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Making the Internet Alive Again

From Gaby Goldberg

I am a product of the Internet in every sense. Over the last few years, I’ve worked to untangle what this has meant for me. In 2020, I wrote about the emergence of curators as a response to the Internet’s content overload, and I explored the concept of modern friends, or the relationships that originate and develop through digital channels. In 2021, I published a follow-up to my original curation piece in an effort to further understand the relationship between curation and commerce (spoiler: influence is not always synonymous with taste). Later that year, I wrote Why is the Internet So Lonely?, positing that technology may have not yet caught up with shifting consumer behaviors. In 2022, I wrote about linguistic relativity and its implications for how we perceive new technologies. Last year, I articulated what all of this has meant for me, finally coming to terms with the fact that almost everything about me has been defined by code


My entire lived experience on the Internet has been informed and mediated by Google, which was incorporated in September 1998 — less than a year before I was born. In 2023, Google generated over $307 billion in revenue, with $175 billion coming from Google Search (representing nearly 57% of its total revenues, and over 73% of its total advertising revenues). Google’s revenue growth has arguably come at the expense of its search quality. As Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page said themselves back in 1998: “Advertising income often provides an incentive to provide poor quality search results.” Of course, any user of Google has seen this play out. My former partner Talia Goldberg at Bessemer writes: “Results are riddled with SEO arbitrageurs, ads, and affiliates. It pushes users to the highest bidders. It prioritizes its own results over organic links and prioritizes SEO optimized sites over quality content. The quality and relevancy is declining.” 

Today, many of my Google searches are appended with the word reddit or substack — or I’m searching in a new place entirely, like on Twitter (usually for things regarding technology or business) or TikTok (for searches regarding travel, restaurants, fashion, etc.). This disaggregated method of search is the most convenient way for me to get closer to the kind of content I’m looking for, written by people I trust to create it. 

Trust is a powerful force. New technologies are transforming how information is packaged and delivered online. This is both inspiring and, candidly, a bit unsettling. The Internet used to be the creative medium. Now, it’s just the mode of delivery. We are force-fed content and it doesn’t quite feel like we have much choice in what we consume. As I wrote last year, I am curating my feed, but moreso, my feed is curating me.

“We are grappling with a revolution in how software works and computers work, and that’s gonna mess some stuff up.” — The Browser Company CEO Josh Miller, on The Vergecast

ChatGPT’s launch in late 2022 ignited somewhat of an arms race for web browsers to integrate AI-generated search results. In early 2023, Microsoft released a new, OpenAI-powered version of its Edge browser, while Google introduced Bard and new generative AI capabilities in Search. Smaller browsers like Brave followed suit, while others, like Neeva, dropped out of the race entirely.

As a pure consumer of these products, the release that moved me most was The Browser Company’s announcement of Act II, which I recommend you watch here (the next few paragraphs are a spoiler!):

The Browser Company is the buzzy new startup behind the Arc web browser. The Act II video marked the official release of their new iPhone app Arc Search, powered by a feature they call “Browse for Me.” Instead of displaying search results from Google or another engine, the feature searches the Internet for you, generating custom web pages tailored to your search queries.

The feature is pretty amazing, particularly for “objective” searches where you care more about the facts (e.g. Who won the Super Bowl this year?) and less about the source of the results. 

Using Arc browser

A lot of people love the feature. But others aren’t as unilaterally excited. If user experiences like “Browse for Me” were to become the norm, then we’d lose the journey of discovering content in the first place, one of the most viscerally human parts of the Internet. And as Ryan Broderick writes in Fast Company: “Why even bother making new websites if no one’s going to see them?” 

Algorithms are informational gatekeepers. AI search tools, in an effort to show us the most relevant content in the most efficient format, may actually make obsolete our ability to have an Internet that feels uniquely our own. “Surfing the web” very well may be a thing of the past. Already, my sources of information and trust online have splintered. I read about current events on Twitter. I listen to music on Spotify. I shop on Amazon. The browser is a navigation engine to reach these places, but the search experience itself is fragmented across these highly specialized platforms.

“Under algorithmic feeds, the popular becomes more popular, and the obscure becomes even less visible. Success or failure is accelerated.” — Kyle Chayka, Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture

In the 1947 book Dialectic of Enlightenment, the chapter The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception argues that culture has become an industry in its own right, promoting a false consciousness among the masses. The “culture industry” makes individuals believe they are consuming personalized and meaningful content when, in reality, they’re being fed the same repetitive themes designed to reinforce the status quo. People tend to want things because other people want them. Human behavior is not an autonomous process but a collective one — this is how we decide what we care about. Sound familiar? Barbieheimer, Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce, “Your Favorite Coffeehouse” Spotify playlist, Stanley Cups… Isn’t it all so exhausting?

