Why the Internet is Getting Bland

How social media and the search for brand-safety advertising is changing the internet forever

A couple years ago in search of content, I came across this travel blog. It seemed innocuous enough, but I quickly noticed the blog’s pattern added no value to my life. After subscribing, I’d get posts with a single picture and positive aphorisms like the most recent “Find something to give a damn about”.

Blogs aren’t the only place where banal positivity characterize the majority of content. Instagram and Facebook posts are famous for showcasing a happy, positive life. In many cases it’s simple bragging; in others it’s about finding and growing an audience with inspirational aphorisms, pictures of beautiful things, and political opinions that are inoffensive to a certain group of people.

This banality bubble is very easy to explain. Nowadays, brands want to advertise on the internet, and they want to do it in an eye-catching way. The gold standard of digital marketing is “going viral”.

Having a large social media platform or a popular blog puts you in a great position to help brands “go viral”. This means the web has a number of hidden gatekeepers: admins of subreddits on Reddit.com, Twitter users with 100k followers or more, networks that help D-list YouTubers try to eke out a living from their videos. Most of the public doesn’t know these people exist, nor do they know how much they are changing the conversation.

Of course, paying someone to promote your product or encourage native activity around your brand is just one of many strategies brands can and do use. More brands are taking the effort one step further with so-called “branded content”. This simple means that a company (for instance, American Express) pays a publishing outlet to publish an article that the brand pays someone to write (for instance, on how refinancing your debt on a certain credit card will save you thousands).

Fly-by-night blogs aren’t the only ones doing this; the New York Times started this in 2013 in an effort to stop losing revenue. Here’s a great list of some examples of branded content. Other sites, like Reddit, like to think they are not being infiltrated by marketers, but of course they are.

The end result of this phenomenon is pretty obvious: the internet, which once looked very different from its old-world analog of magazines, newspapers, b2b newsletters and whitepapers, academic journals, t.v. shows and movies, is going to start looking more and more like those old media.

This is already happening. For instance, compare Michelle Phan’s newest video to her first video. The high production quality of the new video is a striking contrast from the homemade tone of the old one. While this isn’t necessarily bad, it demonstrates how the internet isn’t replacing the aesthetics and values of old media, but rather adopting it in an act of emulation—as Emerson would have said, the internet is harping the courtly muses of t.v.

Nowhere is this clearer than Reddit, once a geek-focused website that has reached scale with its adoption of celebrity culture. Sixteen of the top 25 “ask me anything” posts on the subreddit dedicated to the topic are with celebrities, with two practicing scientists, the President of the United states, and other miscellaneous people (including a vacuum repairman) making up the rest of the list. Five years ago, the subreddit was full of more people like the vacuum repairman than like Peter Dinklage, Nick Offerman, or Bryan Cranston. Remember, this is from a website that is infamous amongst advertisers for hating advertising and is proud of its counterculture identity.

A counterargument would be that a new subreddit is dedicated to those AMA posts with non-celebrities—which is true—but that subreddit has 56,000 subscribers vis-a-vis the 5 million subscribed to the default Iama sub. It is clear that, whether or not Reddit likes to admit it, it is becoming an increasingly celebrity-driven medium, just as the YouTube stars who years ago sought to displace the polish of television are now merely impersonating it.

The trend is unlikely to stop. Bloggers, aspiring YouTube stars, Twitter users, admins of large subreddits, celebrities, ad agencies, brands, and even broadcasters have strong economic incentives to let these trends continue.

This may mean emerging counterculture platforms will arise on the internet in an attempt to displace platforms like Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube as they get more polished and less interesting, but there’s no way to know if they will succeed. What is clear is that the infinite channels of the internet will allow the growth of platforms to continue, and the competition between the indie and the polished pro will rage on.