In rainy Budapest last week I spent a beautiful day with the beautiful people of Gawker Media at their conference/retreat hybrid, Ping. It’s tempting to describe Gawker as a ragtag group of misfits. A lovable nothing-to-lose band of merry media pirates. But that description probably takes them less seriously than they deserve. Hell, it’s done now.
In a day of stand out discussions, one that stood taller thanks to its emotive drag was about forums. Death thereof. The audience hogged the discussion. The panel listened. Voices became charged with a sort of nostalgia. Nostalgia for the pre-Facebook internet of pseudonyms and anonymity and Usenet. Of IRC and phpBB and places your enlightened mother couldn’t DuckDuckGo.
I’m from one of the first generations who really grew up with the Internet. By the mid nineties it was just there, it hardly needed discovering, we had it in our blood. My dad had me hand-cranking poetry in HTML age eight. The song of the dial-up modem still rings rich and haunting through my mind in the odd quiet moment. I spent my formative years failing to interact with the world, meanwhile mastering interaction with vBulletin. My find-yourself road-trip was spent joining the dots between Google Maps locations in a Mercury Grand Marquis, visiting people I’d met on IRC.
The internet has a long history that I don’t pretend to have known the start of. But what I grew up with was a pretty well untamed place. People talked a lot of shit. A lot of shit. Knowing someone’s real name was a big deal. There was a sense of being somewhere special. A club with limited membership. A place that beat the averages on rejects and losers and weirdos. An edge of counter-culture.
Most of all what characterised being on the web at that time was spending a lot of time writing as well as reading. Tap tap tapping characters into web forms. Compulsively hitting CTRL+A then CTRL+C every few seconds in case the input mysteriously vanished. Obsessing for hours over forum threads, keeping up a steady stream of commentary in IRC. There were, and perhaps still are, thousands of niche communities built on those primitive tools.
The internet and I had a dialogue.
When I look at the last ten years and the mass internet immigration of real people, I see the consumptive world of traditional media wearing a fetching new outfit. Facebook is a red herring. A portion of the chatter of everyday life has moved from your landline to your smartphone. Sharing pictures of your baby has become more convenient.
We in tech and the media have effected breathtaking revolutions in the ease of talking to people you already knew and reading things you already read.
Meaningfully engaging with ideas is as hard as it ever was. Well under 1% of Guardian readers even leave a comment (no, not a surprise). And why would they? The value proposition is absent. We have not yet addressed the fundamental question of the internet.
(This isn’t to say that the Internet hasn’t evolved a bunch of interesting and engaging past-times over the last decade. It’s especially good at logistics. If you want to find someone to have sex with, source a holiday let in the Bay Area or get an inexpensive taxi then my friend do I know the place for you.)
The most interesting part of what Gawker are doing with Kinja is an attempt to restore the dialogue. To erode audience and author. It’s not yet a compelling proposition. It might be at some point. Perhaps.
I’m tired of reading disinterestedly. Give me a web form I care about again. Give me a community I value. And make it so I don’t have to be a student to have time for the whole damn thing.
Dialogue isn’t just way more fun than listening. The ideas we participate in, even by rejecting them, are ones we come to genuinely understand. Conversations are the jungle where ideas come to thrive, die, linger or dissapate.
Disinterest begins with the media, and ends in politics.