A Second Look At The Giant Garbage Pile That Is Online Media, 2014

Alex Pareene —  Sep 5 2014 @ 11:59am
by Alex Pareene


WARNING: This is a post, by a media professional, about the media. If you are a normal human being, you will not and definitely should not care, except inasmuch as it’s part of a debate about whether or not we, the media, are failing you, the normal human being. If you are looking for something a little more general-interest, may I recommend, I dunno, a 10,000-word Grantland post about a prestige cable show. Or make some fantasy football trades. Or read a book, I don’t know!

On Wednesday, I wrote about Takes. My piece was a blog post, written on the fly, based on ideas that have been rattling around in my head for a while. If I’d taken the time – say a week, or a month – to organize those thoughts better, and clarify my argument, I would’ve written a very different – and almost certainly better – piece. But I didn’t do that (I am only guesting here at The Dish for one short week, after all), so I now cheerfully admit that, as my (friendly) critics contend, I conflated a few different Internet tropes. Specifically, in the words of Jack Dickey, I conflated “aggregated picayune garbage with the Take.”

So let’s get into this a bit more. Here are the primary types of garbage content that lots of money – money that could be spent on making good things – is currently being spent on producing:

No-value-added news blogging

This is “aggregated picayune garbage,” and it is the primary pollutant in the Great Pacific garbage patch of the Internet. It is just mass-produced debris, utterly valueless, thoughtlessly sent into the world without regard for quality, but solely because it fills the short-term need to have some sort of piece of content on which to sell ads.

This makes up 75 percent* of the content on TIME’s “Newsfeed” (“Chris Pratt Messes Up First Pitch at Cubs Game, Is Completely Charming About It,” “43.5 Socks Removed from Dog’s Stomach During Surgery“), with similar numbers at the Huffington Post, and the newsblogs of AOL and Yahoo and MSN. That’s just the general-interest news media. In other fields, it’s frequently worse, largely because shrinking budgets have decimated everything that isn’t cheap aggregation. Music and pop culture sites in particular are full of semi-identical news nuggets (“Kate Bush’s House in Danger of Falling Into the Sea,” “Kate Bush Is Literally Living Life on the Edge,”, “Kate Bush’s House Might Fall Into the Ocean”), as are sites dedicated to film, comics, and entertainment in general.

*(NB: All percentages and figures in this piece are just made-up, but feel right to me.)

This sort of newsblogging is also, to varying degrees, what makes up much of the Gawker Media* sites’ daily output, even as they’ve strived (successfully) to produce a lot of original material that isn’t aggregation. And to be fair to Gawker Media, they were among the first to do this at all. When they were the only game in town, this sort of newsblogging was an entertaining substitute for reading multiple newspapers, blogs and magazines. Now no one actually reads multiple newspapers, blogs, and magazines, besides the people who aggregate for a living. Everyone else just reads what comes in through their feeds, and all publishers are fighting to post the version of the story that ends up in the most feeds.

*(Disclosure: I worked at Gawker Media for many years. It taught me how to write and post little bits of news, with jokes, very quickly. I’ve spent the last few years learning how to do this more slowly, and at greater length.)


This happens when someone at a website is like, “this is on the second page of Reddit so someone put it up.”

For example: Man Buys Every Pie At Burger King to Spite Shitty Little Brat” (Gawker, also Eater, Consumerist, Break, MSN Living, Gothamist, OC Weekly, Refinery 29, etc.)

These are often, though not always, Takes. In this example, some websites thought that the man was funny and good for doing this, and other websites thought that the man was bad. Others declined to pass judgment and instead asked their readers to simply ponder the implications of the story. “This Reddit Post Sums Up All of Humankind,” one site lied. (NB: There is zero evidence – as in absolutely none – that this story actually happened, beyond the claim made by an anonymous person on a message board who subsequently disappeared from that message board. No one who picked up the story really cared.)

Other examples: “Reddit gives two-year-old cancer patient a nonstop pizza transfusion” and 75 percent of BuzzFeed.

“Jon Stewart eviscerates”

This category also includes: “this celebrity Tweeted,” “this cable news guest or host said,” and “a thing happened at an award show.”

Viral bilge

This is the Upworthy/Viral Nova/Elite Daily nexus of “viral” content packaged with manipulative headlines. The worst part of it is that at some places (though not all), it involves nearly as many man-hours of labor (the creation and comparative testing of dozens of headlines, for example) to produce stupid garbage like “9 Charming Traits Class Clowns All Share That Landed Them In Detention Every Day” and “What These People Found In Their Attic Changed Their Lives Forever” as it would to create something actually edifying and interesting.

When these forms of aggregation are ubiquitous – and they’re everywhere, from USA Today to Cosmopolitan to all the Village Voice alt-weeklies to Glenn Beck’s The Blaze to The Bustle to the AV Club to SPIN to Complex – the only means sites have to differentiate themselves are “voice,” speed, and social/SEO juicing. “Voice” leads to the Take; it’s an adaptation to aggregation, designed to help sites differentiate otherwise identical content. The endpoint of Take Culture is “Thought Catalog,” where literally every take, from any person, no matter how stupid or offensive, is presented as just as valid, as every other Take, with the Takes that generate a lot of outraged inbound traffic the most equally valid of all.

This is not to demonize all aggregation and opinion-blogging. The Dish, for example, does both of those things quite well, because at The Dish, the aggregation is wide-ranging, instead of directed purely and cynically at latching onto a currently trending topic or getting some tiny bit of micro-news posted a split second faster than the dozen other sites that will also be posting that tiny bit of micro-news as quickly as possible. As for the opinion-blogging, well, say what you will about the man who has generously allowed me to crash at his place while he’s out of town, but no one can accuse Andrew Sullivan of producing Takes that he doesn’t strongly and sincerely believe in. (At the time he writes them, at least.) Opinion-blogging works when interesting writers have interesting, sincerely-held opinions. “Takes” are attempts to artificially replicate that process with whomever is handy and whatever opinions it seems plausible that someone might hold.

The majority of the shit described in this blog post is useless. The world doesn’t need 5,000 separate-but-barely-distinct versions of every damn story from every damn field of human endeavor. The people getting paid (barely) to produce those slightly differentiated versions of every story ever are wasting their time, unless “able to crop a picture of a celebrity in WordPress without help” becomes, suddenly, a much scarcer and more in-demand skill. The reader, in nearly every case, is getting a less-good version (or several less-good versions) of the story than whatever the original was. The vast majority of this sort of aggregation could be replaced with one curated Twitter feed that every website in existence could run on a siderail, and the media consumer would benefit. And even in that scenario, the bottom-rung producers of content are still effectively screwed. So I don’t know. Maybe it’s time to consider an organized aggregator work slowdown?