Here are five stories that couldn't be more different but are, at their base, animated by the same basic fears.
- After Gawker's managing partners pulled a widely derided post outing an executive at a media company who was being blackmailed by a man he had solicited, two of the publication's senior editors and many other writers resigned out of fears that the company's business side had too much influence over its editorial side.
- Just shy of its second birthday, the film criticism site the Dissolve ceased operations in mid-July 2015. Its end prompted renewed concerns for the future of film criticism as a profession. In late October, ESPN announced it would shutter its highly acclaimed longform publication Grantland. Its founder, Bill Simmons, left ESPN for HBO earlier in the year, and without him around, the network seemed at a loss as to what to do with the site (as reported here). Though beloved, both Grantland and The Dissolve struggled to find large enough readerships to be monetarily viable.
- The Washington Post ran an article claiming that comedian Amy Schumer's jokes about Latinos are racist. A few days later, the Interrobang revealed that the author of the article has never seen Schumer's standup or TV show.
- The online aggregation site ViralNova sold to Zealot Networks for $100 million.
- In the wake of the banning of several subreddits that had engaged in harassment and the firing of a popular employee, Reddit interim CEO Ellen Pao resigned after a lengthy campaign against her, often conducted via racist and sexist language. A few days after her departure, credible sources suggested she had nothing to do with the firing, not that it helped matters.
What links these seemingly dissimilar stories is a very basic fear — the idea that the internet as we knew it, the internet of five or 10 or 20 years ago, is going away as surely as print media, replaced by a new internet that reimagines personal identity as something easily commodified, that plays less on the desire for information or thoughtfulness than it does the desire for a quick jolt of emotion.
It's an internet driven not by human beings, but by content, at all costs. And none of us — neither media professionals, nor readers — can stop it. Every single one of us is building it every single day.
How every media outlet became a syndication service
Take a look at your browser tabs if you're reading this on a computer. Inevitably, you have at least a few that are weeks, if not months, old, things you've always intended to get to but just never have. Odds are these are so-called "longform" articles that will take a while to read. (Here's one of mine, which I've had open since October: a GQ feature about "the last true hermit.") A fair number of you are going to open this piece in a tab and just never get back to it.
These longform pieces are the pinnacle to which lots and lots of us writers and the websites we work for aspire. They win awards. They garner attention from other journalists. They're often why we got into this business to begin with. Even BuzzFeed turned out to be using all those cat GIFs as a Trojan horse for a lot of great investigative journalism.
And I don't want to suggest, even inadvertently, that nobody reads these longer pieces. A well-written, well-reported longform piece can break out as well as anything, as Gawker found out with (among many others) its influential, over-9,000-word essay "On Smarm."
The problem is scale. A larger, general-interest site can't be built purely atop longform, because longform takes time — both for writers to produce and readers to read. Therefore, as both Buzzfeed and Gawker realized early on, well-done longform could be the steak, but it couldn't be the meal. (Grantland perhaps realized this too late.)
Some of this was driven by the greater knowledge the internet has given publications about just who's reading what on their sites. Newspapers could suspect nobody was reading the city council report or the dance review; with the internet, we know nobody is. The internet has made it clear that the kinds of things that people want to read are sort of an endless collection of what's cool. And that might be a longform story, or it might be the quick, clicky little things that repackage the best flotsam and jetsam out there in a more presentable fashion. And if longform takes time, then aggregation is its opposite, easier to throw together in a few minutes with huge potential upside (though, it should be said, with much bigger potential for disaster, since everything is moving so quickly).
The theory always went that BuzzFeed couldn't be all cat GIFs, because it would very quickly wear out its welcome. But that theory was wrong in one crucial aspect — with the rise of social media, a site's brand identity is a little less important with every year. Gawker is important to those of us in the media because it's Gawker, with its strong institutional voice. But to someone not entrenched in the world of the media (which is the vast majority of everybody), it's just another Facebook content provider. Social media has, essentially, turned every content provider into a syndicator. Vox's own Ezra Klein argued something very similar recently.
And the best syndicators were always those who could take the most crowd-pleasing stuff and get it before as many eyeballs as possible. Think about, say, comic strips or advice columns — fun to read and ultimately disposable. That's precisely the philosophy a site like ViralNova, which essentially only collects fun little things and repackages them, operates upon. And its growth has been phenomenal, so far avoiding the pitfalls that eventually took down earlier contenders like Upworthy.
And if you work in online media, that's terrifying.
How the internet of 2005 was different — so different
Now think about, if you remember, the internet of 10 years ago. It was a world not of articles as standalone entities, but of blogs and sites with strong, central identities. That was the world in which a site like Gawker thrived, because it was a world built almost entirely around voice — whether that voice came from a single person or from a carefully crafted editorial identity. Gawker was the site that gave no fucks. It exposed secrets and reported on gossip and became a witty, trashy tabloid that thumbed its nose at the pomposity of old media.
The internet of 2005 existed as an unending series of office sitcoms, where writers and comments sections blended together to feel almost like the same thing. You went to Gawker or a beloved blog as much to hang out with your friends as you did to get information.
Gawker founder Nick Denton seemed to recognize this, too, in an email to Jordan Sargent, the author of the post that prompted the companywide meltdown. "You need to know you did nothing wrong," wrote Denton, according to New York magazine. "These are the stories we used to do. But times have changed."
