is falling—and not in a small way (as Sinatra might say).
The numbers don’t lie, and Kriss serves them up here—summarizing the bad news for clicks and swipes:
The exhaustion is measurable and real. 2020 saw a grand, mostly unnoticed shift in online behaviour: the clickhogs all went catatonic, thick tongues lolling in the muck. On Facebook, the average engagement rate—the number of likes, comments, and shares per follower—fell by 34%, from 0.086 to 0.057….But the same pattern is everywhere. Engagement fell 28% on Instagram and 15% on Twitter. (It’s kept falling since.) Even on TikTok, the terrifying brainhole of tomorrow, the walls are closing in. Until 2020, the average daily time spent on the app kept rising in line with its growing user base; since then the number of users has kept growing, but the thing is capturing less and less of their lives.
Around the same time engagement numbers started tanking, a strange rumor began circulating—it’s called the Dead Internet Theory. This hypothesis goes even further than Kriss, claiming that the Internet is already a cold corpse in the morgue. In fact, it died back in 2016 or 2017 when nobody was noticing.
“A conspiracy theory spreading online says the whole internet is now fake,” announced The Atlantic. “It’s ridiculous,” the magazine insists, before adding ominously: “but possibly not that ridiculous?”
According to proponents of the Dead Internet Theory, the web is now controlled by bots, fake accounts, artificial intelligence, click farms, interest groups, spam, phishing schemes, and disguised advertising—all of them trying to convince you that they are real, flesh-and-blood human beings.
Even people who debunk the Dead Internet Theory often admit that it feels correct. When we are engaging on the web, we don’t feel engaged anymore. The clicks and swipes no longer spark joy (as Marie Kondo might say). We feel force-fed, manipulated, unfulfilled.
This is the banal truth that tech futurists never anticipated. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the power-hungry computer HAL 9000 tries to take over a spacecraft and kill the astronauts. But Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick got it all wrong. We now know that AI prefers to sell us garbage we don’t need and force us to watch stupid 10-second videos.
There are plenty of HAL equivalents operating today, and they will let us live, just so long as we get TikTok engagement numbers back up.
But that’s just not happening. We still bite at the clickbait, but it doesn’t taste so good. Something is wrong. We feel it intuitively and the numbers validate it. We’ve maxed out on clicks and swipes—and especially with pandemic controls and lockdowns coming to an end, it will be even harder to keep people scrolling mindlessly.
All the major platforms suffer from this same malaise:
A leaked report from Instagram reveals that “most reels users have no engagement whatsoever.”
Facebook has burned through $15 billion on the Metaverse, and nobody can tell you where the money went.
Bots are so pervasive on Twitter, it almost killed the recent takeover deal. At one point, Elon Musk claimed that 90% of Twitter comments are by bots—a bizarre and unlikely assertion but, hey, who really knows?
When Instagram recently started purging bots, some accounts lost millions of followers—validating a key plank of the Dead Internet Theory.
The list of dead social media sites continues to grow steadily (there are 152 on this list).
But the TikTok numbers are the most revealing. The ‘experts’ constantly tell us that TikTok is the huge success story in social media. That upstart from China has allegedly solved the problem of user engagement—grabbing people’s attention with bite-sized content that is (supposedly) more popular than those boring YouTube podcast videos of dudes talking in some bunker.
But check out this chart:
The implication is clear—people prefer those boring YouTube podcasts from the bunker. Even stranger, the podcasters with the highest engagement metrics are those with ridiculously long videos. Did you know that the average Joe Rogan interview lasts 2 hours and 35 minutes?
I just learned that today.
No matter what you think of Joe Rogan, that is a revealing number. And he’s hardly the only example. According to one source, the top ten podcasts got 14% longer in just the last year.
I see this in my own guest stints on podcasts. Not long ago, I assumed that agreeing to an interview would take up an hour or less of my time. And that’s still true in some cases. But I’ve found that (1) the most successful interviewers have switched to longer formats; (2) the interviews I’ve done with the greatest impact (on book sales, Substack subscriptions, etc.) are always the longest; and (3) this trend is accelerating.
The good news is that audiences want something smarter and more in-depth.
The bad news is that, if I agree to an interview nowadays, there goes half the day.
But this shouldn’t be true. Two-hour interviews should NOT be a thing. It runs against everything legacy media believes. If you work in media, you hear it over and over: Keep it short and simple.
But the metrics now tell a different story.
I shouldn’t be surprised by all this. My own experience at Substack has made me acutely aware of the longform renaissance. When I launched on this platform, I definitely planned to write those long articles that newspaper editors hate—Substack would be my moment of luxurious freedom! Even so, I assumed that my shorter articles would be more popular. I guess I’d drunk the Kool-Aid too, accepting the prevailing narrative that readers want it short and sweet, so they can read it complete in the time it takes the Piano Man to play a request.
Yet my Substack internal metrics reveal the exact opposite of what I expected. The readers here prefer in-depth articles. Who would’ve guessed? For someone like me, it’s almost too good to be true. It’s like some positive karma in the universe is reinforcing my own better instincts.
But the real reason is that the market for clickbait is saturated, and longform feels fresher, more vital, more rewarding.
This is more than just my personal experience. As a private enterprise, Substack doesn’t need to publish financial reports, but founder Hamish McKenzie provided the following details a few days ago:
These would be stunning numbers under any scenario—freelance journalists making a million dollars? Paid subscriptions doubling each year? Really? But this is especially remarkable for a platform that didn’t exist until 2017.
As a member of the Substack economy, I’d like to be able to take some credit for these successes, and I no doubt make some small contribution. But the larger truth is that I was in the right place at the right time—Substack is taking off because audiences are hungry for something more than clickable diversion in 10-second installments.
Hunger is the right word—because the best analogy here is food. There’s a tremendous interest in gourmet and artisan food right now, but I’m old enough to remember a different day. In my youth, the trendy thing was to embrace tech-driven simplifications in food—at first it was canned food, and then branched out into frozen foods, microwave meals, fast-prep (just add water!) food, and processed products of all sorts.
All those tech-driven foods are still around, but they don’t tempt consumers the way they once did. Instead, the fastest growing categories in the food business are built on an entirely different vocabulary: gourmet, artisan, healthy, organic, nutritious, sustainable, local, homemade.
It turns out that my Sicilian grandma was smarter than Chef Boyardee. If she were still alive she could put up photos of those painstakingly homemade meals and become an Instagram influencer.
It’s now clear to me that consumption of information on the Internet will evolve in a similar way. Even better, online music and the other arts will trend in the same direction. (I will write about that topic in more detail in the very near future—I’ll finally have a happy forecast to share about the music economy.)
It’s already happening. Legacy media won’t tell you this because they’re losers in this paradigm shift. They still have the McDonald’s mindset. As they shrink, they chase clicks more aggressively. And the more they chase clicks, the more they lose genuine engagement.
Perhaps that’s not really a surprise, because the old school media outlets have been shrinking for a long time. The strange new factor is that the huge web platforms—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok—are now making the same mistake.
This is a signal that we have reached the endgame stage. And a new game is beginning with totally different recipes for success.
For the last decade the web has served up bite-sized information like cheap fast food. But the new web just might give us that nutritious gourmet meal we’ve been waiting for. And why not? For my part, I find the whole notion rather appetizing.