News needs a helping of essential information
Good God this has been a hard post for me to finish. It's no wonder. It's about the publishing online and the problem of the internet.
It's one of those things that's like... why even burn any brain cells worrying about? It will either sort itself our or it just won't.
Why not take on something more tractable. Like, for example, reliably translating what people actually mean when they say "Yeah, we should totally hang out sometime."
But I can't help it. This is my industry. I'm doomed to think about this, and one of my favorite writers, Matt Taibbi, dropped an essay about the need for a new media system that everyone can trust — a publisher whose reporters are convincingly not beholden to a particular viewpoint but whose reporting attracts also attracts a large audience.
Taibbi evinces hope that some set of journalists could provide a sort of lingua franca of facts.
So... I don't know if he moved to a state that sits at a higher altitude when he went all in on Substack or, like, what. Somehow he might not be getting enough oxygen to the brain.
Love you, Matt.
But the post just got me thinking once more about what was different when the media ecosystem was healthier and then also about what it's like now. Here's what hit me (or — more likely — what it made me remember that someone else said to me at some point): prior to the internet, media like newspapers and television provided consumers with some essential pieces of information that were by far the most conveniently attained through pre-internet-old-media. Those essential information services gave those publications something like a monopoly on consumers' attention.
It wasn't quite a monopoly, but it was close enough. At the least, the sources were essential.
What I'm saying is: people didn't really subscribe to newspapers for the news, even if they thought they did.
I think about what I used the paper for as a kid. I read the comics and I looked at movie times. The movie times weren't exclusive to the paper. I could also call the theater's movie phone line and listen to a recording of the movie times. I grew up in a town that only had four screens, so it didn't take that long, but the paper was easier.
Comics weren't essential of course but I was a kid who loved the form and if I wanted a daily dose of drawings and words mixed together (and I did), the paper was the only place to get it. There were the comics I got from the shop of course but those came out once per week and I read them all immediately. The funnies were a daily fix.
Some guys liked to see the scores from the games they had missed the prior night. They could also see these as tickers on TV but they weren't always there. Others liked the stock prices.
For my grandparents, the ads were actually essential information. They liked to watch the different prices at the grocery stores and which department store had a sale on. Come to think of it, we still don't have a great way of getting that kind of extremely local information online these days.
You know I always get quite stabby when some media business dork sitting on a panel at a conference saying some version of "not fewer ads but better ads." Actually, they always say exactly those words, because they are the people who passed over to the other side when they realized that their creativity was insufficient to justify the dreams they once nurtured. But anyway yeah once a time ads could be clutch. But they also didn't leap at you, track you or autoplay video.
Here's my point: once upon a time a lot of useful information that people wanted was bundled with news writing (which of course is also information, but far from all of it is quite so essential) and they all complemented each other. Now all this information is unbundled. Or its bundled by Google. The essential but non-narrative, non-news information helped to draw consumers' attention. So, like: once a guy had checked his stock prices, what the heck? He might read some news.
News has to stand on its own merits now. It's a much harder problem.
Probably the business of truth finding is effed forever and humans are just going to ride hellhounds of confirmation bias into a fiery oblivion.
I mean I'd take that bet if I thought I'd live long enough to see it.
There are no communities online, but there conversations
The conversations online used to be charming. These days they are more like listening to a brother and sister fight over who gets the middle part of the backseat on a long car trip through Arizona when dad won't turn on the air conditioner.
But it is a conversation.
So, let that be a provocation for you. I'm not even sure it's right, but I do think the use of the word "community" online pushes nonsense. Even if people do make friends and become familiar with each other on certain sites, that doesn't really make it a community.
Actual ommunities are stuck with each other on a common patch of land. They are forced to negotiate how to use certain common resources. Exit isn't impossible but it's not free.
Conversations, on the other hand, are a thing you can step into and step out of it — perhaps with murder on your mind. Discussions can be meaningful, powerful, life-changing and transformative. I'm not trying to minimize online life by saying the things people there have been calling communities aren't (no doubt, if anyone reads this, they will take it that way, but we've all been trapped inside a long time). I'm just saying that a community is the wrong metaphor.
Whenever you remove something from a category someone likes it stuck in they get all touchy. Categories aren't real folks; they are only helpful.
Conversations matter, but they aren't the same thing as communities.
Media has lost the ability to provide essential community information. That genie is out of the bottle. But maybe there is a way to provide essential information needed in conversations?
This essay about the re-wilding of the web helped me to conceptualize a bit more what I mean. I'm still not entirely sure what I mean.
There are certain services where it's better if everyone uses it. For example, it's better if everyone uses Ebay. You want every possible bidder to see your item if you want to sell something. You want to know that you've hit the max price you can.
But that's a pretty simple conversation, too. I have a thing and I want value. You have value and you want the thing. I don't care at all about who you are. I only want the most value from someone.
Social media like Facebook and Twitter was built with the assumptiont that they worked better if everyone was on them.
We all kind of knew this wasn't true from the jump, though. Before Facebook there was the Makeout Club, Friendster and Myspace. The first three all died pretty quickly as each became uncool and people moved to the other.
