Social Media

Internet Stone Soup


Almost fifteen years ago I’d wake in a cold sweat almost every day. In the early-morning murk I’d stumble down to my basement office, still in my pajamas. Proper ablutions – a shower, a shave, clothes – would come later, after I confirmed the world had not disappeared overnight.

I’d wake up my computer and discover, to my dismay, that it had not.

I was full-time blogger, the little brother to the journalist, the digital-ink-stained wretch that pounded out content for millions of readers with speed and attempted accuracy. I don’t consider myself that now – I needed a bit of a break from chasing news – but I still write too much and sit around too long. But back then, when blogging was new, I would click a button on my computer to bring up a list of exciting and interesting pieces of information – Sony was releasing a new computer, someone had hacked Target, someone had shown a cat how to use an iPad. I would select sixteen to twenty stories, opening them one by one and placing them, like cans to be plinked on a rail, on my tabs bar.

I was part of the new journalistic vanguard. I worked for the nascent Gizmodo, part of the Gawker network founded by former journalist Nick Denton. We were told to thumb our noses at the establishment, to push PR flacks in front of trains, to ignore the spin and get to the truth. We wrote quickly and often. In the beginning, when I was a one-man shop, I wrote up to 28 posts per day – 200 to 500 word “journalistic” pieces – based on these links. They were extremely standard chunks of informative media, so divorced from context or interconnection that they could have acted as curatorial notes for an artist that everyone already knows. What I wrote contained none of the hallmarks of traditionally good writing. It did not contain contextual prerequisites, a sense of wonder or perplexity, and I left exposition to HTML tags. At its worst it was infinitely exchangeable with any other piece of content on the Web 2.0 Internet and at its worst it could be needlessly snarky, poorly-structured, or just plain wrong.

My writing changed as the Internet changed. My style morphed, in year one, from eager and breathless to cynical and sardonic as the avalanche of post requirements took over my life. Once I took a week’s vacation in Mexico with my wife. I spent most of the week on the beach but when I went into the business center to check my email I noticed a severe physical reaction. I broke out in a sweat and my heart rate rose dramatically. I thought I was sick. But I wasn’t. I was just passing through the gravitational pull of early-21st-century blogging.

The stress made me judgmental and hostile. I was running at a hundred miles an hour so why wasn’t everyone else? I would berate PR people about giving scoops to traditional news sources like the New York Times or Wired. Per one source I made engineers at TiVo cry with my nasty review of their latest DVR. I was a caricature of the scrappy, angry journalist howling at sources on the phone and getting fatter and fatter as I ate lunch and dinner at my desk, washing it all down with wine and whiskey.

The important thing to note is that I was probably consuming as much news and content in 2001 as the average Facebook and Twitter user does today. And it made me crazy. It hurt me. But it also prepared me for the unending torrent of news that I would be managing in the 2010s.

Soon Gizmodo was posting 60 or so posts a day with little editorial oversight. I had a team of five posting 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Our news judgement was simple. First we would give precedence to news that only I had – we called them “exclusives” but they were basically press releases we received early – and wend our way to news others had – reblogging. We’d pump out twenty posts between 8am and noon. After noon we would find forty more. These posts are embarrassing to read now. For a while Gizmodo had no bylines so it’s hard to find my earliest posts but what follows is a post about a little piece of plastic that attaches to the edge of your desk and helps you manage your mouse better.

The Edgewing is a little hunk of plastic that sticks to your desk and offers a bit of wrist support for heavy mousing. While it is niether [sic] amazing or super cool, it actually works. I slapped one to my desk today and it’s quite comfortable. You can buy one or two or get them with your business logo on there for giveaways. $9.95 each, but your carpal tunnels might thank you.

Yes, I spelled “neither” wrong. On an international news source read by, at that time, about 2 million people monthly. We were a freaking mess. We published every 15 minutes, calling slots so we wouldn’t stomp over new posts. This system soon fell by the wayside as the torrent of content continued to grow.

