I have been something of a critic of our professional online writing industry for some time, and I have never been shy about criticizing the people who work in it. Chief among my complains is that online writing is a culture that thinks it isn’t one — that is, our class of online writing professionals think of themselves as representing a diverse range of opinions and ideologies, but subtle social and professional pressures among them tends to produce provincialism and conformity. The hardest thing is getting most people who write for a living online to acknowledge the ways in which advancement in that domain tends to require adhering to unspoken but powerful social codes.
Yet despite this criticism I am increasingly sympathetic to this group, in general, as I think they are in a no-win industry at the moment. The world of online writing is broken in a way that is very public and well-acknowledged. You’ve read it many times, I’m sure, from people like Alex Pareene and John Herrman: the click-based economy, driven by advertising as its only revenue stream, creates endless regurgitation of the same tired stories, leading to conditions like every website you follow running an identical story about how Amy Schumer smashed patriarchy with a skit. It compels sites to churn constantly, producing a deluge of posts every day, trying to capture sufficient ad revenue through sheer volume. That in turn leads to heavily-researched, high-effort, quality stories getting quickly pushed down into the void of the bottom of the vertical scroll, a nether-region that becomes even harder to escape from as the exponentially proliferating number of posts makes finding something good in the past that much more taxing. Sites try to find ways to highlight good work, keeping it around for longer, like Gawker’s failed Newsfeed experiment. But the push down the vertical scroll is relentless and stories seem to go stale incredibly quickly. Writers, meanwhile, are exhausted from the effort of trying to run fast enough on the treadmill, and burned out from producing endless amounts of aggregated garbage they have no reason to feel proud of. And even when good posts get highlighted for an appropriate amount of time, they’re not likely to earn half the traffic that today’s John Oliver video sweepstakes winner gets. An all-advertising model will always play to the bottom because the bottom sells.
I get bothered by all the garbage that gets pumped out every day. But individual writers are caught up in a broken economic system. You can be more garbage or less garbage but in the broader perspective people don’t have much choice, and there’s the rent to pay.
The reliance on producing on a massive scale to capture as many clicks as possible results in the weird situation of an industry with revenue problems featuring bloated payrolls. Because they have to throw content at the (Facebook) wall all day every day, many websites employ small armies of writers. I think I might actually be a staff writer for Fusion without knowing it. That in turn leads to an incredible sameness for online publishers, because you can’t have a distinct voice when that voice is actually a hundred voices talking about different stuff all at once.
Worse, and scarier, you’ve got the drip-by-drip erosion of the Chinese wall between advertising and editorial, such as has been going on at Buzzfeed. There will be no dam-breaking moment, no specific incident when we realize that newsmaking and selling have becoming indistinguishable from each other, just a gradual realization that the principle of editorial independence quietly suffocated under a listicle about 24 Things Less Tart ‘n’ Twangy than New Taste Explosion Starbursts. Native advertising and sponsored content and whatever other euphemisms are just part of a progression that few people in the industry are shameless enough to deny: that the entire point is to erode any remaining semblance of editorial independence from advertising. The Mail Online is just one of the pioneers. In an utterly saturated online media landscape with near-infinite supply of advertising space, the economic pressure to collapse the distinction between journalism and advertising will be too potent for most publishers to resist.
Nobody wants this. Nobody wants to peddle garbage. Nobody thinks the current state of professional writing online is good. (Well, maybe Ben Smith.) I get a lot of weepy pushback when I talk about this stuff from individual writers, but their hearts are never in it and they sound like aggrieved teenagers protecting a popularity hierarchy that they secretly hate and aren’t particularly high up on. (Usually, I know that online writers are feeling sensitive and defensive when they try to big time me, saying stuff like “well you’ve just got a blog,” while meanwhile they spent the day writing a listicle about Boy Meets World and once again forlornly adjusting the margins on their resume.) We’re in one of those weird situations where everybody in it agrees that it sucks but nobody thinks alternatives are possible. I have and will continue to talk a lot of shit about online writers who deserve it, but trust me when I say that I have great sympathy for them as a class. Nobody grows up dreaming of being a click farmer. (Well, maybe Ben Smith.)
At the heart of this issue is the bizarre fact that millions of people spend all day, every day taking advantage of the product the online writing industry is putting out, and the amount of money they are willing to pay directly for it is $0. You really cant overstate how fucked up it is that people who rely on this industry for work, education, information, and pleasure, and who consume its product obsessively day and night, pay nothing directly to the publishers themselves. Think about it. You pay $10 for a two hour movie. You pay $60 for a video game you play five times and never pick up again. You pay hundreds of dollars to Comcast even though you have no time in your life to watch TV. You wake up in the morning and read stuff online, you go to work and you read stuff online, you read stuff online after dinner and before bed, and not only do you not send a dime to the people who wrote it, the cultural expectation is that paywalls and subscriptions are actively ridiculous. “What, pay for online writing?” says guy who is literally never without a device in his immediate possession that enables him to read it.
