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This story first appeared in the Aug. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The Internet is a swirling death trap of dubious gossip, outraged tweet-to-tweet combat and a million identical pieces of over-processed, hormone-injected “news content” written for fourth-graders. There’s a reason for that. It’s called money.
Folks in real businesses — like movies, TV and advertising — don’t give the Internet a lot of respect. The web is at the bottom of any media plan, below bus-shelter advertising. Last year, The Huffington Post had revenue of $146 million — and still didn’t turn a profit. Disney can make that kind of money from one movie in a week. Starved for income, beaten about the head and shoulders by hungry investors, Internet publishers operate in a world of nightmarish margins. The business plans may look great on paper, but in the real world, you can only afford to buy so much fake Malaysian Facebook traffic to bolster your sponsored content.
Meanwhile, thanks to venture capitalists, who invested nearly $6 billion in the “media and entertainment” segment of the web in 2014 alone, there’s an Internet employment boom. Glossy newsrooms are full of hastily typing young people interfacing with giant media platforms. But how can these sites generate enough revenue to sustain themselves, given that Internet advertising is tabulated in slivers of a penny? They fill their servers with hot, angry takedowns, celebrity side-boob shots and whatever other scandalous slop they think will wrestle viewers away from Candy Crush at feeding time.
Here’s how it works: Social media managers see the day’s hot topics bubbling up on their dashboards. “We need more articles on Cecil the lion and/or how Drake looks sad today!” they tell their newsroom. Five hours later, after everyone has pumped out as much garbage as they can, the user base is declared exhausted and shredded, ready for the next captivating bit of nothing. The circle is closed.
It’s actually a cycle we’ve seen before. In the 1870s, there were 100 newspapers publishing multiple editions a day in New York. They fought, they died and they printed a lot of lies, agitation and gossip. They even had their own technology race, in the form of ever-faster boats ferrying the news in from the harbor at ever-increasing speeds. The Great Depression put an end to that. What’ll do us in this time? A pile of hasty IPOs? The death of Facebook? A timely asteroid? Or maybe the Internet publishers of the world will get religion for quality, instead of quantity. My old employer, Gawker — the site that kicked the whole system off and that recently face-planted on an item about a married man hiring a gay hooker — is now the first publication to swear it’s gone to gossip rehab. Time will tell! But if it relapses, at least it’ll be profitable.
Choire Sicha is a co-founder of The Awl Network.
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