Logging off after a long day scrolling Twitter, TikTok and Reels

Now feels like a good time to bring up a conspiracy theory I’ve been thinking about. A few years ago, a user by the name of IlluminatiPirate published Dead Internet Theory: Most of the Internet is Fake on the online forum Agora Road’s Macintosh Cafe.1 The theory proposes that the majority of the content with which we engage online is algorithmically generated by bots, all in an effort to control what we believe. I feel obligated to warn you that the post is a bit out there, like all great conspiracy theories are. For the purposes of this piece (and your general entertainment) I recommend you give it a read nonetheless.

“There’s a pretty powerful impulse in us which, when we hear something huge that could change our view of everything, rejects it to protect ourselves. No-one wants to have their whole world-view, which they’ve built a life upon, blown apart.” — IlluminatiPirate

Perhaps the actual mechanics of the theory are overblown, but to me, the sentiment holds at least somewhat true (and, for what it’s worth, the majority of web traffic does likely come from bots). A poignant example is r/SubSimulatorGPT2, a 2019 subreddit where all posts are automatically generated using a fine-tuned version of OpenAI’s GPT-2. It’s a fascinating reflection — evoking an uncanny valley feeling — of the Internet today (and this is a language model that’s four years out of date!). If these posts are fake, then what’s possibly real? (Related: Alicia Keys’ sour note during the Super Bowl halftime show getting wiped off the Internet; this AI-powered LinkedIn reply guy)

All of this comes back to “Browse for Me” and what starts to happen when we surrender control of where and how we get our information. The fact that the Dead Internet Theory was even popularized on an ‘80s Vaporwave community forum (the subtitle reads “Enjoy the best kept secret of the Internet!”) is evidence of this. The best parts of the Internet — the best parts of it for you, whatever that might mean to you — are usually hard to find. That’s precisely what makes them so special.

One analogy I heard and have come to appreciate around this dialogue is that of driving a car. For a majority of car rides — maybe you’re commuting to work, driving to the airport, or running errands — a self-driving car might be your first choice. But for a select number of car rides — maybe you’re on vacation, or with friends on a road trip — you absolutely want to be in the driver’s seat. Even better, you want the top down, your favorite music blaring. Any element of “abstracting away” the driving experience would be counterintuitive. The journey itself, not the destination, is the product.

So, if the Internet has effectively become cable TV, what is the new information frontier? This, I believe, is the question worth exploring. “Browse for Me” as a concept is quite powerful for “objective,” fact-based search, but it doesn’t solve how we might leverage new technologies for everything else we search online, particularly around user-generated content and any media native to a digital format. To start, we have to think about the media we consume — and, importantly, what’s in it for the people generating the information in the first place. 

I do think it may finally be time to see a more social version of search. I tweeted about this concept back in 2021, subsequently prompting much of this thinking. For example, I like to trade phones with my friends or siblings to “step into” the algorithmic feeds they see on different sites. I learn a lot about my friends by seeing what their TikTok or Pinterest feeds look like. It’d be powerful to experience this phenomenon from my own device. Similarly, “annotating the web” is another interesting idea along this vein — imagine stumbling across a niche site and seeing a record of which friends may have been there before you. Like digital geocaching! Along with Arc, companies and projects like MoonbounceBeamSilk, and Browser.html are building towards this future.

Returning to the concept of trust, I also anticipate we’ll see a rise in vertical, use case-specific search. We are seeing this already with Elicit and Consensus for research and K Health for healthcare. Some smaller projects are equally intriguing: one of my favorite examples is YC Vibe Check, a semantic search engine over every YC company since the program’s inception.

For entertainment and other areas of “subjective” search, human-centered curation on what is important will still matter. It’s likely that, in the future, it will even come at a premium (see Daisy Alioto of Dirt on luxury media; skip to ~17:00). 

Conversations with friends (h/t Tony Lashley)

Across these categories, the bottom line is that there’s no such thing as an “objective” AI or algorithm. Bias exists at every layer. Models will be unbundled the same way traditional media has been splintered apart, and the human element — from pretraining and labeling to ongoing community moderation (see Wikipedia, Reddit) and maintenance incentives (maybe it’s finally time for a token-curated registries comeback?) — won’t be abstracted away. 

The Internet can be a weird place, but it’s our home. We live here now. The future is unknown and that’s precisely what makes it all so exciting. I trust we’ll find a way to take care of it.

Find me on Warpcast. DM me for an invite


Thank you to Kiran Cherukuri and Tony Lashley for their thoughts on this piece.

The materials presented on Gaby Goldberg's newsletter are my opinions only and are provided for informational purposes and should not be construed as investment advice. It is not a recommendation of, or an offer to sell or solicitation of an offer to buy, any particular security, strategy, or investment product. Any analysis or discussion of investments, sectors or the market generally are based on current information, including from public sources, that I consider reliable, but I do not represent that any research or the information provided is accurate or complete, and it should not be relied on as such. My views and opinions expressed in any website content are current at the time of publication and are subject to change.


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