This went on for two years with pieces running at about the same quality. Slowly, however, the medium evolved. There was a definite push back toward long form journalism and startups appeared who attempted to monetize what magazines had been doing for a century. Everyone started blogging, from neo-Nazis to Pioneer Women to Bill Gates. It was a surprising pleasure to watch the work that I did, the impetus to post at all hours and to pump out content all day and night, grow into something that CEO’s did to market their wares.

But still traffic was paramount. When everyone was a blogger the slices of the traffic pie we could access would shrink. New technologies like RSS newsreaders were both damaging to our bottom line and helped spread our news far and wide. Ad blockers weren’t that powerful back then and the only traffic that mattered was banner impressions and clicks. We had to figure out a way to grab more traffic in a crowded news marketplace.

We didn’t even have social media yet. If RSS was a catalyst then social media was jet fuel. But that came later.

“Grab the low hanging fruit,” said one of my editors, Joel Johnson. “Get your post count up.” That was the extent of his managerial advice. Write more. Everything else be damned.

Boy, was he right. We upped the post count and we upped our traffic. I was never fully privy to the advertising revenue (by design because I had “ethics” and couldn’t sully my mind with the mundanity of revenue) but blogs at that time were selling small square ads for about $10,000 a month, more if you were particularly popular. At the same time ad networks were appearing that let you embed code into your website and sit back and reap the rewards of the Amazon Associates system – a way to get cash every time people bought items through your site – or Google’s Adsense. I didn’t care about the business side. It made no sense to me to worry about how much money a post could generate primarily because I never saw much of that cash – I made about $60,000 in those days – and I “wasn’t in it for the money,” I told myself. Sadly, there was little other reason to be in it for.

I wrote all of this content – 25 to 30 posts a day for two years, 9,000 words a day on the low end – first for Gizmodo. When I began we saw about 100,000 page views a month – about as many as a popular online store today. Near the end we dwarfed much of our competition, bringing in 5 million pageviews or more. It was great. Then I helmed another site, CrunchGear, and ran it in the same way. We were fast and loose, endlessly flip, and we just wanted to have fun. The motto “First Thought Best Thought” held true for us but not in any poetic sense. We wanted to get stuff up as quickly as possible. We created massive collections of posts on one topic, eventually creating multi-thousand word dossiers on various companies that could be read one post at a time. We had fans around the world who would send in funny videos, photos, and news tips. Our commenters would complain that we were biased or ignorant or malicious. We didn’t care. We just needed to get posts out the door.

The writing I did was coyly called “service journalism” and sometimes I was able to surface niblets of news that actually changed someone’s mind or helped a small business. Once I wrote about a little piece of plastic that connected a WD-40 oil can to its little red straw. The plastic piece cost $5 or so and I wrote that it was really cool. A few months later the creator of the widget who owned a small plastic factory in Pennsylvania, called me to thank me for saving his business. We had real power but it manifested itself rarely. Luckily, we still do.

There were also opinion pieces thrown in here and there on slow days but the readers usually ignored them. Alternatively, we would write unpopular pieces of opinion detailing our preference for one phone over another and unleash a firestorm of reactions with comment counts numbering in the hundreds. We were like maintenance men of a massive ant farm regularly dropping sugar pellets into the mix to keep the ants happy and then introducing a wasp or two to keep things interesting.

When I started writing for blogs I treated the posts I wrote like a public chat I was holding with the audience. In one post I mentioned I needed to get new tires for my car so I needed to write about this Nokia phone with great haste. In others we simply repeated one word, “iPhone,” over and over. The intellectual would say I was experimenting with the form but, in reality, I was just messing around. Blogging was born of the forum cultures that sprung up in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Forums focused on one topic – video games, watches, cars – and featured the regular chatter that most of us know (“Hey, anyone try RainX on their tinted windows?”) to exclusive content posted by rich or well-connected insiders. Many blogs started as forums and morphed into news organizations. One blog, called Bengal Boy, was run by a rich man in Hawaii (we think). He would hire models to hold the latest Motorola phones next to their (clothed) genitalia and to display them on their tanned bellies and his forum posts were legendary. Slowly he moved his content, such as it was, to a separate site that became a news source for all the other bloggers. While his methods were ridiculous we all felt his exclusive access to some pretty choice electronics was great.

