Yesterday, the good folks who run the venerable group/community blog Metafilter announced that it was in financial trouble. Founded in 1999, Metafilter has always devoted itself to a text-and-intelligence based approach to online discussion. Evidently, that's barely profitable these days.
Metafilter's revenues are falling drastically, founder Matt Haughey says in that post, because revenue from their Google ads is down, and they have not been able to come up with a fix. They're laying off moderators.
It's all very depressing, if you've been online long enough to have treasured Metafilter and the internet it represented.
Not all change is bad, of course. I love that it's no longer an embarrassing thing to have an online life. When I got my first email account and began posting on text-only, dial-up message boards in 1993, I was thirteen, a misfit, and lonely. If I time-travelled back to tell that girl that in twenty years (ouch) she would barely know anyone who wasn't online, she would be very glad to hear it.
And yet: The internet I grew up on and still rather cherish on was one of weird flashing Geocities pages; strange usenet groups devoted to arcane fandoms; long, maudlin posts about people's depression illustrated by ASCII art tableaus. It was text-based MUDs that elaborated on fantasy games before HBO was adapting them for our pleasure. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, but also no parents, few real names, and relatively little fear of surveillance. And the animating spirit was scrappy in a way that you can tell is gone because it is so hard to describe, standing here all the way down the line.
Metafilter still reminds me of that internet. Maybe it's that there are so few bells and whistles on their platform, maybe it's because it's crowd-written and so a very angry post will follow hard upon a cheerful one, maybe it's because people there still seem enthusiastic about discussing things intelligently. It just isn't as sanitized, and is consequently not as condescending, as a lot of the internet feels to me these days.
Why has the internet become sanitized and condescending? Well, like everyone else, I tend to think it's just a function of having so much of our lives organized by these social networking behemoths. In their drive to make things easier to "share" and "like" they've managed to scrub a lot of weirdness out of most people's daily internet consumption, standardize things. And most of the people who produce the things that make the internet weird and wonderful end up chasing the attention of those networks. As John Herrman, writing at the Awl yesterday, depressingly put it, "the best sites on the internet, giant and small alike" are now "anonymous subcontractors to [those] tech companies that operate on entirely different scales." It is not likely to get better, because with the spectre of "fast lanes" for internet companies who can afford to pay for them, we are facing being even more beholden to their algorithms.
Even if you could not care less about the economics of web publishing — and who could blame you — the way things are going is affecting the way pretty much everyone uses the internet. In short, they find it sillier, and care less about it, and somehow that just means the good stuff is getting buried deeper and deeper.
People are coming to news and entertainment content by lazy phone clicking. 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.
The thing is that these portals really aren't that weird anymore! They are often "rational," in the sense that they are organized by algorithms, and chasing money. And the people who consult them lazily are "rational" too, insofar as they're made for dipping in and out. It would be wrong to be as serious about your Facebook statuses as you were, say, that Typepad blog you started in 2004. And anyway, it's faster to just Tweet that thought than write a blog post anyway, isn't it?