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Digital Media Is a Wasteland

A prose poem in 11 parts

John DeVore
Jan 24, 2019 · 11 min read
Credit: wildpixel/iStock/Getty Images Plus

I am a writer and an editor who launched his first site in 1999. Since then, I have either launched or edited at least 30 sites, maybe more. I also used to drink too much. I am probably responsible for a hundred billion clicks, the most precious resource in the world.

Over the years, I have pivoted from print to digital, from digital to video, from video to digital, and from panic to depression. I have been laid off three times, and each one is different, like a snowflake of pain. I ran a cupcake blog once. I edited 20,000 zingers on a joke website. I have worked for a leading cable news website, and an Emmy-winning comedy website, and the blog of a prestigious magazine. I was an editor for a movie website, a travel website, and for two years I wrote a weekly column for a feminist website, which I’m very proud of even if I never, ever read any of those columns again. I was a mucky-muck for a viral clickbait factory. I ran a website for a mattress company. I have dispensed love and sex advice on the internet because the old saying is true: Those who can, do. Those who can’t give love and sex advice on the internet. I was part of an infamous Bush-era political parody website and sometimes, late at night, I wonder if I helped make the world better or worse. I have written thousands of blog posts, slideshows, articles, and essays and I have even won awards. I have also managed social media accounts and real talk, social media is just the internet on crystal meth.

Now, I’m not bragging. Really. I’m not. I just feel that I’m qualified to write about digital media and I have no idea what’s going on and never have. Anyone who says they do is either lying or hasn’t properly had the shit kicked out of them by the internet.

Remember the Predator movies? They are a beloved sci-fi horror franchise about a giant alien gorilla-crab monster who hunts human beings. In one of the recent sequels, a group of humans — each more badass than the last — are kidnapped and dropped on another planet, to be hunted by the titular character. At one point, they stumble upon the skeleton of another person and learn that they are not the first group of prey to be dumped onto Planet Predator. Then, later, they meet a human, played magnificently by Lawrence Fishburne, who has found a way to survive on the intergalactic game preserve. Against all odds, he has eked out an existence without being blasted into chunks by lasers or butchered by space swords. But he’d already gone insane from years of isolation and fear — and from the knowledge that at any moment, randomly, he could be killed in a spectacular fashion.

Anyway, that’s how I feel after working in digital media for 20 years.

I was a true believer when I was much younger. If you asked me about the future of the internet in 1999 I’d have beautiful answers. “By the year 2005,” I’d say, “we’ll all be downloading multi-media AOL/Time Warner e-magazines to our personal digital assistants and there will be world peace.” I could see it so clearly. To be bluntly honest there is still a small part of me that still believes in the dream of the internet. That, thanks to technology, humans can be connected to one another, like lemmings holding hands.

The internet has made me cry. It has paid my bills, if barely. I didn’t grow up with computers. I had an electronic typewriter in college. But, my lord, I learned to love it fast.

No one remembers the first dotcom bubble. But I do. It was a very short golden age when everyone believed the internet was going to change the world for the better. And then it was over. Pop! My dream job was a dream job because eventually, I woke up screaming. Now I am not an expert in the stock market or capitalism. I have never read Marx. Hell, I don’t even read Paul Krugman. But what I know about the modern American economy is this: it’s bubbles all the way down.

At the time, right before the burst, I worked for a startup that was trying to perfect live streaming video. That was the noble fantasy, at least. The reality was, with a 56K modem, you could watch postage stamp sized video moving at the speed of pudding being sucked up through a bendy straw. It was exciting while it lasted, at least. I had worked for one other website so I was already a veteran. That company would blow through tens of millions of dollars in a few years until, one day, the CEO informed us all via conference call that we were going to focus our entire energies on creating magic videos — videos about magic with famous TV magicians. He closed the sudden, company-wide announcement with the words “we can win with magic.” We did not win.

There was that time I almost didn’t hit my traffic goals for a truly dumb site I was editing, writing for, and art directing. This filled me with existential terror. Digital media is an endless production of Glengarry Glen Ross. I had numbers to hit. I was in the eyeball business. I had to attract eyeballs, millions of them, or it was hit the bricks, pal, and beat it. Eyeballs like stars in the sky. Eyeballs free from their sockets. Swimming in great shoals, their optic nerves wriggling.