His site is gone now, a strange fever dream memory of the heyday of early blogging.

I wrote quickly and poorly. I raged against all I learned in journalism school – I have a Master’s in Business and Economic Reporting from the august but still scruffy NYU journalism department – and what I was produced was like no reporting anyone had seen. I could write a post in a minutes, much to the delight of my New York Times editor. He could assign me two freelance pieces after lunch and get them back before he finished his post-postprandial coffee. But I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t concentrate. My long form writing style was shot. I tried to write books and they broke as I wrote them, cleaving into disconnected pieces as I typed. It was a handicap, this ability to write 200 words on anything in the world, and I felt a little empty.

At the same time the demand for this sort of content was growing. People wanted to read about the latest stuff from a team of folks who knew a lot about it. We were confidants, pranksters, helpers, and hunters. One blog was literally called CoolHunting and that’s all it did – hunt for cool things. Anyone with an eye on Facebook will now realize that nearly everyone is now hunting for cool things. Back in 2004, however, it was novel.

Early on, people associated our writing with gonzo journalism. I didn’t. Hunter S. Thompson was writing in a post-television style, a whirlwind of images and disconnected conversation that was held together by the spectacle of his language and the fireworks of his prose. Thompson brought the rushed confidence and bacchanal of a movie star to the page. I fulfilled the desires of an inelegant but constantly media-hungry, Internet-based workforce by writing like one of their chat room buddies. We were providing a constant source of information unmatched in the media industry. Everything, from newspapers to television, to magazines, required processing time. A live shoot from a traffic emergency required a dozen or so engineers at the station to manage the feed and send it to your television screen where million-dollar anchors bantered about the weather. Newspapers had meetings where they decided the next day’s news and the magazine industry had long lunches where they planned next Spring in the Summer.

We didn’t do that. We just wrote.

Before joining Gizmodo I worked for Laptop Magazine, paper title that was wildly popular, according to our ratings experts, in the Honolulu airport. When it was founded the laptop was about as big as a shoebox full of bricks and about as heavy. In 2001 the magazine had just passed through its salad years and was looking warily at the Internet. It was still thick and virile, full of buying advice and tips and tricks. We had copy editors, an art department, and photographers. And all that stuff cost a lot of money.

Slowly I watched the magazine move towards the web. During my tenure I sat down with the previous reviews direction, a manic man who kept all of his laptop reviews in massive filing cabinets near his desk and who was completely against automating his job. His collection of spec sheets – essentially lists of speeds and feeds for every laptop made since, I assume, the dawn of time – was as precious to him as the library of Alexandria.

I, the barbarian, wasn’t impressed. I hacked together a database of laptops that allowed him complete control of every field that the reader could want. I created sorting algorithms that let you remove laptops without Wi-Fi or pick only Sony laptops. I let you sort them by price and added direct links to online stores. Yet the record keeper was undaunted. He didn’t want to lose his domain. I showed the project to our editor and it became the cornerstone of a new Laptop website. It also signaled the beginning of the end of Laptop Magazine.

Laptop Magazine lasted in paper form for a few years after I left. The records-keeper left while I was there, maddened by the decision to dump his records in the garbage. The paper magazine slowly dwindled like a cancer patient and died, leaving only a set of reviews, tips and tricks, and opinion pieces posted for free on a website alongside a massive database of every laptop ever made since the dawn of my database.

But before all that the editor-in-chief laid me off at Laptop primarily because I was too interested in the Web. I was no longer a magazine editor but a web editor and when I wandered jobless for a few weeks I noticed a post on Gizmodo looking for a new writer. I emailed the current editor Joel Johnson and I drove up to his home in Brooklyn to meet with him. He was frazzled. He told me that he had written sixteen posts that day and had many more to go – miles to go before he slept – and that he needed someone who could keep up. I said I could do it.

“There are some guys from the New York Times who want the job,” he said.

I nodded sagely.

“But I’m here and ready to go,” I said.

And I was cheap.