That was also a more limited internet. Fewer people read it, and those people tended to be whiter, younger, and more male, on average. That internet's greatest enemy was the hidebound traditions of old media — a world of stuffiness and a supposedly "objective" voice that was anything but. In that economy, the readers only had power in aggregate. Get enough of them, and you'd have a site that stuck around. Get too few, and you would fade.
Two things have happened to change all of this: the rise of mobile, and the rise of social media. Mobile has ultimately downplayed the importance of words. Indeed, the fewer, the better. (God forbid you are reading this on a phone.) Images and video are king. Nilay Patel has written about this brilliantly over at our sister site The Verge.
And the rise of social has flipped the old writer/reader balance, restoring power to the reader. On social media, you share an article because you agree with the take, sure, but also because it says something about you, whether that fact is that you're angry about a political issue, or that you like cute bunnies, or that you love Back to the Future. Your social media feed is a curation of things you want people to know about you. Inconvenient truths, negative views, or anything too dark will be pushed aside.
There are good things about this — namely the increasing diversification of our readership and the fact that there are enough readers now that one can make something of a living doing this. In particular, the Gawker story that caused such a flap would have been published without much pushback in 2005, I'd wager, where it rightly drew much criticism in 2015. And the fact that Reddit is fighting a very public battle over the place of retrograde, hateful views within a community driven by a shallow ideal of what free speech should be is ultimately a good thing for bringing to attention, visibly, that the internet is not all white men in their 20s and 30s.
But this is also a seismic shift in the way online news is consumed. The internet of 10 years ago has become the old media it railed against, and many of us regard this shift as nothing less than an existential struggle for our very professional lives.
The end of quirky, specialty sites
The Dissolve was founded by former employees of the A.V. Club, a pop culture publication that started out as the silly but serious arts and entertainment section of the print version of the Onion. (As will become quickly obvious, I also worked at the A.V. Club, and I owe my career to Dissolve founder Keith Phipps.) At the center of the Dissolve's founding origin story was a rift between the A.V. Club of 2005 and the A.V. Club of right now, a similar rift to the one that consumed Gawker, if not such a public or acrimonious one.
The split, essentially, was this: The Dissolve bet that the internet of 2005 could exist peacefully alongside the internet of 2015. It wagered there were enough movie fans out there who would click, each and every day, on a Dissolve link in their bookmarks list and read a bunch of long, movie-related features, before reading some shorter, aggregated news articles. On some macro level, it was betting the shift to a pure social web was wrong. You didn't need to keep churning out more and more content to see what stuck on Facebook. You could still get enough diehard website fans to keep the lights on. And once you did, you could build from that base.
The A.V. Club flipped that ratio around. The longform stuff was the fun stuff you got to do, but it was ultimately there in support of the stuff more likely to bring in looky-loos from Google or Facebook. And when it did come to longform writing, a traditional review would never go viral on Facebook in the way that a think piece based on sociopolitical readings of a film would.
Now, two years after that rift, it's become obvious that sites like the Dissolve — quirky, specialist sites that thrived in 2005 — are an endangered species in 2015. In an ideal world, the Dissolve might have built itself up from humble beginnings, might have started out as a part-time blog on the side of a day job. But then it never could have paid its employees a living wage, or produced work as high in quality as it did. Similarly, in an ideal world, Grantland might have had a strong subscriber base that would have ameliorated the need to draw in more and more readers who didn't care about the publication's brand, but about whatever content it came up with that day.
The future belongs to the fleet, to the fast, to the instantly assembled hot take. Thoughtfulness is almost beside the point, in many cases, if you can produce something enough people will want to associate with the curation of their core beings.
We're all looking for the middle ground
There are, of course, many sites trying to chart a middle ground. I think the A.V. Club found its way to just that, and it will come as no surprise to you that I believe I write for one currently — which may explain why Vox figures so heavily in the meta-drama surrounding Gawker.
Gawker doesn't fear becoming Vox because we're intrinsically evil (at least I hope not); it fears becoming Vox because Vox is one of the more obvious exemplars of whatever the new world is, and that new world necessarily requires letting go of a lot of the assumptions of the internet of 2005.
In particular, it requires the idea that making money on this new internet requires scale, and if you need to always keep scaling up, you can't alienate readers, particularly those who arrive from social channels. The Gawker of 2015 can't afford to be mean, for this reason. But the Gawker of 2005 couldn't afford not to be mean. What happens when these changes scrub away something seen as central to a site's voice?
And I miss that old internet, too. As Hossein Derakhshan writes beautifully at Medium, that was a world, ultimately, of communities, where a hyperlink could boost a fledgling site's traffic for a few days. It was a world that had many, many flaws, but it was one eventually built around the idea that if you created a place where people could gather based around shared interests, they ultimately would. It was the ideal of the original internet made real, an actual, virtual web spreading its tendrils about the world.
Now, however, our articles increasingly seem to be individual insects trapped in someone else's web. The internet has the exact opposite problem of every other medium. Instead of going from something for everybody to something for a large series of hyper-specialized niches, we're navigating the choppy seas where once stood an archipelago and increasingly stands a continent. As TV and music and even publishing become the internet, the internet is becoming everything else — and it's taking so much of what seemed to make it special with it.