An open memo, to all marginally-smart people/consumers of internet “content”:
Some questions. Do you…
Want the internet to be better in 2018?
Want your favorite media outlets to survive 2018?
Want the proliferation of “fake news” (both the now-meaningless phrase and actual bullshit news) to stop?
Actually care about deep, true reporting?
Actually care about local writing and reporting?
Actually care about writing that isn’t written for the sole purpose of some mouthbreathing third-cousin on Facebook to post on their news feed in an attempt to say something about themselves and their beliefs?
If the answer to any of those questions is a “yes,” then those of us working in the business of writing things, reporting things, and/or editing things have got a small request for you!
It’s a small resolution we’re gonna ask you to make that will help us make better things, for you. It will help us avoid making garbage for you. It’ll give you better things to read. And it’ll definitely give you nothing if not more choice.
And the ask is simple:
Use your browser bar.*
[*Or bookmarked websites.]
Literally, all you need to do: Type in web addresses. Use autofill! Or even: Google the website you want to go to, and go to it. Then bookmark it. Then go back every now and again.
Instead of reading stories that get to you because they’re popular, or just happen to be in your feed at that moment, you’ll read stories that get to you because you chose to go to them. Sounds simple, and insignificant, and almost too easy, right?
You’ll read stories that get to you because you chose to go to them
It’s only easy, and simple to do. As for why you should do it: It’s definitely not simple, nor insignificant. By choosing to be a reader of websites whose voices and ideas you’re fundamentally interested in and care about, you’re taking control.
And by doing that, you’ll chip away at the incentive publishers have to create headlines and stories weaponized for the purpose of sharing on social media. You’ll be stripping away at the motivation for websites everywhere (including this one) to make dumb hollow mindgarbage. At the same time, you’ll increase the incentive for these websites to be (if nothing else) more consistent and less desperate for your attention.
People do stupid, bad things when they’re desperate. They lie and they clamor and they produce shitty work. They (occasionally) do smarter things when they have time to think them through. And in 2017, media outlets have been more desperate and thirsty than ever. And doing dumb things to get by. And you, the readers, have had to go with them.
By going to websites as a deliberate reader, you’re making a conscious choice about what you want a media outlet to be—as opposed to letting an algorithm choose the thing you’re most likely to click on. Or! As opposed to encouraging a world in which everyone is suckered into reading something with a headline optimized by a social media strategist armed with nothing more than “best practices” for conning you into a click.
And, let’s be real: Using your browser bar isn’t the end-all-be-all cure for all that ails the internet at the end of 2017.
But it definitely won’t hurt.
Before Facebook came along and screwed everything up for everyone, people entered URLs into browser bars. They used bookmarks. Maybe even RSS readers.
Really: Blame Facebook.
The reason they did this was because these websites were publications people trusted, to deliver them a specific kind of information, in a specific way. They loved the website’s voice, and ideas, and its utility. They used to read these sites regularly. They subscribed to these sites in all but the most literal sense. They were getting a consistent lens with which to understand the world.
And because of that, they were reading things as much because of who was covering them as the things that were being covered themselves. And believe it or not, the writers and editors of these sites (human beings! And not robots!) were encouraged to create things that kept people coming back, above all else. And not, say, an arbitrary dartboard where (if they’re lucky) they hit the content bullseye and brought in a bunch of traffic (and reader data). Which is where we’re at now.
And as for that place we’re at now? Yes, you can blame the media people making these things—me, us, whoever—sure. Or yourselves, for clicking on it. But really, blame Facebook.
Really: Blame Facebook.
Remember the 2008 financial crash? The (dumb, wildly over-simplified) reason it happened was thanks in large part to giant investment banks like Goldman Sachs or J.P. Morgan. These enormous institutions figured out a way to make money off of home loans people didn’t have the means to pay back. As a result, a bunch of people who should’ve never been given home loans were, of course, given home loans. And of course, they couldn’t pay the loans back. The entire thing kept going and going until the financial system fell in on itself.
The big parallel: Those investment banks incentivized the creation of a shitty product.
Which is exactly what Facebook did. Yep. Hi. We’re there.
Their goal, as a company, is to keep you on Facebook—and away from everything else—as long as they possibly can. They do that by making Facebook as addictive to you as possible. And they make it addictive by feeding you only the exact stripe of content you want to read, which they know to a precise, camel-eye-needle degree. It’s the kind of content, say, that you won’t just click on, but will “Like,” comment on, and share (not just for others to read, but so you can say something about yourself by sharing it, too). And that’s often before you’ve even read it!
[We’re not saying you do that. But, come on. You know people who do. Most of them, really.]
And as smart as you think the people who run Facebook are, trust us when we tell you that they are far, far, far smarter than you could imagine (and if not the people, then definitely those algorithms).
If you’re getting your news from Facebook, you’ve got far less choice than you think.
