a thoughtful web.
Share good ideas and conversation.   Login or Take a Tour!
comment by Super_Cyan
Super_Cyan  ·  1928 days ago  ·  link  ·    ·  parent  ·  post: The Web We Have to Save

A lot of it has to do with the way that people ingest media now.

Let's take the History Channel, for example. Years ago, the channel was made up of documentaries and other kinds of long-runtime content. A show that was less than 45 (60) minutes seemed out of the ordinary. Anything that wasn't a well researched piece on the impact or specifics of some historical event would never air on the History Channel, because it didn't fit the theme of the channel. Then, reality TV started getting popular.

Networks realized that people would be just as happy from watching 30 minutes of drama than they would 60 minutes of research and information. Shows like Pawn Stars and American Pickers started cropping up on the channel, and those got superb ratings. They didn't fit the overall feel of the channel, but they still fit the theme: history. However, unlike documentaries, they brought the average TV watcher's attention to the channel: people who sat on their couch looking for entertainment, rather than education.

For a while, the shows were still focused on the items that they would find. Pawn Stars and American Pickers were like Antique Roadshow, but with a more modern and friendly twist. At the center of the show was the items, with the people only there to highlight and showcase them. They also added personality and comedy, which made non-history-buffs start watching. With each episode, more and more people, who were there for entertainment, started showing up and drowning out the people that just wanted to learn something.

Soon, the producers of these shows started to catch on to the change in their audience. They started dropping the historical significance of the items as the central point of the show, while simultaneously pushing the people holding the things into the spotlight. Rather than seeing a lot of people going "Hey, this isn't the point of the History Channel!", they saw more people watching those shows. Now, when looking at the History Channel, one doesn't see History, but personality.

How is Swamp People history? How is Ax Men history? The answer is: it's not. History isn't the point of the History Channel anymore - it's entertainment. People aren't tuning in to learn about the progression of WWII, they're showing up to watch a fat guy try to fit in a car, that just so happens to be a classic. The producers don't really care about education anymore. They care about keeping people entertained, because that's what brings in ratings.

The internet is moving in the same direction. It's no longer about sharing information and experiences - it's all about entertainment. People don't want to learn, they want to be happy - just like news channels. A news channel can get high ratings, as long as they pad all of the bad stuff with a bunch of feel-good pieces, so they end on a high note. People are flocking to popular sites like Facebook and Twitter, because they supply them with the same type of content. They open a page, see some funny picture or video, feel good, then go on with their day. They don't care about the life of a dude in Iran. They don't care about the struggles of someone growing up in a poor Asian country. Those things are sad. People want to be happy.

Just like how the History Channel figured out that people don't care about history, web sites figured out that people don't care about information. They moved away from long-form content like blogs and articles to quick media like videos and pictures. A picture can be looked at and evaluated in seconds. A video can be viewed in a couple of minutes. All of the fat of reading is trimmed into something visually and emotionally appealing, so that people can digest it quickly and move on with their day. They don't care about set up. They don't care about development. They don't care about leaving a site with a decently formed opinion. . They don't care about reading (I'm sure many people haven't even gotten this far into this comment). People just want to spend a minute somewhere; get a feeling- no matter how well supported or formulated that feeling is; and go on to the next site.

That's why the stream was formed and works the way it does. Social media platforms realized that people want to see what is deemed "important" and move on. They don't want to dig through content to find what they want - they want to be force fed entertainment. Facebook realized that it could let people rate posts, then sort it by ratings, and end up with a feed that has what people think is "significant" at the top.

The stream ranks things by feedback, which isn't a bad thing in theory. However, the benefits of a feedback-based ranking system come at the costs of a population that cares about entertainment. In theory, it's supposed to take content worth viewing and raise it to the top. However, the general mass has a different opinion on what defines "content worth viewing". Someone that views the internet as a means of sharing information will think that a well written and informed blog post or article is something that needs to be shared. However, a person that is on a site just for entertainment is going to think a funny picture needs to be seen by everyone.

At the end of the day, both people aren't really right or wrong, because their values are different. However, one side's opinion is more heavily weighted, because they're the majority. In order to satisfy that majority, sites started creating streams to bubble popular content to the top. Since more people like funny pictures than they do blogs, funny pictures and feel-good pieces started hitting the front page of sites.

Sites don't want to go out of their way to satisfy the few people that like long-form content, because there's no money in it. As a result, the same low brow stuff populates most of the internet, while the more thought out and contradictory stuff gets filtered out by algorithms.

junkysam  ·  1928 days ago  ·  link  ·  

You described almost exactly what I was thinking while reading this article. It's not so much that "the old internet" is dying but more that a larger mainstream audience is using it. In the past the internet was mostly used by a younger and/or niche user base and seen as abnormal by most people. Now that more and more people have smartphones, laptops and PCs with access to the internet, the user base has become more homogenized. It is no big surprise that content seems to be stream lined and made bite-sized.

