Sometimes I just want a big, heavy stick to hit people in the head with. I’d call it my “You didn’t invent this” stick.
I would use it when I heard some (usually younger) person lamenting some condition of humankind that strikes him as a revelation, as though he found the New World, when all he really is doing is describing to you the exact same thing you went through a decade or two earlier – because everyone goes through it.
I felt a need for such a stick when reading what a couple of people who have worked in online media companies recently had to say about how the Internet has really gone downhill since back in the day when it was a simply fabulous way to get information.
“I began my media career about seven years ago as an unabashed internet enthusiast,” David Sessions wrote in an essay in late August on Patrolmag.com that reads like the lament of a late-career curmudgeon (and I won’t even get started on the issue of whether you can describe seven years as a career). “… 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.”
In an interview in May at a conference called New York Ideas, Choire Sicha – who all of five long years ago co-founded The Awl, a popular current-events and culture blog – was less specific about his “early” Internet use, but the implication of all he said was that once upon a time, the Internet did nothing but bring untold riches of powerful writing to his digital doorstep. There was no end of interesting things to read.
Alas, no more.
“I do not read a lot of things anymore,” Sicha said. “A lot of us don’t, we sort of go where the tide takes us. I feel weird about that.”
Sessions felt no better, but there’s a funny thing about his description of so much that is wrong with the Internet:
“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 (or) 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.”
You could take that description and swap most of it out with what people said back in the ‘80s and ’90s about pack journalism and the push for short news stories and splashy graphics in American newspapers, especially those owned by Gannett or any others influenced by USA Today, which itself was influenced by how information was presented on television.
It takes a narrow scope to believe that some Golden Age of Reading began on the Internet, or that the evolution or devolution of reading habits didn’t begin until the past five years instead of, if you could go back and ask your great-great-grandparents, a hundred years ago, or further back yet.
What Sicha and Sessions said was true, but in a larger sense it has always been true, and there is an old saying for it: The world is going to hell in a handbasket.
You didn’t invent this experience, I want to yell at them, though I would also point out that each of them had a hand in inventing the current, digital incarnation of the handbasket. Neither of them appears to recognize this.
Sessions, in fact, seems to need a double-whack with a stick.
“I never read print newspapers or magazines devotedly,” he wrote in the first paragraph of his lament about how unsettled he is by changes in how people use Internet media, “so I never experienced unsettling changes in habits the way many people have as they transitioned primarily to digital reading in the past decade.”
Let’s be clear about this: The media platforms being discussed here may be different, but the unsettled nature of change is eternal and recognizes no boundaries, whether physical or digital. Before the unsettling change of digital news came the unsettling change of the 24-hour news cycle wrought by cable TV news, which came after the unsettling change of the country’s once-dominant afternoon newspapers either switching to morning delivery or going out of business after losing out to morning papers, which coincided with the disappearance of two-newspaper cities, none of which were the first of the unsettling changes.
The problem isn’t that, as Sicha said and Sessions echoed, “something’s wrong” with the Internet. There is something wrong, though: humans. We are the reason we can’t have nice things.
Afternoon papers went away because people’s schedules changed, and morning papers then seemed more convenient. People’s schedules kept changing, and print circulation began declining for decades before the Internet arrived because even morning papers eventually came to be seen by some as not convenient – there was no time to read anymore, and the pile of unread papers was both a bother and a reminder that once upon a time there was a thing called leisure that involved reading. When the Internet came along, and especially when it moved onto phones, that became more convenient still. But what many people have decided they want that mobile Internet for is time-wasting, mindless crap to fill the minutes-long gaps in their day or to relieve their stress, something to distract them, not something to make them think, so that’s the kind of thing that becomes profitable.
“People are coming to news and entertainment content by lazy phone clicking,” Sicha said. “So we’re bored, we’re looking at our phones. We’re lonely, we’re looking at our phones. And so whatever weird portal you’re going through, then you’re clicking through to things from there.”
And this isn’t the first time that happened. In the early days of television, some thought that TV would be the way to bring fine arts to the masses. Go to your TV now and find an opera or Broadway play. I’ll wait.
Think the Internet will get better someday? In 1961, FCC chairman Newton N. Minow called television programming a “vast wasteland” – and that was four years before “My Mother the Car.” Television had yet to sink to the era of the Kardashians and “Fear Factor.”
“Something’s wrong”? Only us. We say we want to eat healthy vegetables, but we’ll go for the candy when no one is looking. Seeing that, the folks who make money off what we like will constantly pivot. If you see something you like, buy it, or tomorrow it may be gone.
“The only thing that is constant is change,” a Greek philosopher named Heraclitus wrote about 2,500 years ago, probably right after someone complained that reading on papyrus just doesn’t deliver the same tactile pleasure as reading from a leather scroll.