unless your site is about one thing, it’s about everything

I have, for same reason, spent a couple hours on Fusion tonight. (.net, teehee.) And, you know, as much as I might want to make light of Felix Salmon’s cool guy Monty Burns routine, the site itself is… fine. It’s fine! I mean, it’s whatever. Fine is fine.

But it just isn’t about anything in the way that the site’s founders and editorial people clearly want it to be. I like Alexis Madrigal a lot. But you can write a manifesto, and you can have some sort of goofy TV channel sidepiece going on, and you’re still another site publishing people writing about news and politics and culture and sometimes sports. And in that, you’re joining every other website that publishes about news and politics and culture and sometimes sports.

The mix changes; Grantland is some more sports and a little less news and whatever intern is currently writing the “Bill Simmons” column. Slate is a little less sports and a little more politics and Troy Patterson endlessly writing the word “gentleman” into his Mead notebook in cursive while admiring his new glasses in the mirror. New York is a little of everything with some soothing noises to remind New Yorkers that they are very very important. The revamped New York Times Magazine is a lot of the same edited by people who think you can get more sexy Millenials to your website by adjusting the kerning on your font. The Atlantic is a lot of the same plus Ta-Nehisi Coates plus Coates’s creepshow commenters asking him to forgive their sins. Business Insider is a lot of the same only written for the illiterate. The New New Republic is the same stuff written by every non-white male Gabriel Snyder could find to exorcise the vengeful presence of Marty Peretz’s farting ghost, and thank god for that, plus Jeet Heer with an essay made up of 800 numbered tweets. Buzzfeed is a lot of the same only if life was a Law & Order episode about the Internet from 1998. Salon is the same stuff but every single piece is headlined “Ten Things You Won’t Believe Rethuglicans Said on Fox News” regardless of content. Vox is a lot of the same stuff plus a new-fangled invention called the “card stack,” an innovative approach which allows webpages to “link” to other pages. The Awl is a lot of the same stuff brought to you by the emotion sadness. Gawker is a lot of the same stuff, cleverly hidden across 1,200 sub-blogs along with several thousand words of instructions for how to read the site that are somehow still an inadequate guide. Vice is a lot of the same stuff written by that guy you knew in high school who told you he did cocaine but seemed to only ever have that fake marijuana called Wizard Smoke you could buy at a gas station. Five Thirty Eight, I’m told, exists, although whenever I try to open it my browser seems to show me a strange lacuna into which the idea of a website was, once, meant to congeal. But one way or another,  you could take 90% of what each of these sites publish and stick it on any other, and nobody would ever know the difference.

I’m sure some people will think I’m talking poop and saying these sites aren’t good. That is not the case. I’m saying that they are all as good or as bad as whatever piece I am reading at the moment. Writers are good or bad, and much more, writing is good or bad. But I no longer know what a website means as an identity, unless that identity is a specific subject. I know what Guns and Ammo is. I know what Road and Track is. (I know what Redtube is.) I don’t know what Fusion is. I’m not saying there’s no good work. There’s lots! I’m spoiled, we’re all spoiled, people do good work. All of these places regularly publish stuff that I admire, that I enjoy, that I think is good. (OK not Business Insider.) But that’s the only designation that matters: good. The rest is a matter of logistics and who gets that week’s John Oliver video traffic.

For a website, or a publication, or a magazine, or a natively advertising content vertical, there is no such thing as a sensibility. Such a thing does not exist. I get the desire to have one. For in as much as Salmon and Madrigal might seem like utter opposites from Alex Balk, with his morose virtuosity on the subject of a dead dream, in this sense they are the same: the want their sites, their publications, their shops to matter. And it just doesn’t seem like it matters. If you want to publish talent your identity has to be as insubstantial as the next good pitch. Getting paid? That matters. Rent matters. But not much else.

Which is my long-winded and less-perceptive way of looking at all the stuff John Herrman has been writing about and asking, if Facebook and Snapchat want to peddle your words themselves, what’s the difference? Unless, of course, the point is that Facebook and Snapchat get to keep that rent money for themselves.

Update: Again… I’m just teasing. Just a  little bit. These places run good writing. I’m not disputing that. I’m just saying that they are always launched with fanfare about what makes them different, but I’m not sure that you can ever maintain that kind of vision as an actually-existing publisher unless your site has a very specific, subject matter-based focus. When you’ve got to find enough writing to run, and you’ve received some great pitch that might not reflect your mission statement, what are you gonna choose? The abstraction of sensibility or the reality of good writing?