everything is recapitulation

Last week saw the abrupt closure of The Dissolve, a site created by writers from the Onion’s AV Club who’d become disillusioned by its shift towards headline-chasing. It offered smart, insightful film criticism over the past two years; I had no idea it existed until I found out it was going away. It’s not the first site where that’s happened recently.

Not long after that, Josh Topolsky reflected on the cacophony that currently defines commercial web publishing in the wake of his firing from Bloomberg:

There are countless outlets (both old and new) vying for your attention, desperate not just to capture some audience, but all the audience. And in doing that, it feels like there’s a tremendous watering down of the quality and uniqueness of what is being made. Everything looks the same, reads the same, and seems to be competing for the same eyeballs.

To mark the July 4th holiday, Buzzfeed put out a video of its US staffers eating British foodstuffs, the inevitable money shot involving a spoonful of Marmite and a faceful of disgust. They did the same thing last spring, with a different cast of guinea pigs and slightly different foods, though still with Marmite, because Marmite is compulsory. They’ll probably do it again next year, again with Marmite, because there will always be Americans who have never tasted Marmite and people who’ve never seen Americans taste Marmite and people who want to make money by arranging the spectacle. If they don’t, some other viral content disperser will.

On Tuesday, the blogger Hossein Derakhshan (better known as hoder) reflected on how he’d emerged from six years’ imprisonment in Iran for blogging to find a web that no longer resembled the space he’d left:

Nearly every social network now treats a link as just the same as it treats any other object–the same as a photo, or a piece of text — instead of seeing at as a way to make that text richer. You’re encouraged to post one single hyperlink and expose it to a quasi-democratic process of liking and plussing and hearting: Adding several links to a piece of text is usually not allowed. Hyperlinks are objectivized, isolated, stripped of their powers.

And that’s where we are.


Before the web reached its awkward adolescence and we could tell someone to fuck off in their guestbook, Usenet was the preferred venue on the internet for people to interact wonderfully and awfully and all ways in-between. Every September brought new US college students online for the first time, and the more adventurous ones stumbled from PINE into newsgroups, where they asked the same basic questions and committed the same faux pas and were typically treated by established posters with weary tolerance if they were lucky, and abrupt rudeness if not.

When AOL opened up newsgroup access to its subscribers in 1993, it became known as the September that never ended, because there would never be a time without newbies being newbies. But newsgroups at least had methods for dealing with that: they had the FAQ, and if you asked a FAQ you’d be told to read it, and if you continued to ask FAQs you’d be ignored.

The spirit of the FAQ persisted as discussions moved away from newsgroups and onto web discussion forums: sticky posts, posting guidelines, actual FAQs. It reflected the sensibilities of a core geek demographic that treated reiteration as lossy and inefficient: just RTFM, don’t ask someone to paraphrase it. There’s always been a tension between that desire to preserve factual information in a kind of elemental purity, which at its worst results in sour Gradgrindery towards those seeking assistance, and the growth of the social web as a loose, baggy conversational environment, a repository of presence and a fount of vicarious experience.

The predominant mode for the web of 2015, though, makes newbies of us all. Everything that seeks a wide audience is presented as a first impression, as if it will be the only thing you read on a subject, even though you’ll probably read a handful more posts soon after that say essentially the same thing in slightly different ways; everything belongs in the FAQ and nobody reads the FAQ.

The idea of ‘doing the rounds’ to visit a set of front pages to see what’s new, whether through RSS or a browser, is long gone: the blogroll became vestigial a while ago, retained mostly out of a sense of loyalty to the past. There’s a loss of deep links, fragility in permalinks, and most of all, a fading assumption that readers will follow any links. Instead, we get the cropped GIFtext quotecap in Twitter, the yanked includes in Facebook and Slack; the ‘splainers, the recapsicles, the difficulty of pinning down original sources that turns everything into a reflection of refraction of reflection.

Viewed through social media, the web becomes a flat plane, stretched out taut like a conveyor belt that you can tap to fave or to like, but not much else. The concept of smaller independent websites as self-contained entities is receding: the front page receives less traffic than individual pages or posts, and the context that surrounds those posts stays invisible. 1

Attention bifurcates: too many new online ventures end up talking into a void, as hoder found with his new site, while insightful or notable work gets noticed broadly, but consumed elsewhere through excerpts or retellings on established heavy-hitters. This smothering appropriation means that the site that created it not only fails to get appropriate credit or traffic (and revenue), but also isn’t able to present itself to readers as a site worth remembering, a place that deserves a regular visit.

At the same time, web search has failed us.2 It was clear some years ago that Google favoured ubiquity over novelty, but the honing of its algorithms to prioritise the now-now-now — and its battle with those practitioners of SEO who remind us of why we can’t have nice things — make it nigh-on impossible to drill back and find those sites that we remember from a single brilliant post or even just a phrase, when once we could. PageRank once elevated the originators, the primary sources, the pages that earned inbound links — a symbiotic relationship with the blog ecosystem that helped Google as much as it did the bloggers — and now it fucks those sources over.

The atrophy of this online muscle memory horrifies me, the overgrowth of routes and routines I followed for years to uncover the best of the web, and the best of people. It maps to my sense that the web I currently experience is one with less texture, and also indicts some of my newer habits. I’d like to think that there are different practices that might push back at this, a new regimen of mindful linking and browsing to shake off the cobwebs, but that path risks being deliberately antiquated when once it was the norm, and depends upon others thinking and acting the same way.3 Doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying, which is the closest thing this post will offer to a grand conclusion. Time to get to work.

  1. As an aside to their excellent piece on maintaining a functional commenting community, the Australian queer culture site Autostraddle noted how inbound Facebook traffic was mostly driven by shares of the most ‘controversial or vapid’ posts, and gave a very different impression of the site than coming through the home page. The only way to offset that effect was to set up a Facebook fan page and spend time promoting other posts, which feels like Zuckerberg has set up a very nice protection racket.

  2. Social media search is mostly a contradiction in terms.

  3. Stellar is still great.