The week of September 21, 2014

To fix the Internet, we have to fix online journalism

By Beejoli Shah

Writing on the Internet is one of the best jobs in the whole world. I work on projects I care deeply about, and I work with and around some of the brightest, most interesting young minds in the industry. Every day on Twitter, the media industry’s watercooler, I feel like I’m passing notes in the back of the class in high school.

The in-jokes and gossip are what make logging on at eight in the morning actually rewarding. Watching dozens of people I respect share my work in real time makes the hours spent typing worthwhile.

But peeking into media-insider babble can also be as alienating as crashing an Illuminati meeting. Rival networks wage bitter wars on editorial tone. Clickbait headlines mock clickbait headlines. Twitter fills up with “canoes”—popularity clusters that collect usernames until they run out of room for words.

This is New Media’s disrupted version of the high school in-crowd.

I want to take a stab at turning around some of the insularity we’ve built up over the years. Fresh ideas and discourse hit a bottleneck on platforms where writers are interested only in talking to other writers.

And when the cool kids’ club takes over, we learn to stifle some passion, to distill it into a detached eye-roll and a “lol.”

Take the conversation where it isn’t happening

It’s easy, after enough practice, when your mental filter has been thoroughly dismantled, to blog strongly worded opinions on social justice and current events for eight to 10 hours a day. But when I take an anecdotal look at what my colleagues are sharing, it doesn’t add up.

It’s hard to not feel like the worst kind of self-promoter when incessantly Facebook-sharing and tweeting out articles under your own byline—the type of person that gets hidden on News Feeds faster than old high school classmates who suddenly adopted casually racist viewpoints on everything.

It’s easy to get stuck in a bubble of liberal media’s specific biases.

In recent years, it’s widely been discussed that Twitter has become the go-to source for news. That was on display more than ever when the Ferguson, Mo. riots were microblogged from day one on Twitter, while going more obscured on Facebook, which uses algorithms to pump out relevant content as opposed to Twitter’s real-time livestream. As GigaOm discussed in the wake of Ferguson, thanks to Facebook’s algorithms, if your social network wasn’t discussing Ferguson, you likely weren’t seeing much about it in your news feed from anywhere. And therein comes the argument for putting your money where your mouth is, and sharing these topics widely.

As Gizmodo’s Leslie Horn put it on the second day of the Ferguson riots while late-night Twitter was going nuts over the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly being detained at a Ferguson McDonald’s:

Sure, it’s exhausting to always be an arbiter of opinions. But I’ve seen the other side of it. When I was a Hollywood assistant, a media outsider, I was someone who defined herself as “a feminist—but not that kind of feminist.” It wasn’t Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In that made me fully embrace the topics I really cared about; it was Amanda Hess’s essay “Why Women Aren’t Allowed on the Internet” and Roxane Gay’s breakthrough essay collection, Bad Feminist. These works spread like wildfire through my social networks.

It wasn’t a lack of interest, but a failure of reach.

As Leslie Horn summed up best in one single tweet, talking about opinions on Facebook—or any form of communication that doesn’t keep all that smart and thought-provoking collective knowledge in one tiny media Twitter bubble—is the only way to really spread discourse.

Hire writers with different backgrounds

This gets said repeatedly and often, and it’s nothing new, but media, much like many other storied American institutions, is overwhelmingly, painfully white. While it’s great to think we live in a post-racial society, if we did, articles like this one, with advice specifically for journalists of color to find a tiny foothold, wouldn’t be necessary.

The fix isn’t just making diversity hires for the sake of balancing out newsrooms, nor do I think is it awarding a job to someone solely on the basis of diversity over someone more qualified. It’s realizing that people of certain backgrounds do have an advantage that allows them to pursue writing, as Cord Jefferson pointed out in his Gawker essay “When People Write for Free, Who Pays?,” and working to find equally talented writers who may not have had the same advantages to bring them to the table via internships, writing fellowships, and so on.

The Internet is not for everyone. Not all parts of it, anyways.

The New Republic’s director of communications, Annie Augustine, told BuzzFeed, the magazine started a group specifically to start recruiting both more women, as well as male and female writers from colleges with large minority populations and other minority conferences for marginalized communities (racial, gender, socioeconomic, sexual orientation, and so on), to find the most diverse set of voices possible.

“A diverse newsroom is inclusive not just of racial and ethnic minorities,” Augustine said, “but also of women, gays and lesbians, and people from various socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Changing the status quo is never as easy in practice as it sounds on paper (or, in this case, on a computer screen). But it’s unfathomable to think that without a variety of backgrounds a newsroom could report effectively—rather than just parroting the opinions held within their own insular bubble.

Get to know people you hate

Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan routinely gets so much vitriol on a regular basis in the Jezebel comments section that it would be easy to understand if her opinion was to keep media insular—if for nothing else to avoid opening herself up to a constant barrage of criticism and hate speech. Instead, her takeaway was this: “Meeting with people you hate is a good idea. Reach out to them.”

Former Secretary of Labor (and staunch liberal) Robert Reich optimistically put it this way a week ago, when asked why he routinely meets with a conservative friend: “He makes me think. In forcing me defend my assumptions and ideas, he gets me to examine them more deeply. I hope I do the same for him. One of the biggest problems in America today is most of us live in ideological cocoons surrounded by people who think like us. Yet there is no better way to learn than to talk to someone who disagrees with you.”

It’s easy to get stuck in a bubble of liberal media’s specific biases: NFL punishments bad, gun control good, you get the idea. But can we really elevate discussion if we don’t know the salient arguments—not the irrational, angry commenter arguments—against our own points?

Past that, there just has to be a continued commitment from top to bottom—editorial leadership all the way down to individual blogger—to really want to elevate discussion. In the era of the reblog, it’s become easy to rely on being first, or regurgitating your site’s editorial tone to cover what everyone else is covering—which in and of itself caters to keeping media, and sites’ readership, exactly what it is.

I once had an editor tell me, as I was working on a piece about how the Internet isn’t a great home for female writers, “Just make sure not to be redundant of every article I’ve ever read about women and online harassment. At a certain point, it all becomes the same conversation we keep having, you know? And I’m here for that talk, too, but we need to make sure it’s evolving.” He was absolutely right.

The Internet is not for everyone. Not all parts of it, anyways. Social media should be the great equalizer, but not when it’s impenetrable. As writers, we can’t expect readers to find us amid all the noise (and worse) on the Web.

Hitting arbitrary word-count requirements is easy. Turning over stones to find people who care enough to read the stuff we care about—that’s the real challenge.


Illustration by J. Longo