Caitlin Dewey is a canary in the coal mine of the web, and she’s singing a warning to everyone. I sense what she’s saying, and I’ll bet you do, too. Profit through disruptive advertising and the damned reliance on platforms are slowly sucking the air out of our grand experiment in connectivity.
Caitlin is the digital culture critic for The Washington Post and one of the hippest web denizens around. She’s a brilliant and funny writer and also produces a weekly must-read newsletter (Links I Would Gchat You if We Were Friends) that I’ve been enjoying from the beginning. When she speaks, we need to listen, and here’s a part of what she wrote this week:
Friends, I am homeless. Not physically. I mean this in a virtual sense. I *write* about Internet culture, and I feel like I have no home base on the web. I tweeted about this last week in the context of Twitter, which I haven’t been on too much since. (Trust me, when you’re off Twitter, you miss n-o-t-h-i-n-g of significance.) But it also applies to Facebook, which I’ve never been too active on because it creeps me out. And Instagram, which I’ve tired of since the ads hit my account. Even Pinterest, which I unironically love and have long considered a form of relaxation on par with watching HGTV, is drowning in bad ads and “promoted” pins and other crap that ruins it for me.
I dunno, guys — am I getting old? Am I the world’s least-suited Internet writer? There has to be a place for people like me, but maybe it’s not yet on “THE CYBER.” I like Snapchat alright. Reddit is good. Idk, I have Goodreads? Like are the mainstream social networks all terrible now, or is this just me?!
The first round of digital media innovation, which has created the commercial web that Caitlin is lamenting, is on the verge of collapsing, because the innovators have given away possibility in the name of old fashioned profit, and who could blame them? The problem is that the inevitable end of pouring new wine into old wineskins is explosive ruin, and that’s what’s been happening over the last twenty years.
Madison Avenue knows only mass marketing, which relies on basically two strategies:
- Accompany content, which is the method of operation for print media.
- Interrupt content, which is the method of operation for broadcasting (and increasingly the web).
So despite elaborate and sophisticated data used to create highly efficient targeting, advertisers still fall back on these two strategies, and it’s what’s destroying the experience to which Caitlin refers. Both are clumsy and the enemy of participation, and neither will sustain the status quo for long. It’s also what creates the addiction to platforms, a.k.a. apps, like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – she calls them the “mainstream social networks.” THE network can do so much better, and that will be the next level of innovation.
Blogging’s most original thinker Dave Winer has already figured out ways to build simple open source outliners and other tools that stand alone in a browser, and I always pay attention to Dave. Moreover, Dave is seeing the same thing Caitlin is suggesting, which adds to the weight of the prophecy above;
When Jerry (Garcia) died in 1995, I wrote:
Like the big tree that fell last March, the death of a huge human being like Jerry Garcia frees up a huge amount of space. Once there was a tree, now there are seedlings. After the sadness, there will be huge creativity.
Same would probably be true if Facebook ever relented and stopped stifling the web and embraced it instead. Then the growth could flow through them instead of around them. Ultimately I think the web will go on, treating Facebook like the outage that it has chosen to be.
In a comment to this post on Facebook, Dave also stated: “I have a BAD FEELING about Facebook because they are being such bad net citizens.”
My friends, the promise of a horizontal society available via the network will survive attempts to wrestle its chaotic nature to the capitalist ground. Investing in such attempts may produce results for a season, but none will be lasting, especially when growth is a necessary element of such. It’s not like IRL, where control is obtained from the top-down, and I’ll continue to keep my eyes on the visionaries of our time.
Where they inject reality and clueless people with money piss all over it, get your popcorn ready, because the show’s about to begin.