I began my media career about seven years ago as an unabashed internet enthusiast. As I’ve said before, I never worked in print journalism and had little nostalgia for the world that was entering free fall as I did my first internship at an online publication. By then, the internet had already provided me an outlet for various creative pursuits for years, and I saw nothing but the opportunity to escape some of traditional journalism’s worst constraints, which were related both to the print medium and to the sorts of gatekeepers and ideologies that controlled it. I never read print newspapers or magazines devotedly, so I never experienced unsettling changes in habits the way many people have as they transitioned primarily to digital reading in the past decade. Blogs and startup web publications were always much more to my taste than “old media”; their immediacy, their freedom, and their ability to evolve and adapt quickly always seemed promising and exciting.
Things look a lot different now. The internet won, and despite killing off thousands of jobs in the print industry, it created many more than expected in an ever-multiplying array of new web ventures. But now that it won, it’s increasingly unclear that was a good thing. A lot of people who work in internet media secretly—or in many cases, not-so-secretly—hate it, and some even suspect they are actively making the world a dumber place, as they very well may be. (I was one of them, which is a big part of why I decided to quit.) Good writing and journalism have not gone extinct, but have been reduced to sharing an undifferentiated plane with lots of cynical, unnecessary, mind-numbing, time-wasting “content,” much of which hardly qualifies as writing at all. The New York Times and ViralNova look exactly the same in your Facebook feed. As a result, journalism that once had a certain amount of aesthetic self-respect, even online, now has little choice but to mimic the shameless pandering of advertising-driven “content.” Where once the internet media landscape was populated with publications that all had unique visual styles, traffic models, and editorial voices, each one has mission-creeped its way into a version of the same thing: everybody has to cover everything, regardless of whether not they can add any value to the story, and has to scream at you to stand out in the avalanche of “content” gushing out of your feeds.
This is not “the internet’s” fault; the internet, after all, is not a thing, it’s a complex tangle of things that people made and change all the time. As Evgeny Morozov constantly points out, the internet is not a force of nature with a will of its own; people control it, fight over it, and decide what it is. It is a for-profit business. Most of the horrible features of the current iteration of the internet media I just described are the result of decisions made by two major internet power brokers, Google and Facebook. The mistake media people made early on was to assume that the internet had laws that had to be obeyed even at high costs to their work, and—as is so depressingly typical of human history—that new ways of doing things were superior simply because they were possible. Once it was clear that the “disruption” of journalism could not be stopped, the media became the internet’s most eager, least critical stenographers and early adopters, lapping up every development that remapped the media landscape on a nearly yearly basis. It was partly in journalism’s racing, competitive spirit to do so, but partly out of sheer terror at the possibility being left behind. Now that internet media is at the front of the internet curve—or at least doing pretty well at keeping up—they’ve made it their job to become the unpaid PR machine of Silicon Valley and the self-appointed mockers of all who resist “disruption” wherever the latest 20-year-old billionaire has decided to inflict it.
The social consequences of this enormous change are hard even to fathom, much less analyze; the consequences have affected labor, privacy, interpersonal ethics, and virtually every sector of the modern economy. As plenty of others have noted before, the relative lack of deliberation and consideration that have accompanied the shift—the degree to which it is simply assumed to be positive and benevolent—should be shocking and alarming. But since my subject here is journalism, I’ll simply focus on that as an example. There is very little evidence the enormous effort invested to keep internet media up to date with the latest tech trends has changed much for the better. The media itself is inside a reality-distortion field where ever-increasing speed and fragmentation are somehow seen as positive. But take a single step outside it and the picture changes drastically. Delete one of your social media accounts, or simply go on vacation for a week, and you will be shocked how little any of it matters. For most people most of the time, flipping through a newspaper once a day—even once a week—is enough to provide a basic level of information about what’s going on the in the world, little of which affects them anyhow. But the internet media now operates as if its mission is to provide 24-hour infotainment. I honestly believe their time would be better spent reading books, watching movies, or spending time with their friends and family than “consuming” “content” from “social.” In case you’re wondering, that is how the people who make their money throwing “content” at you talk about it.
Even in a breaking news event, the instantaneous “coverage” now provided by the internet media generally proves to be substantially worthless. The much-analyzed night the Boston marathon bombers were arrested is an instructive example: every detail was followed for hours on Twitter, while countless false reports were amplified by major media outlets, innocent people were blamed for things they didn’t do, etc. Absolutely nothing worthwhile—nothing social, political, moral, personally enriching—was achieved by the way that night was covered online. If breaking news coverage is supposed to be hours-long, anxiety-inducing interactive entertainment, then it was great. If you simply wanted a truthful account of what happened, a reported, verified, and synthesized account printed in a newspaper a couple of days later was a much better option. All that the internet media, with its celebrated new reporting tools provided, was a lot of wasted hours trying piece through false information about something you had no pressing need to know in the first place. (That said, I do think there’s a distinction between media-led voyeurism like the Boston bomber manhunt and other times that important events, like the Ferguson protests, have become stories after they bubbled up organically through social media.)
