A song to read by: “Losing My Edge,” by LCD Soundsystem
What I’m reading: “The Chaos Monkeys,” by Antonio García Martínez
As a writer and general thinker of thoughts, I often subject whatever weird concept that’s currently fascinating me to a litmus test to help me determine how much I can talk about it without being annoying. In short, I ask myself: Is this idea new, or is it just new to me? Generally it is the latter.
Lately, though, I’ve been fixated on something that seems very basic, so basic that I expected to discover a deep vein of scholarship dissecting it. However, my cursory internet dives have turned very little up in the way of coverage, so I’m tentatively excited about exploring a virginal concept with you, my closest readers.
Before we get to it though, a tiny bit of background.
My curiosity stemmed from a post of mine I wrote a few weeks ago, in which I detailed just how little internet usage is devoted to reading the news. According to Matthew Hindman’s 2018 book “The Internet Trap,” a scant 3% of total web traffic goes to news sites. Cue the clutched pearls.
What was more intriguing, though, were my friends’ and family’s answers when I asked them to guess (before telling them, of course) what percentage of total web traffic they thought news sites accounted for. Some are avid news consumers, some are not, but every guess was above 50%. To a person, everyone vastly overestimated how often people visited news sites. They didn’t necessarily visit these sites themselves, but they thought that, as an aggregate, others on the internet did.
This led me to think back on a much-maligned mantra of Google’s that I’ve written about before, which claims that “Competition is just a click away.” The search company used the quip to defend their growing hegemony over the internet, implying that netizens could always change their usage behaviors out of the blue and start patronizing a different search engine, or a different site.
Hindman and others have since debunked this line of thinking. Modern web sites are engineered to create “lock-in,” which means they are crafted to be maximally addictive and designed to learn and then accommodate your preferences. Therefore, the more times you visit a website, the more accurately it will evolve to cater to your preferences. And as time passes, users will only fall more deeply entrenched into these well-worn grooves of behavior. As a result, competition is not a click away, and the sites that you visit will gradually become harder to “break free” from.
To illustrate this point, think about how many web sites you visit on a regular basis. Not click a link and visit, but ones you have bookmarked, whose homepages you visit just to see what’s going on there on a particular day. For me, before I started thinking deeply about this, I would say I rotated pretty consistently through probably five to seven sites: Twitter, Instagram, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times and The New Yorker.
In my conversations with friends and family, their answers were similar. They patronized a handful of sites, most of which belonged to the tech giants or the biggest news publishers in the world. And therein lies the cognitive dissonance.
Google likes to say that “Competition is a click away,” and people tend to think rates of news consumption are much higher than they are, yet most people tend to patronize just a handful of sites, most notably Google, Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, Twitter, Reddit and Instagram.
Here I started thinking about Kantian ethics (this’ll be quick), because my man Immanuel had a useful little litmus test for human behavior too. He believed — and I’m paraphrasing poorly — that one should live one’s life in a way such that, if everyone conducted their life in that exact way, the world would be a better place. The flip side of that notion is that you should not consider yourself an exception to the rules that you expect others to follow. This is a reductive analysis, so please don’t get in my email and roast my ass if you’re a philosophy nerd.
When you apply that thinking to internet browsing behavior, you begin to see the problem. People behave one way on the web but assume (if they’re even thinking about it, which is a big if) that others behave a different way. You probably only visit a handful of massive sites, as does everyone you know and talk to, yet you believe that smaller sites must be attracting sizable enough audiences to stay in business — you’ve just never met these people somehow.
Unfortunately, that is not how the internet works. And as a result of this collective naiveté, the small sites are dying, while the large sites — due to the aforementioned lock-in — are only becoming bigger and more sophisticated.
It’s important to remember that the internet is shaped not by the actions of publishers and tech companies, but by billions of micro-decisions made by users like you.
So every time you visit Instagram instead of your local news site, Instagram gathers more user data, improves your user experience and becomes even stickier. It also makes money from your visits, which finances these continuous improvements.
Conversely, the small news site, when it does not get your visit, does not get your data, meaning it cannot improve its site. It also means that site doesn’t get your money, so it couldn’t improve its interface even if it wanted to. So with every passing day, this disparity between the internet haves and the internet have-nots grows larger.
And thus the concept that I’ve been thinking about: Why do we patronize small or local businesses, but not small or local websites? In the same way you might #BuyLocal, I think we need to #SurfSmall.
