The Internet is Ruined

Following a social media link, I visited the Chicago Sun Times website today for the first time in a few years. What I found is extremely disturbing and may not be suitable for any audience whatsoever.

The site is grotesque. It looks a bit like a MySpace page designed by someone with either malicious intentions or a severe lack of self-respect. At the top is a thin masthead with the name of the paper and, for reasons that are not clear, icons for Apple’s app store and Google Play. Ok, fine.

Below that are two navigation bars, but one is impossible to read with minuscule red and gray text on a dark gray background. Below these menus and occupying the main focal point of the page is a large animated banner ad (presently for the La Compagnie airline), which is haphazardly overlaid by a vertical floating menu bar full of social media icons. Remember, reading doesn’t count unless you share it.

The rest of the page is split into 3 columns of more or less equal width. The outer columns are full of banner ads (Lego Land has the top spot on both columns), while the article is squished into the middle. I can read the headline and see a small photo, but I can’t see any of the text yet. I start to scroll down and a tiny video ad pops up at the bottom right of my screen. It is muted so I don’t know what the ad is about. I pretend not to notice and keep scrolling. There’s a button to follow the author on Twitter, and finally, the lede: “Let’s be fair to the governor.” Below this single line of copy are three outbound links to unrelated content, each with photos, presented by something called “viewsmix.” One link takes me to a slideshow about the solar system (itself surrounded by large animated ads) on a page titled Viewsmix, but with a URL that starts with “national.suntimes.com.” This is confusing.

Bad job, everyone.

Back to the article. I scroll down a bit more, but still no copy. Instead I see large green box with this prompt: “Answer a survey question to continue reading this content.” This strikes me as unfair as I haven’t actually encountered any content yet. The survey has been brought to me by Google, who wants to know if I have ever heard of the running shoe store JackRabbit. I have now and it is bothering me. A lot.

I decide to skip the survey. This is interactive media after all and we empowered consumers do what we want. So I continue scrolling only to find the text of the article greyed out. It looks like a document shown on 60 Minutes, one hundred percent redacted. There are however still plenty of ads visible on the outer columns. In fact, it’s Lego Land again.

Scrolling further still I find yet another prompt overlaying the greyed out text: “Click to load more of the article.” I click because apparently I am just a click monkey at this point. Click monkey is rewarded by… more lines of redacted text. They really want me to take that survey. Somewhere on the page a video starts and stutters. I can’t see it, but I can hear it. It is the sound of a hopelessly self-destructive business model.

Top secret content.

I’m all in now and have to keep scrolling just to see how this hellscape ends. Except it doesn’t. Advancing down the page, the pattern repeats itself. Ads, surveys, outbound links, headlines, redacted text. Here are some links served by something called Celeb Chatter. Here are more Lego ads. Here is text you can’t see, but it’s there we promise. How about now? Have you heard of JackRabbit now?

Eventually I have to stop scrolling because my laptop simply cannot stand the fuckery. As the fan kicks into high speed, my browser crashes due to an unresponsive script from “pixel.adsafeprotected.com.” Had I attempted to view this page on mobile my phone would have bricked on the spot.

After a reboot I run the page through Ghostery, a browser plugin that reveals the behind-the-scenes tracking and analytics technologies that sites use to conduct surveillance, I mean, customize the reader experience. It found 115 trackers, the majority of which were categorized as advertising tools. While that seems like a lot, it’s actually fairly standard. Publishers like the Sun Times are heavily dependent on ad revenue and the “digital transition” has compelled them to cram as many ads and trackers on their sites as possible.

One feature that worked fairly well throughout this tragic journey was the little raft of social media icons that floated alongside me as I moved down the page. At the bottom of that menu, after buttons for Facebook and Twitter and Reddit and Pinterest, was a fraction: 1/5. It was probably a warning, painfully ironic, that I’d read one of my five “free” articles for the day. But I like to think it was a coded dispatch, a cry for help, sent by one of the five remaining employees that still work for the Sun Times.

Regardless, the message is clear. Commercial journalism is in a bad way. If print is dying and digital is the future, how can we explain the absolute shit show that is the Sun Times site? No sane person would create this kind of user experience on purpose. It exists because the commercial media system demands it and marketers call the shots. It must be a bitter pill for the remaining reporters and editors at the Sun Times and countless other publications to see their hard work suffocating within a barely functional medium that’s primary purpose is thinly veiled commercial surveillance. But this is the internet we’ve created, couched within a deeply troubled media system driven by advertising dollars.

We need to build a better model, from the ground up, brick by brick. Like they do at Lego Land.