Fix the internet by writing good stuff and being nice to people


Today’s internet is mean. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when everyone online became a jerk, but to me it seems that the tipping point occurred right when making money off content started being worth more than the content itself. I wrote the following post before the election but never got around to publishing it. Now, it seems more necessary than ever.

image from http://www.boweryboyshistory.com/

One Times Square used to be the headquarters of the New York Times in the early 1900s. As the new, cleaner Times Square emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, advertising began to take over, and the real estate value of One Times Square skyrocketed. In the 90s, the building was sold and repurposed. Today, it is today used as a giant billboard There are almost no businesses inside, because it makes no financial sense to lease it out.

This is the state of the internet today. What once was an asynchronous collection of rich, weird content(blogs about doctors who also wrote comic books, Twitter feeds like Big Data Borat, cookbooks for engineers, interesting subReddits, the Perry Bible Fellowship, and weird ASCII art, is now overwhelmingly advertising peppered with clickbait content.

Where did the content go? Facebook, Twitter, and Medium

newspaper reading

People used to write blogs. Long blogs. Rambling blogs. Blogs they weren’t sure anyone was reading. There was a LOT of noise. But there were also blogs that had fun stories, long posts about how to do something, analyses of government issues, of cooking techniques, of the Civil War. People used to write stuff other people wanted to read.

As the internet has become more consolidated (with the loss of free content-creation and circulation websites like Livejournal, Myspace, Geocities,Metafilter, Digg, Tumblr (which is no longer free since it allows affiliate links, all of that stuff started to disappear.

Todays’ top ten sites by visits include YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, platforms that are so massive that they require a huge amount of capital to run. That capital requires a return on investment,particularly for venture-bootstrapped startups that need to guarantee return to their investors on a scale not realistic for organic businesses.

The quickest way to do this, as Buzzfeed and Upworthy have proven, has been advertising-sponsored content that is engineered to appeal to the broadest possible audience.

As a result, everyone, even respected content creators like The Washington Post, have been so required to look for quick hits that will go viral, that it is now almost next to impossible to find quirky, coherent, interesting, weird, intelligent things to read. If the internet used to be like an independent used bookstore - sometimes inconvenient, but always with new, original content recommended lovingly by people who are passionate about and understand the content - today, it is like Barnes and Noble - a few things that are popular for everyone in a single, enormous chain that’s standardized across the country.

Whereas before content used to be spread out on numerous domains in numerous ways, content now mostly makes its home on the three domains that are most hostile to thoughtful human discussion: Twitter, Medium, and Facebook.

What clued me into the absence of good places for public discourse in 2016 is the newish phenomenon of tweet storms, or, as they’ve come to be known, “threads.” They started a couple years ago, but have really hit their stride this year with the election.

A tweet storm is where a person will get outraged about something and write 10 - 15 incendiary tweets out of context about the issue, gaining more and more retweets as they go. While it’s a great way to “signal-boost” an issue (signal-boosting is a concept that’s also growing increasingly important in an internet that’s flooded with noise), it’s the absolute opposite of good discourse.

People pick up tweets out of context and they’re retweeted without any fact-checking, or room to edit or recant thoughts. There’s barely even any room to express coherent ideas. In the world of 140 characters, things move quickly. In some cases, it results in positive outcomes. But, increasingly, it’s become a way to quickly react to situations in an off-the-cuff way.

For example, recently, a woman live-tweeted being groped on a plane. She initially tweeted that she wouldn’t post the picture of the man, then she did. The internet has long since forgotten about the incident, but this man’s life, for better or worse, is ruined. It’s possible that before Twitter, she wouldn’t have thought to address the incident at all, which is also a failure of the system, but, on the other hand, does this man need to be publicly exposed to the entirety of the internet? A moral question that needs to be thought out, a person’s whole reputation ruined in the milliseconds it takes to press send.

Here is another example of a thread, a wonderful, beautiful thread, that should be its own blog post, because Twitter’s horrendous chronological formatting design is meant to maul and strangle content to the point that it’s unrecognizable. Do you want your stories chronicled in this way?

The other serious problem with Twitter is that it, in the words of Titus Andromedon, speaks like Chandler Bing. I think about that quote a lot. Sometime around Gawker’s founding and expansion, a certain editorial voice came into vogue in New York media: cynical, wary, know-it-all, clipped, insider-y, hostile to the outsider. This tone has slowly permeated Twitter to the point where it’s almost impossible to have a genuine conversation with anyone, or to ask any questions without being labeled ignorant and “problematic.”

This is not just me wringing my hands about technology and Kids Today. I’ve been on Twitter since 2009 and it’s been one of the most important things in my life. I’ve met future coworkers, friends, and been to places I wouldn’t have gone because of conversations I’ve had on it. I love Twitter. But these days, I am also terrified of its mob mentality

Medium, while longer-form and less schizophrenic, is just as dangerous. It, like Twitter, is a a proprietary platform (although encourages Creative Commons licensing). It was initially started by Evan Williams, also of Twitter, and interestingly enough, as an alternative to the 140-character limit. It started as a really great idea with good intentions. There are some really interesting articles on the platform.

Unfortunately, the people Williams initially invited to the platform initially were all Silicon Valley insiders and their friends, and the original articles they wrote were very tech industry inside-baseball, (just check out the top stories of all time),and privileged..