When the internet first reared its cheeky head, the old guard acted like incurious old people do, like they could just tune out the newfangled stuff and go on about their business. But now that nearly the entire old guard has converted to techno-utopians, anyone who tries to mount a criticism of internet-ism is mercilessly mocked as an out-of-touch fogey saying the same old thing, even though we now have several years of experience by which to assess that critique. Seven years ago I would probably would have mocked John MacArthur, the publisher of Harper’s, the way a lot of media insiders did a few weeks ago when this article about his insistence on print ran. This is how the Times summarized his views:
His thesis is built on three pillars. The web is bad for writers, he said, who are too exhausted by the pace of an endless news cycle to write poised, reflective stories and who are paid peanuts if they do. It’s bad for publishers, who have lost advertising revenue to Google and Facebook and will never make enough from a free model to sustain great writing. And it’s bad for readers, who cannot absorb information well on devices that buzz, flash and generally distract.
As a writer, editor, and reader, I now agree with every word of that. In various professional capacities I’ve had to assign articles that needed to be turned around in a matter of hours just to “have something on it,” even though fifteen other sites had already published nearly identical articles. Those instances were a tacit admission that quality is secondary to keeping up with the pack. They were an insult to writers (asking them to produce work that cannot possibly be worth a reader’s time) and, above all, an insult to the people we expect to read what we publish. The internet is bad for writers because it turns qualities that should be valued—effort, reflection, revision, editing—into hindrances, and makes the resulting product worth little, both qualitatively and financially. Good writing, writing that matters in the present and is remembered in the future, is very difficult, takes a lot of time, and is generally expensive. It takes isolation and focus. Ta-Nehisi Coates didn’t write “The Case for Reparations” in time to post before the morning newsletter went out.
The internet is bad for readers not just because the devices on which they access it divide their attention and intensify the effort required to read anything at all, but because it enables—even demands—the overproduction of worthless material that is difficult to distinguish online from quality work. Quality work is institutionally devalued, and what still does manage to get produced has to compete in flat, featureless spaces that deliberately eliminate the indicators physical mediums have traditionally used to distinguish and prioritize reading material. And even if the reader can be roused from their feed-induced trance enough to click, there is little point in actually reading anything, because so much of it exists simply to produce the act of clicking. A vast majority of the time, the actual writing is indistinguishable from what is on every other site, and if it’s any different, it’s only different in a cynical effort to bring a different angle to the problem of everybody else’s angle on the problem. (In my experience, when editors say quality is what distinguishes their site, it is not because that is actually the case; it is because at some level they realize nothing does.) Readers aren’t stupid, so they sift instead of read; even if they have good intentions of “reading it later,” the Instapaper and Pocket pile up and overflow, rarely touched. As Choire Sicha put it earlier this year:
I do not read a lot of things anymore. A lot of us don’t, we sort of go where the tide takes us. I feel weird about that. I opened up my Digg reader the other day, because I was on blogging duty at work, and everything was so duplicative of each other. I was like, yeah, okay, there’s that piece of news filtering through all these different websites, all the same things… no wonder I don’t go to them. I need to make a new folder in my Digg reader, I guess, that’s “Things That Are Surprising and Interesting and Maybe Weird.” It’s sort of… it’s not… I don’t know, something’s wrong.
Something’s wrong. I’ve been convinced of it for quite a while, and so are a lot of other people who can’t say it because they have to pay their rent somehow. So much of it is stupid and worthless, and everybody knows it. And worse, so many people in other offline sectors of society think that what happens in the internet media is the future for their industry, and should be emulated and brought in to “disrupt” things so they won’t be left behind, too. People in internet media love to cultivate that, because honestly, who doesn’t want to be thought of as blazing the trail into the bright future?
This has been a negative post, and for good reason. But none of my hostility to what now passes for internet journalism means that “the internet is bad” or “print was better” or that internet media should be universally condemned and older forms of accessing reporting and writing championed. Absolutely nothing of the sort. I still believe there are parts of journalism, even when they happen in different ways in new mediums, that are a crucial part of a healthy society. I am still glad the internet brought into existence the tools it has for writing, research, and reaching an audience. In general, I’m happy a lot more things see the light of day than they used to, and a lot more criticism and argument about every subject under the sun gets read and participated in, even if a lot of that argument is about ridiculous, bullshit things that don’t matter. The point, rather, is that tools are just tools, and just as they are not bad because they might change things, they are not good just because they are new and available. New tools should be scrutinized intensely and skeptically, as should the people who stand to gain vast new forms of power and wealth when they are widely adopted. That didn’t happen with journalism and the internet, and now we’re paying the price.
UPDATE, 8/28/2014, 5:38 PM: I rest my case:
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