The Case for Webtimism


When blogging was new, bloggers were really excited about it. Then came a slightly odd backlash associated with use of the term “internet triumphalism” in a disparaging way, and tons and tons of hand-wringing. Personally, though, I’m an unabashed web optimist about new media who thinks it’s always been perverse to posit that a new set of technologies that makes it radically cheaper and easier to obtain and disseminate information would somehow be bad for journalism (as opposed to being contrary to the interests of incumbent journalists). In part, I think that’s driven by over-sentimentalization of traditional journalism, which has never consisted primarily of in-depth investigations of important subjects, and in part by undue impatience about the development of new formats.

For a great example of the latter, check out Megan Garber’s piece on the apparent success of long-form journalism at Slate under editor David Plotz’s “Fresca Initiative.” Garber explains that the long-form pieces this has generated have gotten a lot of traffic and also that, just as has always been the case for long-form writing, play into a broader effort to market Slate to advertisers as a prestige brand.

A point I would make about this is that people sometimes forget that capitalism doesn’t operate by magic. When it comes to a certain form of “hard” technical innovation, people get this. Computers keep getting better and better, but these improvements don’t happen instantaneously—people need to put the time in to figure it out. But when you get to “softer” organizational innovations, the same thing happens. These new computers show up, then someone needs to think up an idea about how to use them better. Then that person typically needs to connect with someone who has money and some confidence in the innovator. Then you have to get the thing up and running. And then you have to see how it turns out. Then if it turns out well, the model will spread. It’s a process that takes some time, especially since the people who initially had experience writing and editing didn’t necessarily have experience with the Internet.

But we’re learning and more and more things are happening. I’m old enough to remember when the problem with the Internet was allegedly that’s there wasn’t any original reporting. Now there’s tons. Now people are trying to do local online. Slate’s doing long-form features. The thing about online that really bothers some people is actually a great strength—online there are new illusions about what people are doing. You can’t stick that story from your Cairo bureau on page A-13 and tell yourself people are reading it because they’re buying the paper. Online you actually know what’s being read and what’s not. Some people find the truth depressing, which is fine if that’s how you want to be, but it’s important to recognize that what you found reassuring about the old paradigm was largely an illusion. Online if it turns out people aren’t interested in something you think is important, then you’re faced with the challenge how do I get people interested in this and you have the tools to figure out whether you’re succeeding.