Slowly I fell into Joel’s pattern and began writing as quickly as he could, mimicking some of his voice. He quit a few months after I started, leaving me to helm the site alone. And so I woke every morning, padded down to the basement, and wrote content. I pushed it out as fast as I could, not caring who read it or why. I went to press events – catered affairs where old newspapermen ate little sandwiches and listened to old executives talk about new technology and I live-blogged. By the time the old newspapermen and women trundled to their offices to write up the event we bloggers already had four stories written and were on to the next thing. They could not compete.

We beat everyone to the punch. Everyone. No major media organization built before the year 2001 could match our speed and traffic. TC writer Devin Coldewey wrote that in blogging you could have three things – speed, accuracy, or insight – but you could only pick two for every post. We aimed for speed and accuracy more than insight.

All this work, all this writing was paying off. We were getting noticed.

One time I went to a press event and met a competitor who worked at the Wall Street Journal. He marveled at how much we wrote and wondered how many of us there were.

“Mostly just me,” I said. “We’re hiring more people.”

He was amused because journalists are never amazed.

“You write big,” he said.

We kept up the pace by writing quickly. Then, slowly, our techniques spread. The impetus to blog moved from the quick and dirty blogging world of my wayward youth into newsrooms around the country. Huge sites sprung up dedicated to our special sort of content. Buzzfeed, the home of the listicle, packaged so much media in such a readable package that it changed the way we read regular news sites. Now no local newspaper website is complete without a (usually sponsored) bar full of odd news stories. “You’ll never believe what she looks like now!” they’ll write under a picture of Lindsay Lohan. “This is one weird trick doctors don’t want you to know about weight loss,” they’ll write under a photo from Grey’s Anatomy. Suddenly an entire news industry sprung up and current news sites changed drastically. They picked up on all of the bad habits I learned by being speedy. The triple-sourced, copy-edited, fact-checked news story turned into the hot take. Research fell to Google searches. Forethought fell to the impetus for traffic. Complexity fell to the needs of the lowest common denominator. When everything is breaking news there is no breaking news. Everything receives equal import and equal attention which is to say none at all.

And it went on and on, post after post. I passed information from corporations to readers and sometimes I got lucky and told the reader something the corporation didn’t want them to know. I shared ideas with millions of people and appeared on television as a so-called expert in technology. And I wasn’t alone. All around the Internet men and woman followed my same trajectory. For some of us that trajectory meant countless fruitless hours writing about the minutiae of watches or bird feeders. For others it meant budding careers in politics after years spent watching the rich and powerful get richer and more powerful. For still more it meant owning and benefiting from a network of sites so varied and popular that they could control whole swathes of national conversations in very specific ways. The old Internet, the idea of one person connecting with a few people in a meaningful way, fell away and a new paradigm emerged, that of the meme, the idea that hops from site to site like a virus hops hosts. Imagine a string of Christmas lights, some blinking brighter than others and occasionally a surge turning them all at once and you can visualize viral information on this new network. And that viral information offered something very special to the average reader: It offered instant comfort and it scratched the itch of the new. It became some of the most compelling entertainment around.

Why is this important?

Because my experience is a microcosm of what happened to media in the 21st century it can begin to explain how we ended up in an era of intentional ignorance and with a truly broken media. The tools we perfected in those early days were some of the most pernicious and powerful tools in existence, honed to razor sharpness to cut off only the fattest parts of the truth, abandoning the nuance. We were not originally butchers – we had loftier goals – but when traffic (and traffic bonuses) became our driving impetus and when Google advertisers valued eyeballs over brains we had to provide content that fit a certain mindset and provide it at speed. It was as if we had invented a steam engine and set off across the landscape without inventing a brake. And we had limitless tons of coal.