The lesson no one seems to have learned though is that the world isn't better when everyone is on the same small handful of apps. That's a great way for the 1% and the 0.1% to become famous, but it's not a great way for the web to be nice and fun and useful.
Here's an interesting tweet thread I saw, that talks about how early on the web was a place for non-neurotypical. People were friendly and assumed good intent because you'd taken the effort to get on there.
There's a growing mood for the web to break up into smaller communities
The web is still one big thing. Each individual site and app on it doesn't have to be for everyone.
Unpopular take: smaller communities built around specific types of people would be good (more neuro-types and vibe types) would be good. No one likes any talk of anything that would turn off anyone these days, because everything should be for everyone. That's the thinking. Anything that specifically appeals to one group excludes others.
But that isn't what people actually want if you look at people's behaviors.
People want both things. They want spaces filled with people they find familiar, who speak their same languages and have their same references. The analog equivalents of these are the home, neighborhood bar and church. They also want spaces that mix people up. The analog equivalent here are bazaars and train stations. Both have their places in our lives.
The web is all bazaars (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram-for-the-love-of-God-Instagram) / no neighborhood bars. We need a lot more neighborhood bars. We need a place to get drunk online, at least on something other than the power of a viral insult. Let's get drunk the old fashioned way: on brandy from snifters. Electronically. I'm not sure this is getting long.
The web's bazaar aspect, the train station aspect: that's not going anywhere.
God help us.
I've been collecting little missives I find online that seem to be squaring with a growing mood that people want a web that feels like it has corners that are just for them.
First of all, Nieman Lab had a piece about the return of real simple syndication (RSS) readers. It turns out a lot of web denizens never learned what RSS is. RSS is a format that encodes chunks of content on a web page such that it can be republished all or in part on another website easily. This was good because it meant that a web user could open up a piece of software, a "client," that would pull all the new content from sites that used RSS that the reader was interesting in. Then, on one page, it would show the interested person all the new posts.
This meant that they didn't have to go hunt from website to website to see if anything new had been published.
Back when the web was a wilder place, the RSS reader was the main way to keep track of the sites a web surfer might discover and worry they could forget to return to. It's 'algorithm' was/is very simple: it showed content in reverse chronological order. The software people used to read these feeds would eventually keep track of which ones the reader had "read" (or seen) and not show those again. That was it.
Publishers learned not to love them because it made it harder to monetize their content.
As in so many other things, Google built the dominant reader application without hardly trying. Once it realized it couldn't monetize readers that well, though, it killed the product and few users were willing to try versions rebuilt elsewhere. It was a real tragedy.
Google loves to make and then kill off what it makes. It's very strange that people keep using their products. The truth is the company is just too big. A thing needs to make a lot of money for Google to justify messing with it over time.
I digress. You thought this post was about how the internet would help you find garage sales again, right?
The Nieman Lab post suggests that consumers might demand the data format once again, though, as a way to escape the algorithmic constraints of the Facebook-Twitter internet. Or maybe it's wishful thinking? I wishfully think it.
Viva la enclave
Maybe Nieman is directionally right but only directionally? Maybe folks are hungering for a different way to decide what the next thing they will look at will be. That is a start.
God what am I doing there? It's all so hopeless. Look this is the internet all of you wanted. Why does anyone fight it.
The internet is just for making shitloads of money for a few, lulz for a few more and sapping the will to live out of everyone else. Why am I here?!?!?!?!?
Take me back to 1989.
Anyway. I'm gonna finish a draft of this blog post zero people will read tonight if I die at this dining-room-table-as-desk.
Another essay that seemed to indicate a promising trend, this one on Squad Wealth. Basically, you build up a crew that's committed to help each other progress. This is a strategy that I've heard a lot about in theory over the years but hasn't played out super great in practice from where I sit. But this posse is happy.
And it's weird that squaddom isn't what it was. Squads were a huge deal once upon a time.
From schools of Kung-Fu, to bandits on the plains, to the Algonquin Group, the Fauvists, Bell Labs and every school of philosophy like ever. The truth is talented people have been allying to help each other get a leg up for a very long time. If internet users became internet homesteaders, building little squad enclaves, they could start to become something like the temples of high wisdom tucked away in mountain ranges. The right kind of people who need that right kind of wisdom might seek them out.
Then a guy I used to know in Philadelphia wrote about a whole other way of looking at these kind of phenomena: The Dark Matter Influencer. This is pretty intriguing. His idea is that there's this category of people who don't really worry about attention for themselves, they worry about accruing power that allows them to conduct others into prominence and profit off it.
In fact, you could even say that the Dark Matter Influencer might be the inevitable outcome of the squads that successfully pursue wealth. Like Peter Thiel, they assemble an influential coterie around them, all of which benefit from allegiance to each other.
What does this have to do with a wilder internet? Well, smart people might eschew scale and looking for online pastures where there's fewer people and it's easy to discern which ones might be the right ones to align with.
"Mayor" of the comic book forum today; seed investor in the next Amazon tomorrow.
But look I don't give two flying fucks about riches or power. Those things are for boring people.
Let's be real: I care about the font of what is cool. What resonates in the gut. That always has come from the hidden places. It comes from the underground.
That whale is out there, man.
February 5, 2021