I don't necessarily see this as a bad thing, as I believe that there is still a large user base searching out beyond the social media hubs. We see the users of sites like reddit (and hubski) constantly looking for and sharing content from across the web. This content may be random, dumb cat photos or a long form blog taking a philosophical look at the evolution of the internet.

It does seem upsetting that a majority of users will ignore most of the internet and only use social media but I don't think that a lot of them would be using an internet without social media. When you take a look at the evolution of the internet you also need to look at the growing user base and what's attracting them.

dublinben  ·  1928 days ago  ·  link  ·  

As far as I'm concerned, these users aren't actually using the web as we know it (www, layer on top of Internet), but are just living inside walled gardens a la AOL. This is even the stated goal of companies like Facebook, with their "Facebook Zero" and Internet.org initiatives. As far as they are concerned, delivering free access to Facebook in developing nations is as good as delivering access to the entire Internet.

tacocat  ·  1928 days ago  ·  link  ·  

None of what you said is new. AOL at its height wasn't a sober journalism and education platform, it was basically what you described, friendly buttons to push to get trite entertainment. And that was the internet for most AOL subscribers.

The web's problem is it makes it so easy to find like-minded people so you can easily create a personalized stream of information that exists only to affirm your opinions. I remember when the web was young and there was all this optimism about talking to new friends in Nairobi and cross cultural exchanges. That's laughably naive now. People want to be entertained, sure, but they really want to be told they're right and have their opinions validated.

deanSolecki  ·  1928 days ago  ·  link  ·  

None of that is new either, is it?

I think the problem is a human problem and it has a lot more to do with the democratization that the web has experienced than it does the medium.

Think of just writing itself. Writing was once something that only a handful of people could do. This greatly limited not only the number of opinions that could be composed, but also how many people those opinions could reach. As writing became more ubiquitous (both the number of readers and writers increased) the number of writers that could project their writing to a broad audience remained fairly low whereas literacy reached further and further. If looking back we see behind the wall of "limited access to writing distribution" significantly better quality in writing, this most likely has to do with the selection process acting on writing itself. Someone controlled what writing was distributed and they controlled who did the writing.

As the barriers to writing and distributing even out (that is, distributing is no longer a factor, and nearly everyone has been able to read for quite some time) there is no longer any gate keeping, and there is no longer any selection process. Now, instead of those processes dictating what comes into existence, we have democratized systems for searching and filtering through the mass of content that can be created and distributed by anyone. So instead of a selection of well informed editors deciding what the masses will read, we have the masses selecting for themselves using tools that don't have a content and don't have a mission statement; they're tools designed to give the person what they want, regardless of what that is.

That said, the intelligent can still filter out the crap, it's just that when they do so it is a personal filtering; they no longer get to dictate to the masses what it is that they are permitted to read.

I think there are positives and negatives in that, but overall there are probably more positives.

user-inactivated  ·  1928 days ago  ·  link  ·  

    None of that is new either, is it?


user-inactivated  ·  1928 days ago  ·  link  ·  

    The web's problem is it makes it so easy to find like-minded people so you can easily create a personalized stream of information that exists only to affirm your opinions.

That's not the web's problem, that's a human being problem. Just look throughout history and you'll see examples of mindless nationalism, genocide, mafia, KKK, etc.

What the web allows you to do is to be exposed to it all if you choose, and causes rifts between conflicting views that were already established. Before these close minded groups just never had to interact with each other, now they do. Those ideas ended up spreading to their communities ("gay people are ruining our culture!", or whatever). Those rifts just strengthen their original ideas and they hold on to them out of spite.

asdfoster  ·  1928 days ago  ·  link  ·  

Considering how many people I know that are upset with the current trends of the internet away from long-form content, I would argue that we aren't as few and far between as you are implying.

I think that the biggest reason why people that prefer long-form content are being ignored is because it's harder to advertise to them. It takes longer to read long-form content than a funny picture, so in the time that you get one "like" out of a reader, you get one hundred out of someone that is only there for entertainment. That's one data point for ad serving vs one hundred. Similarly, that's one hundred ads that can be served to that person: one per funny picture, while the long-form reader is still on the same page with the same old ads, not making anyone any money.

So yes, I do think that we are in the minority in terms of page views and ad views, but I'm not entirely convinced that we are in the minority in terms of population.

Super_Cyan  ·  1928 days ago  ·  link  ·  

I know that a lot of people that prefer long-form content still make up a decent sized population, but are still a minority, but they get kind of screwed over by a lot of sites. When they sit at meetings and go "Do we want to keep some people happy, or make a lot more money?", they obviously choose the latter. Some sites don't put profit first, but many do - and those are the ones that screw readers over.

asdfoster  ·  1928 days ago  ·  link  ·  

And unfortunately because of our economic system, the ones that do put profit first tend to succeed and get more press and become more successful.