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The meaning of (digital) media
Where do we get our ideas?
Welcome to my personal newsletter. I’m publishing weekly essays on digital technology and culture, in the run-up to my January 2024 book FILTERWORLD: How Algorithms Flattened Culture. Subscribe or read the archive here. Read to the end for a book update.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about how it was hard to feel rooted anywhere on the Internet right now. Little did I know it would get so much worse so quickly. Late last week, BuzzFeed News shut down. Vice is all but disappearing. Paper Magazine shuttered and many other media companies had layoffs. These are publications I personally didn’t read much anymore, but they were all part of the 2010s Internet, which was where I established my career as a journalist. I came up in that phase of digital media, when venture capital-funded start-ups optimistically thought they were going to overhaul how journalism worked. They mostly failed, and the extent of the failure has only recently become clear. (My most recent New Yorker column is on the end of this Internet era.)
There were some successes. Vox Media is the closest thing we have to a digital-native Conde Nast. Politico, Business Insider, and Morning Brew proved you could attract high-value readers and then sell yourself to a German media conglomerate. Wirecutter did affiliate marketing revenue at exactly the right time and sold to NYT Company (its founder Brian Lam seems to have retired to Hawaii to exclusively pursue artisanal carpentry — very aspirational). Now we have specialized newsletter-based media companies that keep staff numbers small, costs relatively low, and drive profit through high-end ads and live events: Axios (sold to Cox), Puck, Semafor, Punchbowl. Their model is the opposite of the early 2010s, when vast scale distributed through social media was the goal.
Publications in general cultivate a kind of intimacy. Readers identify with them, see their perspectives reflected in them. That’s why there’s a sense of grief when they disappear. I’ve been thinking about the loyalty we have to one particular publication or another. Social media made us disloyal consumers since we read whatever floated up in our feeds. The general-interest media companies that survived, though, had a lot of built-up loyalty, in both brand and editorial perspective: NYT, New York Magazine, The New Yorker, The Atlantic. They translated that loyalty into paywalls and digital subscriptions. Readers paid because they couldn’t not read the publications. Turns out that’s a good business model.
What other kinds of media are consumers so loyal to? These days, the list includes newsletters written by a single writer or a small group on Substack; podcasts that cultivate parasocial relationships with their hosts; and content creators on YouTube, Twitch, or TikTok. All of these are intimate forms in which the consumer feels closely connected to the creator. There’s an emphasis on personal touch and personal insight, which were not necessarily the core values of the 2010s media companies pursuing scale at all costs. The attitude was, Who cared who your reader was if there were enough of them? Now it’s about being so close to your reader that they can’t get through the day without you.
One question has been echoing in my mind lately: Where do we get our ideas? I personally used to get a sense of what was going on in the world from my Twitter feed in aggregate. Under Elon Musk’s ownership, that stopped working entirely. Instagram has similarly decayed into meaningless commercial and impersonal content. Now I read the NYT app, which isn’t particularly well curated, and I go to the NYmag.com homepage, because I like its editorial tone and it has a very wide range of coverage across its various verticals. I get the basic news from listening to NPR’s Morning Edition. I listen to the podcast How Long Gone when I want to hear two professional bros bullshit about restaurants in Los Angeles and the music / lifestyle / TV industries — ideas about culture. Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka’s respective podcasts play a similar role for ideas about tech and media. (Do you have an interesting answer for where you get your ideas? Please comment / email me.)
I think more people, particularly younger audiences, are now getting their ideas from TikTok talking heads and audio / video formats. Eleanor Stern is one of my favorite creators in that regard. She makes video-essays on TikTok in which she summarizes an article that just came out, or a quirk of linguistics, or an aesthetic trend online. I interviewed her about her practice making these videos for part of my forthcoming book. “A tone that’s intimate and friendly is rewarded on TikTok,” Stern told me: It helps viewers feel like they already know you, even if they just stumbled upon a video. She noted how the video-essay she made about literary magazines being a good place to discover new writers was a big hit on TikTok — because her audiences there didn’t know that literary magazines existed. “It does feel productive to bring things to people who don’t know they’re interested in them,” Stern said — bringing them new ideas.
How often do publications show you something genuinely new, as opposed to just rehashing something you already know, or that reiterates your worldview? I’m not totally sure why, but Stern’s video-essays just feel like the future of media to me.
I just wrapped up a full edit of my final manuscript! Finishing a piece of writing is always hectic, but much more so when it’s 105,000 words long. (400 pages!) As I wrote the book, I kept a running list of examples and reference points I knew I wanted to include on my phone. I tapped out things that popped into my head while I was working on something else or walking the dog. One of my last batches of edits on the book was to go back and sprinkle those in, like so many chocolate chips. I think the end product is richer for it.
Ironically, this book’s success will depend on algorithmic pathways, the very thing it critiques. It will have to succeed on Amazon and get recommended there: Strong pre-orders, good reviews, steady sales. It will have to attract TikTok attention, and look good on Instagram, and get debated on Twitter. Filterworld will have to survive all these feeds just like every other piece of culture today. I can prepare it for that in advance: Ask you all to pre-order and rate five stars, tweet constantly (or whatever platform we’re using now). But the algorithmic Internet is capricious and in the end it feels kind of out of my control. My hope is that the book crystallizes our anxiety and ennui with this era of digital technology — and for that reason will be very relatable. (Relatability being one of the hallmarks of successful culture in Filterworld.)