Hindman explains why in “The Internet Trap”: In most ways, URL economics are the same as IRL economics. As big companies get bigger, they get more powerful; use economies of scale to reduce their expenses; poach the top talent; purchase or kill their competitors; and turn the marketplace into an asymmetrical battlefield, where the odds are so stacked against the underdog that they can never hope to succeed without government regulation or some masterstroke of innovation.
In the same way when a Walmart comes into town it crushes local purveyors under its Sneakers-clad heel, so too do these monopolistic sites destroy their web-based competition.
But web patronage is fundamentally different in form than physical patronage; this is a huge part of the problem. You see where other people shop, but you don’t see what websites your friends visit. Your web activity, and therefore patronage, happens in isolation, so it goes unnoticed that everyone just visits the same eight websites. Imagine if there were only eight stores in your town, and they were all corporate chains — wouldn’t you want more diversity of choice? Wouldn’t you want to support your town’s local businesses, rather than the department stores?
Part of the problem is that, if you’re like me, you might have never thought about this before. But the result is that you and everyone you know visits the same sites, day in and day out, week after week, month after month, year after year, without thinking about how these billions of cumulative micro-actions determine, quite literally, what the web looks like and who profits from your patronage.
I should note: I’m definitely coming at this from a “support small business” kind of mindset. I get that not everyone might share that mindset.
Where I’m from, in San Antonio, people support mom-and-pop everything. It’s a part of the culture to give your money to the people from your community who work hard to make a quality product. And in Austin, that you would support a local business before a chain goes without saying.
I come from a background in food too, where supporting farmers and local purveyors is the mark of someone who cares about the ecosystem their products come from, not just the products themselves. This applies to the arts, as is the case with supporting local music, literature or clothing, just as much as it applies to enterprise, when you might feel kinship to a small business from your hometown.
Of course, I readily admit that there is a need for chains with low price-points and ease of access; any argument to the contrary is not an intersectional one. But I’ll always maintain that, if you have the time and resources to do so, it benefits your community, your local economy and your sense of self to support small businesses.
So why should that mindset not apply to the sites you patronize on the internet? If you shop local, why not #SurfSmall?
By all means, please continue to use social media and visit The New York Times. They do great, important things. But if you’re not pressed for time, use Bookshop instead of Amazon. When you’re ordering take-out, order from the restaurant website instead of using Uber Eats. And when you read the news, go straight to your local news site, not through an aggregator or social media.
The counterpoint is obvious: smaller sites can suck. They are often outdated and poorly constructed. They’re buggy, with pop-up ads flying every which way, and user interfaces so laggy and loaded that your laptop fan starts to whir even when you’re just thinking about visiting. I get it.
But that mom-and-pop taco place you love might not take credit card, and that local band probably charges more for tickets than you think they’re worth. But you support them anyway. Why? Because you understand the value you create by supporting grassroots enterprise, whether it’s cultural or business.
Plus, the more you support these small sites, the better they’ll become. In fact, try this: Next time you visit a creaky local news site, consider subscribing — so they get real, consistent money — and sending an email saying that you support them and that you would be much more inclined to be a repeat visitor if they took pains to improve their user interface. It won’t happen quickly, and it might not happen at all, but it stands a 0% chance of happening without your support.
So ask your friends what niche websites they visit, google (or DuckDuckGo!) what local news sites your city has to offer and try supporting them. The more you visit, the better they’ll get. The big sites are going to be fine, too; I love all my friends working at big companies, and I support the work those big companies do (most of the time!).
But you can enjoy a Starbucks’ Nitro Brew on occasion and still patronize your local coffee shop 99% of the time. And you know what happens then? When you take time to intentionally support small websites? The big guys and the little guys can make a living. And who doesn’t want that?
Some good readin’
— The New York Times’ Ben Smith writes about the new media trend of “monetizing individuality.” Yes, reader, I shuddered too.
— Jessica Lessin, editor-in-chief of The Information, has launched a “summer school” for early-career journalists, which will feature lectures from a who’s who of the media world.
— More cops and Karens are killing or threatening black people. Please don’t read my newsletter if you are racist! I’m sharing these links to get people informed and then hopefully upset enough to do something helpful.
— For all my Alison Roman fans, who else calls B.S. on her virtue-signaling books-to-read photo? And she’s starting a newsletter? Who would do such an insane thing.
— The Seattle Times newsroom is unionizing! We here at Medialyte love a good union.
— The Vice editor-in-chief resigned after last week’s bloodletting.
— And for fun, I recently reread one of my favorite New Yorker articles of all time. It’s very long, and it’s about the earthworks artist Michael Heizer.