So I decided to create a slideshow to boost my pageviews, but I had no idea what to create. I clicked around the internet for inspiration and read a slideshow on a website that I forget. The title was “Navy SEALS vs. Baby Seals.” It was alternating photos of buff Special Forces soldiers and adorable baby seals, with some meaningless copy underneath. I almost wept at the brilliance of this slideshow. (I like to think I was a pioneer of slideshows.) There, in front of me, was another subterranean internet Morlock who also had to hit their traffic goals. And so they built a completely meaningless and utterly irresistible blackhole of clicks. If you created that, please, I want you to know that someone out there, a colleague, gazed upon it with wonder. I was inspired, obviously, so I grabbed some stock photos of creepy dolls and stuffed animals and wrote “13 Toys That Whisper Things In Your Ears While You Sleep.” No, it wasn’t nearly as brilliant as “Navy SEALS vs. Baby Seals.” But I thought it was brilliant. You can’t eat integrity, you know?

I didn’t hit my traffic goals is the end of that story. The internet is an angry toddler demanding chicken fingers and I failed to produce enough chicken fingers. That slideshow doesn’t exist anymore. It was nuked off the internet because executives are not sentimental.

I worked for a small consumer electronics publisher. That was my big break. I did not go to journalism school. Instead, I learned it as a trade, of sorts. I turned a temp job as a receptionist into a full-blown gig checking facts for a magazine about business software. I had moved to New York to become a playwright because I was under the impression that was a path to a six-figure salary. I got the promotion because I passed the edit test, which was spending an entire night looking for copy errors in an issue of the New York Times. I did not find any but I got the job anyway.

I worked alongside someone who had gone to school to learn his profession. He was a natural-born editor and journalist who currently works for one of the best newspapers in the country. I know what makes a good journalist because I have worked with many. They are really good at picking up telephones and extracting information from people who don’t want to surrender that information. I once asked him for “the big picture.” What was my job as an editor? I wanted a shortcut, like a good little capitalist stormtrooper. He told me “every vowel is accountable.” So, I was like a word shepherd? Yes. This made sense and, every month, I accounted for every word that was my responsibility in the magazine. That was, maybe, two or three thousand words? I ran the upfront section and mostly wrote about Y2K software. Y2K was a turn-of-the-century panic about a glitch in every computer that was going to hatch and plunge the world into anarchy. The software I wrote about promised to save your home PC from the coming meltdown and, in retrospect, they were probably scams. Yes, the Y2K bug was real but the media loves a plague. But, honestly, would we be worse off living in a tribal post-apocalypse? Don’t we already?

When I told that editor I had a job at a website, he scoffed and told me it wouldn’t last. He was right. Multiple times. He didn’t really respect the web, anyway. And that may be the correct position to have on the topic. He loved magazines. So did I. I also loved working on a website. But they are two different things. At the website, I soon learned that I was shepherding thousands of words every day, instead of once a month. It was impossible to spit-polish every word the way I had been told. I have lost many, many words on my watch.

For a few years, I was a satellite radio talk show host. I wasn’t very good at it, but it helped me become a better blogger. On my resume I use the term “digital writer,” but I like the word “blogger.” It’s a greasy nonsense word that I think fits the trade. There is very little overhead in radio, compared to magazines with their materials and printing presses and television with its expensive sets and lights and free food, just endless tables of sandwiches and pasta salads and cookies. You just need a mic and talent, really. A radio tower or satellite orbiting the Earth helps. But, mostly, you need a mic and a maniac.

I spent my nights screaming opinions for hours into the microphone and hoping, praying, that my phone lines would light up with callers waiting to scream their opinions at me. I mean, that’s blogging. I was trained by an experienced program director not to fear the mic, and not to be mealy-mouthed. If, for instance, I liked Butterfinger candy bars, I should go on my show and announce that Butterfingers are the best candy bars ever created, all other candy bars are inferior, and if you disagree with me, you are both wrong and a bad human being. Now, replace candy bars with, say, anything of consequence. Emotions out, emotions in. Callers and comments are the same things. The same squirt of adrenaline. A metric that moves the proverbial needle. Every digital writer is a radio shock jock.