They understand human psychology to a stunning degree, which is how they’ve been able to capitalize on it for the last few years. It’s why Facebook is filled, mostly, with the things you agree with, or are seemingly helpless against clicking on. But because you’re a human being, something about it probably rubs you the wrong way. As it should! You’re a human, and not a hamster doing a stupid pet trick, which is what Facebook has turned both readers and publishers into. Credit where it’s due: They’re that good. And yeah, fake news is a problem—but before we learned about it being a problem, where Facebook was concerned, it was a feature.
And that’s not to say you’re the (most) dumb, or bad, or stupid for clicking on (most of) what’s on Facebook. (Not entirely, anyway.) It’s to say that Facebook’s outsmarted you, and outsmarted the idea that you have some choice about what you are and aren’t reading when you’re getting it from Facebook.
If you’re getting any news from Facebook, you’ve got far less choice than you think.
And news organizations and media organizations, in order to stay alive, are gonna try to go fishing where the fish are, and they’re gonna use the bait the fish bite on. That, of course, is Facebook. And that bait, of course, tastes like trash—until you eat it long enough, and it becomes your daily diet.
– – –
So! Facebook created the newsfeed, and then turned to publishers/media outlets, and said: Guess what? Everyone’s on Facebook. You want a piece of the action? You’re gonna play ball with us. You’ll put share buttons on all of your stories. You’ll participate in our Facebook Instant Articles program. You’ll advertise with us! When we tell you that we’re going to start promoting video over articles, you’re going to start making video. And then when we tell you what kind of video, you’ll make that video too! And if you don’t want to play ball, fine. Your competition will.
As a result, everyone started writing click-ier headlines. Maybe even misleading ones! Then, they started making video. You hate video on the internet? Tell that to Facebook, which realized it could charge advertisers more money for running video ads.
But still, you argue, I’m not gonna watch internet video! Video is trash! Video ads especially suck! To which Facebook’s response is: LMAO, that’s what you think. Because we’re gonna promote it on the newsfeed above everything else until you do watch it. And don’t worry—the media companies who make that video for us will do all the hard work, and figure out exactly what you’ll watch, because their survival now depends on it.
So! That’s what happened.
That’s why so many of your favorite websites made a “pivot” to “video.” It wasn’t because video is what they thought the future of media was in terms of quality. It wasn’t even because they thought it was what you, the reader, wanted. It was because that’s what Facebook wanted: A way to make more money, for Facebook (and if Your Favorite Media Company played along, them, too).
Facebook forced everyone to make bad shit because if they didn’t, the money Your Favorite Media Company could make would go to Another Media Company. And that’s how we got to where we are now: With an internet full of fake news that people click on and share because it’s designed to get them to do that, and not much more. It’s like the Magic Eye theory of creation: It’s not art so much as something for you to stare at and keep staring at until you claim to see something someone else has (or hasn’t). It’s dumb. It’s bad for our brains. It’s bad for the world. And it’s bad for good writing, good reporting, and good quality things.
But you can change that.
– – –
If there’s a website you like that represents a purview or a tone? If it did something great that you read and want to see more of? You should visit that website. We’re getting to a moment in media when more and more publications and outlets means less and less in terms of having an individual identity—they’re all aggregating the same stories, adding nothing new to them, delivering the same noise in different packaging.
You don’t even have to love everything these places do.
If you want that to stop, you’ll start giving publications a reason to be different—and thus, a reason to exist—by being a repeat visitor. Publications with original ideas (The Outline, Slate) or that speak to niche audiences (Rookie, The Root) or that aspire to run news stories other outlets won’t (The Intercept, Splinter) or news that doesn’t come cheaply reported (ProPublica) or news that rarely exists anymore (local news outlets; alt-weeklies). You don’t have to subscribe. You don’t have to pay money. And you don’t even have to love everything these places do. But if you want them to keep existing, let alone keep acting as an independent voice that isn’t a machine built just to write things to get you (or your knuckledragging third-cousin) to click on or share on Facebook?
You’ll bookmark them. You’ll use their URLs. You’ll go through the front door.
By doing so, you’ll give them a reason to be different, and interesting, and independent, and to carry out some kind of mission that isn’t aping what everyone else does just to stay alive in the 2018 media climate. You’ll make everything just a wee bit better. You’ll incentivize them to keep you coming back for more. And you’ll be taking more control, and opting less for the control Facebook takes from you, and everyone else.
[And yes, many, many websites will remain garbage factories. But this will give fewer garbage factories the opportunity to thrive. And also, let’s not worry about the habits of people who visit garbage factories. They’re garbagepeople. They’re a different post. This is about you, smart person.]
In 2018, here’s hoping we all choose, in the most deliberate fashion possible, something better than what we have now. Or at the very least, start making more of these choices more often for ourselves.