I feel like it’s time for a bit of a rant. There’s a new phrase that I’ve begun noticing more frequently over the past year: that “____ Broke the Internet”. Fill in the blanks with whatever thing you deem important enough to command the intention of millions of people, and it is quite literally smashing the internet to pieces as we speak. When you have formerly reputable journalism organizations reduced to listicles to get readers , you have Time making a Top 10 Things that Broke the Internet retrospective.
When you search for the phrase, the event that popularized and encouraged comparison of the term was Paper magazine publishing nude photos of Kim Kardashian last year. Paul Ford did a good, non-tech overview of how Paper worked in the week leading up to the release of the photos to scale their servers to handle the load. He spends a good amount of time talking about how their team wanted to ensure a high load of potentially hundreds of millions of viewers. They ended up being overly optimistic by a full order of magnitude, but did still have a highly discussed topic.
Other events have come up that people claim “broke the internet”. Last week, a photo of a dress was posted to Tumblr, which became s viral phenomenon, being shared and discussed by millions of people.
Why is it that we’re so quick to describe something on the internet in such bombastic terms? If you think of certain websites and applications that are used by tens or hundreds of millions of people per day, you don’t hear people talking like that. Google and Facebook don’t “break” the internet every day while serving up content (including most of the content that is discussed).
I think that it’s a shared cultural moment. There’s much talk about the media landscape becoming more fractured, with niches existing to please every individual taste. Up until the 2010 Super Bowl, the most watched television event was the M.A.S.H. series finale, barely missing maintaining it’s 1983 record of 105.9 million live viewers. A list of the highest attended movies of all time shows that you have to jump down to 2009’s ‘Avatar’ at #24 just to find a movie released in the past 15 years.
Anything that can get a few million people simultaneously discussing it gives us a taste of that collective culture that we’ve lost. It’s a way to connect with other people reliably outside of standard small talk. The excitement of shared experiences with all levels of social circles is harder and harder to come by with the echo chambers that we live in, and having them is a point of elation.
But please, don’t tell me that you broke the internet. We’re all fine here, thanks.