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 Timesand 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.
On a related note, Frank Chimero:
Whenever I log in to Twitter, I think, “Where did all my friends go?” Now, my feed is mostly the strangers talking. That’s fine: my friends and I find other ways to keep in touch. Although, I do miss having that bizarre, constant contact a feed gives you. Maybe too intense. Maybe unhealthy. Not sure. Having a Twitter account with a decent number of followers is a high-maintainence relationship. I can’t blame my friends for clamming up. I remember last year catching myself: I was composing a tweet in my head while eating breakfast. I felt sick to my stomach and couldn’t finish. Since then, I’ve clammed up, too.
Have you heard of evaporative social cooling? It says the people who provide the most value to a social group or organization eventually burn out and leave, undermining the stability and progress of the group. Most of my internet friends have been on Twitter since 2008, so they probably fall into this group. How much more is there left to say?
We concede that there is some value to Twitter, but the social musing we did early on no longer fits. My feed (full of people I admire) is mostly just a loud, stupid, sad place. Basically: a mirror to the world we made that I don’t want to look into. The common way to refute my complaint is to say that I’m following the wrong people. I think I’m following the right people, I’m just seeing the worst side of them while they’re stuck in an inhospitable environment. It’s exasperating to be stuck in a stream.