There’s a lot to like in Todd VanDerWerff’s somber, reflective Vox piece on the death of the “old internet”—a weirder, more variegated ecosystem of sites that had “strong, central identities” and loyal reader communities. The old internet has been in decline for years now, and each day brings new omens of its final disappearance. Replacing it, as VanDerWerff writes, is an unstoppable new internet fueled by “the desire for a quick jolt of emotion,” truncated by the turn toward mobile devices, and built, accordingly, for maximum social media exposure. These trends lead VanDerWerff to worry about the fate of longform writing and smart cultural criticism. But they have political consequences too.
Here’s a revealing piece of evidence. John Oliver’s HBO show airs on Sunday evenings. Every Monday morning, right on cue, liberal sites compete for the clicks:
— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) August 3, 2015
— Talking Points Memo (@TPM) August 3, 2015
John Oliver criticized the disenfranchisement of more than 600,000 voters in the US: the residents of Washington, DC. http://t.co/UpmC5a2CsW
— Vox (@voxdotcom) August 3, 2015
— Slate (@Slate) August 3, 2015
— Huffington Post (@HuffingtonPost) August 3, 2015
— New York Magazine (@NYMag) August 3, 2015
As usual, most of the sites provide the bare minimum of context or commentary. This makes them little more than portals for HBO’s material, and it renders them indistinguishable from each other. The weekly “MUST WATCH” John Oliver ritual is, in this way, an extreme example of the boring homogeneity that results from the ruthless logic of clicks. For a few minutes every Monday morning, in a desperate race for traffic, almost every liberal site becomes exactly the same.
Of course, the same tendency is at work, in less obvious ways, every day. Now that the competition for traffic takes place on social media, political websites are forced to provide material for the social media performances of their readers. That means that shareable content has to broadcast the mix of virtues that social media is designed to convey: cleverness, moral rectitude, and fluency with pop culture. As they chase this mixture of qualities, a dull convergence emerges: the same tone, the same priorities, the same narrow obsession with pop culture and celebrities. (Think about how quietly “culture” has become little more than a synonym for “television.”)
These developments have been bad for everyone who enjoyed the diversity of the older internet. They’re probably to blame for some of the coarser tendencies of progressive discourse. Still, today’s situation is not the result of anybody’s plan, and few people are happy about it. They’re just not in a position to resist the imperatives of social media and mobile technology. For the time being, that means we can expect less intellectual diversity, shorter attention spans, and ever-greater pressure to flatter readers—all bad things for an intellectually healthy political movement, and especially for American liberalism. But until something drastic changes about the way we read online, the great flattening is here to stay.