I thought having an opinion would be easy. It turns out it is not easy. At least, it’s not easy to have an original opinion. Human beings parrot other opinions too easily. Information is power and opinions are information. Therefore, opinions are power. They are, however, a very small power. The kind of power a grade school class clown who farts during moments of silence wields. Opinions are easy to produce and go stale quick, like donuts. One reason opinions are so disposable is that opinions are the easiest kind of information to manufacture. See? I just made a fresh opinion. There is nothing wrong with the opinion business, but I just don’t think it’s wise for America to transform into an opinion-based economy.

Facts are fussy. It takes work to dig them up and crack them open. Skill. Journalism isn’t cheap. But a fact is valuable. For instance: “a hurricane is coming” is an important fact to know. “There is tainted lettuce at the grocery store” is another. It is in your self-interest to know facts like “a powerful politician is corrupt.”

I just wish truth and justice were profitable.

The news of media layoffs is depressing. I mean, all layoffs are depressing, whether you’re a data or coal miner. But there was a time when digital media layoffs didn’t really warrant “breaking news” alerts. I remember a website, a sort of curated message board, really, where employees of internet startups would submit rumors about impending layoffs. On more than one occasion, someone would read that their company was about to go bust in the morning and be on the street with a box full of papers and desk knickknacks by that afternoon. It was like that horror movie where the babysitter learns from the police that her stalker is calling from inside the house. I read it religiously, just in case.

This was around the end of the last century and the start of the new, before the terrorist attack. One day, before I became information superhighway roadkill, a well-funded website that awkwardly combined e-commerce with tech reviews suddenly went out of business. I knew people there. Friends. I had read the gossip and emailed some a warning but they had already been told that the company didn’t exist anymore. They were now standing inside the corpse of a giant monster.

The staffers were stunned but did not panic, even when the executives disappeared into smoke. Instead, they threw a party and I was invited. It was part Irish wake, part fall of Saigon. Liquor, cigarettes, music blaring from CD players. Cubicle walls were kicked over. Company logos were torn down from walls. The office was picked clean, like a leftover Thanksgiving turkey. Expensive ergonomic chairs? Employees wheeled them out. Consumer electronics? Grab what you want, and more. I stumbled out with three ZIP drives, the portable floppy disk storage system that would be obsolete in a few years.

The visionaries of Silicon Valley preach a lot these days about “disruption,” which is a shiny word that means “building a new house while burning down the old house at the same time.” Here’s the problem with visionaries, though: they fall down open manholes too easily because they’re never looking where they’re going. Disruption is chaos. Chaos is an opportunity. But chaos is, rarely, a sustainable business. Unless we’re talking endless war. If you want to know what disruption looks like, read the stories about recent media layoffs here, and here, and here. While you read them, remember that this slow-motion collapse of an industry has been going on for a couple of decades. This is the future for all of us (or the present for thousands of people right now).

The very first website I launched was for a men’s magazine and we had a message board. The KKK would try to recruit on this message board. We got tired of deleting their attempts to sweet-talk lonely young white men so we shut down the message board.

Luckily for racists and maniacs and hate merchants, the internet was full of message boards and still is, because the internet is a message board. Hungry. Blank. Bottomless. It has always been a message board. It will always be a message board. Facebook is a message board. Twitter is a message board. Amazon? Message board. The internet is where you plug something in — data, words, pictures, video, whatever — and then people comment on it. A vast interactive database where you can sell and buy anything, virtual or real. And then leave a review. The internet is not the future of journalism. It is not a global consciousness. It’s just a message board, albeit one that is becoming more and more sophisticated. An all-powerful chatroom. We should take great care what we cut-and-paste into it. Eventually, the internet will evolve into a fully sentient message board who will think humans are also just message boards and it will plug things into us — fears, hopes, and wants, with discounts. Empty spaces needing to be filled. And we will wipe our mouths after every serving, then open wide for more.

I am currently unemployed. But I’m hopeful.

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