Is social media on the decline? Here’s hoping. A lovely piece in The New Yorker last week by Jia Tolentino lamented the loss of blogging, idiosyncrasy, quirkiness, and intelligence from the web. This set of reflections on the Awl compiled by Max Read in these pages also conveys the essence of the Internet That Nearly Was. Tom Scocca gets the essence of this old era: “What the Awl represented to me was the chance to write exactly what I meant to write, for an audience I trusted to read it.”
I feel entirely the same way about the blogging golden age. What was precious about it was its simple integrity: A writer gets to explore her craft and develop her own audience. We weren’t in it for the money or the clicks or the followers. We were in it for the core experience shared between a writer and a reader — and the enormous freedom that removing the editorial gatekeepers unlocked. It was a brief period, but an alive one, and it was largely lost — or abandoned — because of a major failure of nerve on the part of most print media. (Harper’s was and is a notable exception.) I was there, for example, at The Atlantic, when it felt it had no choice but to abandon its small group of bloggers and their devoted audiences in favor of a business strategy to maximize page views through social media. I witnessed a great American literary institution a century-and-a-half old feel it necessary to suck up to Facebook and Twitter. I saw when the goal across the media shifted from simply writing what you believed, however idiosyncratically, to writing more and more and more, so that the sheer volume of traffic might save the economics of web journalism. The fire-hydrant stream of “content” (“writing” was so passé) was so overwhelming that no single editor could manage it, no group of writers could give it character, and no single reader could even begin to read it all. Maybe the web made this inevitable. But it didn’t make the dissipation of so much heritage any less agonizing to watch.
And after a few years of “social” obsession, online media began to seem all the same: a heaving, pulsating, twitching ocean of hot takes and insta-news in which tribal identity always took precedence over style or elegance or quirkiness or diversity of view. And it didn’t really work as a business model anyway. Instead of consolidating their own readerships and loyalty, magazines became dependent on Zuckerberg and Twitter, vulnerable to shifts in the Facebook News Feed, which is now moving away from news. Increasingly and mercifully, writers and editors are discovering that their actual economic value lies not in countless page views, but in a relationship between readers and writers. Subscriptions increasingly matter more than page views with their diminishing ad revenues, which is why the subscriber buoyancy of the Washington Post and the New York Times is so encouraging. I’m proud that my own blog, the Dish, never bent the knee to social media, and was eventually proof that the best business model was always reader loyalty and engagement — quality, not quantity. Which is why we were able to develop an online subscription model of 30,000 paid and passionate online subscribers — still more than any other purely online website has acquired two years later.
But there’s hope on the horizon again. The sewer of most of Twitter is now so rank that even addicts have begun to realize that they are sinking in oceans of shitholery. Facebook is long overdue for a collapse, and the old institutions are showing signs of developing more character and coherence. Nick Bilton at Vanity Fair cannot wait for FaceTwitterGramChat to peak:
A few years ago, for example, there wasn’t a single person I knew who didn’t have Facebook on their smartphone. These days, it’s the opposite. This is largely anecdotal, but almost everyone I know has deleted at least one social app from their devices. And Facebook is almost always the first to go. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and other sneaky privacy-piercing applications are being removed by people who simply feel icky about what these platforms are doing to them, and to society.
The evidence that social media has turned journalism into junk, has promoted addictive addlement in our brains, is wrecking our democracy, and slowly replacing life with pseudo-life is beginning to become unavoidable. And the possibility that the media may recover from its loss of nerve is real.
Readers will reward quality. The editors of our day, if we’re lucky, will begin to realize that this is the economic future of journalism, and bank on it again. This tide will turn. Drop your Twitter; abandon Facebook; and buy a subscription to a magazine that is trying to save its own soul.