People have to pay for the digital art, media, and writing they consume or else those things will disappear as professional phenomena. Under capitalism those things that are not paid for will inevitably become denegrated and marginalized; ask a 1950s housewife. The continued production of valuable, risky, deep, confrontational, quality writing is by no means assured. Anyone who has been paying attention should have long ago abandoned the Pollyanna notion of the internet as the great leveler, of the notion that digital distribution would result in a great flourishing of diversity. Instead, as books like Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform and Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? demonstrate, the current age is one of massive consolidation by huge firms like Google and Facebook, the latter of which is currently lording over journalism and commentary in a way that’s astonishing and frightening. I don’t know that anything can be done to oppose this consolidation of power, but I do know that the only chance we have is spending money on online publishers and writers directly.
I had AdBlock installed years ago without ever really thinking about it. Online ads are ugly and annoying and I’d prefer not to be deluged with one weird tricks. But several years ago I had a conversation with a writer I respect and admire, and she was telling me about how her publication at the time was really struggling to get ad revenue and stay solvent. And it occurred to me that my Adblock usage was hypocrisy. Though I’m totally opposed to heavy-handed enforcement efforts like suing individual downloaders or legislation like SOPA, I also have no patience for the endless rationalization and bad faith of enthusiastic digital pirates, who come up with vastly complex justifications for their practices that absolve them from any responsibility whatsoever to actually support the people who make the art they enjoy. I realized that using Adblock was putting me in the exact same place, so I disabled it and reentered the world of the ugly internet.
But today I reenabled AdBlock and added Disconnect, an extension like Ghostery that prevents sites from tracking your usage and farming your data. I urge you to do the same. The only way to save the internet is to starve the beast by making the click-based economy insolvent. It’s insolvent for a majority of publishers anyway; many of them are just riding a wave of VC funding, reassuring the investors that they’re sure to be profitable someday. Your rare Buzzfeeds are profitable largely through the aforementioned race to the bottom, enjoy networking effects that are not scalable, and are subject to the whims of the actually-powerful Facebook and Google. Facebook could crush Buzzfeed tomorrow. With a wave of Zuckerberg’s hand. No, what the internet needs is direct payments from readers to publications. That’s the only way to get outside of this terrible cycle.
I’m friendly with a member of the Board of Trustees at an elite private university. I was inveighing against the distorting, useless US News and World Report rankings to him a couple of years ago, as I do. He said that everyone in the academy knows the rankings are worthless and hurting college, but that no one felt that they could unilaterally disarm. “Nobody can be the first one out,” he said, which is a statement of cowardice but also of pragmatism. Something like that is happening in online writing. Sure, there are some places that employ paywalls or subscription services, but they are generally boutique operations that are founded on individual voices or which are part of political movements that inspire a charitable response from their readers. No, we need to expand the ranks of websites operating on a “give us money in exchange for our products and services” model, and the only way to do that is to shock them out of their institutional cowardice. We need to think big. We need to think like supervillains. We have to break the current internet to give birth to the next one.
So I urge you all to turn on AdBlock and Disconnect or Ghostery. Starve the beast. Deny them advertising revenue. Break the broken model. Force them to confront the fact that the advertising-only model not only compels them to constantly publish garbage but doesn’t even hold up its end of the bargain with profitability. It’s time to get apocalyptic in here.
There will be an ugly contraction of publishers, but everybody already believes there’s going to be an ugly contraction of publishers. There will be a lot of people out of jobs, but everybody already believes a mass de-professionalization is coming. The ensuing industry would be smaller, but smarter, better, and with greater integrity. And considering that there is literally no value added to the world by dozens of people spending an hour writing the same desultory aggregation copy for the latest bullshit viral video, very little would be lost. In the best case scenario, the truly worthless aggregators like Elite Daily or Viral Nova would disappear. More realistically, they would simply emerge as entirely separate entities from the sites that actually investigate the world and write intelligent, challenging, useful things about it. Let Facebook have its garbage peddling function, and let a separate internet, a paid-for internet, flourish under the durable scheme of trading money for valuable work. On the internet we are bombarded with willful invocations of what “technology wants,” claims that current conditions are simply the result of a changing technological world, rather than acknowledgment that in fact the human world is the product of human practice and human choice. Well, let’s bend that bad faith to our own purpose. We have the technology! The internet wants to be ad free. How’s that sound? Why not treat adblocking technology as an engine of disruption, or whatever other ten-cent word you prefer, in the same way we resign ourselves to the death of the professional music industry?
We can do this. Yes, we can. We can crush impressions. We can kill clicks. We can ruin ad revenues. We can destroy the internet to save it. We have the power. Pretty up your browser and deny advertisers their impressions. Come kill a website with me today. Then we’ll wander the wasteland together.