They set the initial tone of the site, resulting in articles that are tone-deaf, entitled, and not welcoming of other points of view.

And finally, where is the rest of our content, if people are not blogging anymore? They are writing very long posts on Facebook. I just did it a couple weeks ago. Instead of opening a text editor and writing out my thoughts in one of the two blogs I owned on my own platform, I gave my synthesized thoughts freely to Facebook, to be dissected by friends of friends who have never met me, and by Facebook’s ads team.

The interesting and dismaying thing with Facebook is that it’s so disincentivized people to write interesting things in favor of posting random inaccurate clickbait, that Facebook is trying to claw back content by making the UI look terrible to incentivize people to write less.

Of course, since the election, many people, including myself, have finally internalized that Facebook is a burning dumpster fire of memes and political messages that physically exhaust everyone and cause social anxiety, to the point of directly influencing our political process. But, we’re so wired to check for positive reinforcement that we can’t tear ourselves away.

Which brings me to the saddest thing about these platforms: they are taking all of our input and time, and our thoughts, energy, and content, and using all of that for free to make money. Think about how many times you’ve tweeted. Or written or commented on a Facebook post. Or started a Medium draft. These are all our words, locked in proprietary platforms that controls not only how our message is displayed, but how we write it, and even more worrying, how we think about it.

So,what’s the state of our content union, at a time when, more than ever, information and discourse is important for a functioning civil society? Our information is fragmented, hyperbolized, littered with advertising, and aggregated, locked into three walled gardens of platforms that dictate how we create and consume our content.

How do we fix this?

Woman watches as men change a tire on a Model T

Here are the best news, writing and content-curation sites (defined as most interesting, most entertaining, or gives the most amount of information) I know of on the English-speaking internet today:

+Stratechery. + ALDaily. +Aeon. +The New Yorker. +Farnam Street. +HTML Giant. +ProPublica +StackOverflow

Most of these sites either accept donations or have subscriptions.The sites that have ads are vetted extremely carefully. Most have fully-devoted editorial staff, or a very good way to build community to encourage quality comments. Some cost money to join as a member and leave comments. None are owned by enormous conglomerate media companies (the New Yorker being the exception that proves the rule.) All of them are independent.

This brings up an important question that we didn’t really stop to think about when building the web as it is today: who pays for high quality information?

And my answer is that it has to be us.

We have created the internet as it is today, and we have the power to change it back into something that is filled with good things to read and consume. If we want good, distributed content, we have to support things that move in that direction.

Today, I think the key is to start small. Everyone can fight against bad content.

1) The best way you can defy crap content on their own is to write your own blog on your own platform. Don’t let threads, Facebook posts, and Medium take your words and your creative license. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, because it’s easier to write Facebook posts and that’s where the audience is. But there are ENORMOUS benefits to long-form blogging, from showing employers how you think, to meeting like-minded people, to simply becoming a better writer. And the internet needs a lot of good, conscientious writers thinking about different topics. And particularly weird topics, topics no one writes about. One of my favorite things to do is to browse the blogs of people who live off the grid in Alaska. I have no interest in that lifestyle, but I am interested in what makes people choose it, and how they live, because it’s completely different from how I live. And diversity in thought and experience is hugely important for society, too. Empathy and understanding how others think is one of the best parts of the internet.

2) Share good content. Don’t believe everything you read online. Think twice about sharing a controversial political post that’s written to take advantage of your emotions and gain page views. Seek out good things, and share good things. Engage in thoughtful conversation about those things. One of the blogs that does this best is Wait But Why. I am always so excited when I see these things shared around because it means people are participating in good discussions.

On the contrary, refuse to read bad content. This includes refusing to give in to clickbait and sites that make it hard to get to content.

3) Acknowledge creators by paying them Vote with your wallet for the content you want to see in the world.

Pay for good magazine subscriptions. If someone is offering a paid subscription instead of the free version, and you can afford it, support it. Contribute money to someone writing good things or creating a good podcast or making good music. Doesn’t have to be a lot. A dollar a month. A Kickstarter campaign. Even micropayments or Patreon are great.

If you can’t pay money, send an encouraging email. I save all the positive emails people send me about my blog posts in a folder to reread when I get discouraged, and I have never written someone who is not happy to hear that what they are creating is awesome.

4) Use adblockers. Goes without saying.

And finally,

5) Engage in dialogue with people who are different from you. One of the hardest things is to understand the other side. The rift between groups of people, conflict, and controversy is what clickbait thrives on. Squelch it. This is probably the hardest one to do, because we are hardwired to block out people we disagree with. Get off Facebook. Talk to people in good comment sections. Visit sites with comments. Encourage your favorite publication to moderate comments. Volunteer to be a moderator.

This does not mean subjecting yourself to pointless, toxic arguments with people who can’t be convinced. It does not mean ruining your mental health in comment sections that are not civil. It means, little by little working to change minds, and engaging with the internet around us.

We are a LONG, long ways away from the destruction of the internet as a giant billboard. It takes time to turn a huge skyscraper into an gutted shell of a building, and it will take just as much time to turn our current internet from a loud, obnoxious, toxic mall, back into a public forum.