At the same time another interesting group of Internet users began taking advantage of a world defined by fast, loose, and easy. These users, primarily found on sites like Reddit and 4chan, were digital natives and had a deep understanding of how to make something bubble to the surface of the Internet. These tricksters organized under the name Anonymous and they attempted to attack various targets including Al Qaeda – by cracking passwords and posting fake Twitter messages – and Scientology by spreading its secrets. Their “ops” were often ineffective but they help train an entire generation in what can be called online activism. This training involved “making” news by surfacing exactly the content the Anons wanted to showcase. For example, one anonymous artist who calls herself Zardulu used these techniques to spread viral memes. Her most famous work, Pizza Rat, involved filming a rat dragging a slice of pizza across a subway platform. She also created a famous photograph of a raccoon riding an alligator which went viral, appearing on hundreds of TV news channels. In short the once-insular and insulated world of the Internet was actively spreading its tentacles into the real world.

Zardulu’s view was that “Myths came before art, before written word and even language. Myths are the building blocks of which imagination and creativity are built.” Obviously putting a taxidermied raccoon and alligator in a river and getting Bill O’Reilly to talk about it on Fox News isn’t quite a mythic miracle but Zardulu is essentially proving that the old ways are the best and the methods of spreading information on the Internet can be hacked in very unique ways to get very unique results. In some cases this might get a mention on TMZ and in other cases this supercharged hoaxing can elect a president.

In his seminal book Amusing Ourselves To Death, Neil Postman chronicled the move from the Typographical Age – an age of deep concentration that required prodigious levels of patience and education in nearly every citizen – to the Show Biz Age. This transition, to Postman, meant that mankind was leaving behind evidence, forethought, and eloquence and instead took up a language made up of constantly moving pictures. In his world the demons were commercials and TV preachers.

“The viewers…know that no matter how grave and fragment of news pay appear (for example, on the day I write a Marine Corps has declared that nuclear war between the United States and Russia is inevitable), it will shortly be followed by a series of commercials that will, in an instant, defuse the import of the news, in fact render it largely banal,” he wrote in his famous chapter on the “Now… this” of TV anchors (“… Japan has promised a nuclear strike if any single US citizen purchases a roll of paper towels. And now a squirrel on water-skis.”) To him the villain creeping into the modern mind was the boob tube and he went so far as to notice the correlation between the then nascent USA Today and the short-burst imagery of television.

He wrote his book in 1985, a year after the launch of the Apple Macintosh and a few years before the rise of the alt-weekly newspaper and the true commercial expansion of the World Wide Web. He was writing at the tail end of a societal change that began with the invention of the moving picture and ended with Al Gore saying he invented the Internet in a televised debate.

Over the past two decades we have replaced Postman’s commercials with native advertising – ads disguised craftily as news stories. We have built an industry that supplies us with no eloquence but an endless words. We read news story after news story in multiple formats – silent videos, social shares, headlines on Twitter – and we build a worldview with them. Sadly, many of these news stories are not initially aimed at human consumption. Instead they are created for robots to read in order to grab the attention of huge search engines and, perhaps, get you to buy a glow-in-the-dark carbon fiber ring or a new pair of “the best shoes in the world.” In fact, much of the content that appears on the Web is made by robots for robots, a fact that should give anyone searching for artificial intelligence pause.

The Internet is also controlling what we perceive. Robots watch where we go, track our clicks, and serve up advertisements and, sometimes, news directly related to what we just clicked. Robots bid for advertising space on the pages we visit, know that we in particular are interested in, say, electric bikes, lingerie, and fishing gear. The robot that is essentially following us knows these things about us and sends applicable advertisements. Thus website owners can tell themselves that they aren’t beholden to advertisers and are able to write things that might vaguely attract an electric-biking lingerie-clad fisherwoman. The problem is when the website owners game this system, creating content that you might absolutely love or fake news that will appeal to a very specific, very vociferous collection of conspiracy theorists and cranks.

For every Zardulu playing on the edges of myth and art there is a man writing that Hillary Clinton has cancer. For every Pizza Rat there is a Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that held that DC bigwigs were holding satanic pedophilic rituals in a pizza place. In fact I argue that the same impetus and apparatus that let me blog, that surfaced the raccoon and alligator, and caused a man to bring an AR-15 into the alleged pedophile pizza joint are exactly the same and by ignoring their power and authority we ignore one of the most pernicious side effects of the rise of the Information Age.


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