The Great Offlining
4 min read

The Great Offlining

The internet has grown toxic, so how should we deliver news?
The Great Offlining

A song to read by: "Flava in Your Ear Remix," by Craig Mack

What I’m reading: "Debt: The First 5,000 Years," by David Graeber

Escape from the Internet

In a recent Kneeling Bus newsletter, writer Drew Austin cited an interview with filmmaker Adam Curtis, in which Curtis describes his vision of what the internet of the future will look like.

The description, which I read and then later listened to in full, struck quite a chord with me, so much so that I have been unable to jettison the mental image it left me with in the weeks since.

“My vision of the internet is that it’s rapidly becoming like — do you remember all those 1980s movies set in decaying city centers, like ‘Escape from New York’? And there are always weird, mad people in post-goth outfits?” Curtis said.

“It’s just exciting and fun and weird and frightening. And everyone else has moved to the suburbs,” Curtis continued. “And my view of the internet is that that’s exactly what it’s about to become: It’s going to become this strange swamp that you go into where everyone sensible has left.”

Austin goes on to characterize the digital landscape in a similar manner, saying, “... the internet could collapse unevenly just like a deindustrializing city.”

These images resonated with me because they certainly align with my recent experience of the internet and social media. In the last few months, I have gradually begun to extricate myself from the sticky tendrils of the web, even if only a little, because I have come to loathe how unnatural the entire structure is.

It is hard to make claims about the internet “changing,” because of course I only experience a version of the internet that has been created to cater to my behaviors. But nonetheless, my experience online seems to have noticeably devolved.

Social media — even more than usual — feels full of despair, animosity and outrage. It has also, especially on Instagram, morphed into a virtual shopping app, with the difference between posts from accounts I follow and the advertisements interspersed between them blurring into an indistinguishable feed.

Meanwhile, news sites continue to bifurcate into the have’s and the have not’s.

Publishers with expensive subscriptions bolstering their bottom lines have increasingly elegant designs, minimal ads and a social media-esque absence of friction. They are also, more and more, intent on selling you things as well.

The less affluent sites, however, sink further and further under the weight of their own endless advertisements, without the resources to catch up or the goodwill of their readers to rely on.

The result is a news ecosystem where the wealthy can access the information they need with minimal psychological strain, while the masses must endure sensory assault to cobble together the news they need to get by.

These factors reinforce a vision of the internet not unlike the physical geography of American cities today: the wealthy get parks, trees, walkable streets and courteous buskers, while the poor get smog, noise pollution, concrete and broken streetlights. On the internet, the wealthy get minimalist advertisements, smooth interfaces and moderated discussion, while the rest of us get pop-ups, impregnable paywalls and emotionally manipulative vitriol.

Because of these realities, Curtis’ description of the internet as a charred, post-apocalyptic landscape appears more prescience than exaggeration.

As more of the world digitizes and moves onto the web, those with the means to do so will stay off it as much as possible. It has already become a sign of wellness to unplug, a luxury you can only afford for brief snippets of time, normally while on vacation. In the future, this reality will only exacerbate: the great majority of people will be forced to navigate clunky, cheap, taxing UX, while the wealthy will pay others to use the internet for them.

How does this affect news organizations?

This erosion of the web seems, to me, attached at the hip with the rise of non-net news consumption. Venturing out onto the web has become a mentally taxing experience, so people are flocking to products that let them avoid it.

Newsletters, especially, appeal in part because they provide readers with the information they need without ever asking them to get online. Podcasts, too, convey the news of the day without requiring you ever log on anywhere.

Politico, which was just acquired by Axel Springer for more than $1 billion, built its empire on newsletters. Axios, which was almost just acquired by Axel Springer, employs the same method. Both have built huge businesses off of the idea that professional people want relevant information delivered directly to them, not posted on a website for them to seek out. Axios hardly has a functional website, for god’s sake! They’re not alone, though: In recent years, more publishers have begun treating their websites more as storage facilities than storefronts.

If the popular perception of social media and the internet continues to drop, and user experience on the open web continues to sour, smart publishers will adjust their distribution routes to reflect this shift.

For a brief moment, I almost let nostalgia convince me that print could be part of the solution. (It is not.)

But the spirit of print's appeal remains true: More people — even the young and tech-savvy! — are waking up to the realization that there is a point of diminishing returns for internet use. That there is such a thing as too much, and that “touching grass” will ultimately be far better for your mental and physical health than a free meditation app.

So then the question becomes: How can publishers use the internet without being on the internet? How can they deliver readers the information they need without asking them to travel to the middle of the post-industrial wasteland? If the open internet resembles the chaos of a city newsstand, what does home delivery look like in the digital age?

Helping readers avoid the internet could soon be a key value proposition. Who will offer it first?

Some good readin'

— Kneeling Bus! It just became only the fourth newsletter I pay for. (Kneeling Bus)

— This is a great explanation of Section 230, its history and why it's relevant. Perfect for the non-technical! (ProPublica)

— A sad but beautifully written and occasionally funny short story about Covid, marriage and death. (Electric Lit)

— The Washington Post has a new editor-in-chief, the first one handpicked by Jeff Bezos. What does Sally Buzbee's appointment signal for Bezos' ambitions for the paper? (The Washingtonian)

— I finally subscribed to New York Magazine, and this is the story that broke me! (I will probably unsubscribe in a month.) (Vulture)

Cover image: "Peaceable Kingdom," by Edward Hicks