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The Death of the Good Internet Was an Inside Job

A decade of squandered potential can be laid at the feet of those you trusted to create a democratic online world.

Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

Welcome to the Decade From Hell, our look back at an arbitrary 10-year period that began with a great outpouring of hope and ended in a cavalcade of despair.

I remember the exact moment when the internet turned sour for me. It was July 1, 2013: the day Google Reader was put down by its corporate masters. The death of an RSS reader might not seem like the greatest tragedy to befall the internet over the past decade—it wasn’t—but it had a profound impact on my professional, and thus intellectual, life.

Reader, which came online in the autumn of 2005, was a small wonder—a little idea that made a huge difference. It was a personalized feed of news and blogs from across the web, as specific or broad as one desired; connected to Google’s powerful search engine, it also allowed users to instantly gather the latest information on any topic under the sun. Which is to say, Reader tamed the internet for me and made it legible. It kept me steeped in fresh perspectives, helped me get a better signal-to-noise ratio from the Wild West of online material, and, as a journalist, enhanced my ability to connect threads of public discourse. It’s not a coincidence that my Reader years were those in which I first really started to flourish in my work.

Here’s the best part: Reader didn’t ask for anything in return. Yes, it was created by a tech giant that would later flout its “Don’t be evil” slogan, but it was utilitarian and productive rather than extractive; it did not cost users anything, either literally or figuratively. And that is probably why Reader didn’t survive—a fate shared with many of the websites whose RSS feeds it collated.

It’s been a rapid descent since then. The things we built are in decline, and the jobs we created are being lost. The Good Internet is gone.

Two years after Reader was killed, The Dissolve, a lovely film-criticism blog powered by passion and devotion, folded. A year after that, Gawker, a sturdy edifice of the internet’s golden age, went dark, crushed by an angry billionaire. The revolutionary idea that birthed that blog, and countless others, were no longer operable. In blogging’s place came a slew of insatiable social media platforms, each of which seemed to sap energy, not engender it. Niches collapsed amid the Rule of Algorithms. We subordinated our critical thinking to chase trends and feed content firehoses.

The Good Internet believed in the promise of community—that if you could build one, anything was possible. You didn’t need gatekeepers, and you could accost the powerful without fear. But as Nick Denton noted in Gawker’s last post, “the readers don’t have the power…. [W]hen you try to make a business out of that freedom, the system will fight you. As our experience has shown, that freedom was illusory. The system is still there. It pushed back. The power structure remains.”

That is, indeed, part of the story. But it’s also the story of how those of us who helped shape the Good Internet played an equally strong hand in bringing it low.

In an interview with Chris Hayes in May 2018, Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu—a technology expert who coined the idea of “net neutrality”—summed up those Good Internet ideas that were flourishing at the start of the decade. As Wu noted, there were three principles that powered the web revolution: the idea that “borders and laws were not going to matter” in online spaces, the revolutionary “possibility of a different kind of intimacy with other people,” and the notion that what was forged from the effort “would be a real democracy” with “nobody in charge”—a “self-organizing governance would take care of everything.”

Those on the vanguard of the internet’s bloggy future fully committed to these “amazing, beautiful ideas,” as Wu called them, and set about building our love’s labors and plugging ourselves into a wide network of the like-minded. There was this teeming hive of readers out there who seemed to yearn to be communicated with in a new way, and we were bent on mastering how to talk to them—how to speak The Internet. I went from blogging on my own site to joining a team at Gothamist’s outpost in Washington, D.C. From there I did a stint at Wonkette—then one of the most well-known political blogs in America—and later helped found the Huffington Post’s D.C. bureau.

For me and my colleagues, this was a wild period of experimentation, every day bringing the opportunity to discover some new way of providing profit and delight. We learned the importance of forging trust, and we built that trust by providing our audience with not just our own creative work but links to the work of others. It was important that anyone arriving at our corner of the internet sped on their way to something just as interesting. In that way, even disagreement could be an act of generosity.

Those who eventually became our masters noticed what we were doing and crept into our lives on little cats’ feet. When they dangled short cuts and algorithmic trickery, we didn’t treat them harshly. Search engine optimization turned our headlines into things that looked like they’d been hastily translated into English from some dead language, but we went along with it—it was One Great Trick that made everything easier. (It’s no wonder that, some time later, the next mandate from the God Algorithm turned our headlines into “curiosity gap” promises.) When social media emerged, gifting us a “new front page” for the internet, we thought, “Why not?” These big search engine operators and platforms for sharing just wanted to make our lives easier, after all.

There now exists a massive and intrusive platform, possessed of an extractive power so immense and a monopoly on information so unaccountable that it can legitimately be said to have a distorting effect on our democracy. Of all the bargains that have been made by the content creators that shaped your internet experience over the past decade, the one made with Facebook is the most Faustian. As with many other arrangements, the content industry took up with Facebook on the promise of a simpler life—the knotty grot-work of reach and revenue would be handed over to our betters. The transfer of these labors had a deleterious effect: We mistook the essential duty of reaching readers and securing our future as mere tasks that anyone could do, when in reality these were essential to our work. These were the processes by which we gleaned vital information about our own businesses, the source material necessary to make critical editorial judgments and creative choices.

What we got in the exchange was a powerful platform, but that platform undid all of the work we’d spent years perfecting and the trust we’d earned. Facebook doesn’t care about our content management innovations or our aesthetic decisions. Facebook doesn’t care about the animating spirit that guided the media industry during its formative years—that quest to forge a new and democratic lingua franca with an audience thirsting for new ideas, or simply to feel more at home in the world. Facebook only imposes, smashing flat all of the distinctions that were honed over years of experimentation.

Over time, Facebook has discovered the cheap and dirty way to reach the world: tweak its users’ amygdalae through constant provocation, engender a cartwheel of extreme emotion (rage, fear, ecstasy, and sorrow), and reward those capable of running that barbaric electric current across its network. And it turns out that those who have proven most capable of this come from a universe of charlatans: fake news purveyors, propagandists, and scammers. Loosed from any sense of standard, these bad actors have flourished. They would not have done so had we not lent these platforms our prestige—had we not treated the trust we earned as our cheapest commodity.

We began as skeptics of power, determined to build something democratic. But that skepticism faded and was replaced by a sort of obeisance. It’s hard to challenge the establishment when you’ve ceded so much of your livelihood to it. If those who once flocked to our creations with enthusiasm now view us as insufferable and untrustable elites, you can hardly blame them. We failed to deliver the world we promised. The flow of information is controlled yet again by a few gatekeepers, and our lives online—everything we create and how we consume it—have been commodified. The powerful are pulping us for user data. We, the believers of the Good Internet, were supposed to be the bulwark against this internet hell, and instead we thrust the doors wide open.