To a wide-ranging group of social media users like Hall, “The internet remains undefeated” is, on its face, a simple expression of joy, or nostalgia for a more joyous era of the internet. Ryan Milner, a professor of internet culture at the College of Charleston and author of The World Made Meme, says the phrase harkens back to a time, between roughly 2003 and 2013, when the internet was “still kind of this other place that didn’t operate by and could maybe transcend real-world rules.” This was the heyday of early YouTube and message boards like Something Awful, 4chan, and Reddit, “when you saw a flurry of subcultural activity and content creation that became kind of a tone setter for people who are still extremely online.” So in 2021, people comment “The internet remains undefeated” to a flourishing of memes about Bernie Sanders and his mittens or the discord between your fall plans and the Delta variant, because it recalls when life online seemed less about livestreamed mass murders and the algorithmically driven death of democracy and more about rickrolling and lolcats. At the surface level, says Milner, the phrase “is a way to kind of appreciate when the early spirit of collective creativity online resurfaces.”
People also use the phrase, Milner adds, as a way of “reacting to the randomness of what they encounter online.” Every piece of content “is made by a real person at the other end of the tubes. But we just see the funny picture. So instead of saying ‘Tim from Madison, Wisconsin, remains undefeated,’ we tend to collapse everything from everyone as being from ‘the internet,’ as if it’s this singular mystical being.” In that sense, the saying is a collectivist antivenom to unhinged individualism online.
But exuberant and egalitarian as the expression may appear, its undertones are much darker. For one thing, “The internet remains undefeated” is also a symptom of what Milner and fellow internet culture scholar Whitney Phillips call fetishistic flattening. This is the tendency for internet users to fixate on a meme or tweet itself, and not consider how or why it was created, the backstory of who or what’s being depicted and shared, or who may be harmed in the process. (The “Hide your kids, hide your wife” song, which belittles the man in the original clip, and deepfaked drunk Nancy Pelosi are all standard examples of fetishization.) In this way, “The internet remains undefeated” glorifies the removal of context, nuance, and thought. “Undefeated” in particular also captures how on social media, context is subsumed by combativeness. Beneath the surface, says Milner, the phrase is often “antagonistic and barbed,” and of “an atmosphere where how funny you are about what you produce and say, and how many people respond no matter what you say, is seen as a competition.”
Of course, context removal and ruthless competitiveness are embedded in dozens of other popular memes and replies to memes: Distracted Boyfriend, Galaxy Brain, Swole Doge vs. Meek Doge, so and so “woke up and chose violence.” But whereas those all celebrate the defeat of a single common enemy or idea lampooned in the meme itself, what makes “The internet remains undefeated” so deflating is that it celebrates our own collective defeat of ourselves. The internet’s unstated, vanquished opponent is us, the users who both consume and are the butts of the memes that phrase is often a response to. But deep down we all understand that we are also the internet, as the ones who populate it, generate its content, and created it in the first place. As Jeffrey Bloechl, a philosophy professor and phenomenologist at Boston College, told me, any problems that appear on the internet “can be traced back to things we human beings either did or failed to do when we made the thing.” After all, he adds, humans designed the internet to be boundless. “If the internet, strictly as internet, is fundamentally mathematical, it cannot itself be the source of any limits.” By that logic, “there is no way not to wonder whether in unleashing a power that is undefeated,” one that can transcend the limits of our own bodies and minds, we’ve also unleashed “a power to change what we are,” a power to defeat the human condition.
That is the horrifying economy of Those Four Words: There is no more haunting a distillation of the unstoppable seepage of technology into every fabric of our being than “The internet remains undefeated.” These words are a glaring reminder that the internet, of which I am a part, is defeating me. That in the moment I am reading them, I am devoting my attention not to my wife, infant daughter, friends, family, colleagues, wind rattling the window pane, or my breathing, but to what faceless strangers are saying about Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friends’ balls, and to what quippy things I should be saying to faceless strangers about Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friends balls. That gif of the Teletubbies having tantric sex? It exists only in my smooth, broken brain, a brain the internet broke so that I think in the way the internet wants me to think.