When you build on the internet, you build on sand
The impermanent web and the problems it poses
A song to read by: “Blues Stay Away from Me,” by Jean Shephard
What I’m reading: “The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is,” by Justin E. H. Smith
After nearly a decade of utter dominion, the social platforms have finally begun to crack.
At Twitter, the lunatics are running the asylum. Facebook, meanwhile, has become a glorified paddock for the elderly and the disabused. And Instagram, once the crown jewel of the Zuckerberg empire, now shuffles through identity crises like a paranoid croupier.
As these companies contend with their mortality for what feels like the first time, their users — your handsome author included — have been forced to reckon with what the web might look like in their absence. This grim reimagining has the feel of a memento mori for the digital age, a reminder that nothing you post shall last.
Indeed, for many, the platforms have served as a kind of public infrastructure upon which you could memorialize your life: Instagram catalogs your photos, Substack chronicles your writing, Spotify stores your music and Google preserves your correspondence.
But what happens, as Terry asked in a particularly salient newsletter, if they disappear? Or rather, what happens when they disappear?
The grand illusion of the internet is that it will endure, that it will act as a reliable storehouse for the artifacts of your life.
The reality could not be farther from the truth — even the most recent evidence suggests the opposite. Vast portions of the internet disappear routinely — websites shut down, editors delete archives and people unplug. And when they do, reams of information evaporate into thin air.
Or, perhaps the decision to remove yourself from the web was not your own. Last year, when Donald Trump found himself deplatformed from nearly every corner of the internet, the utter artifice of the web became much more transparent.
While the politics of the decision were indisputable, the incident laid bare the fragility of life online — with the click of a button, the flip of a switch, the decision of a boardroom, everything you build on the internet can be erased.
We have seen this in the information wars taking place in autocracies across the globe. In Russia and the Ukraine, but also in China, the Middle East, parts of South America and hotbeds in Africa, the internet can and increasingly is censored, manipulated or shut down.
Once the web passed a certain point of sophistication, it became more centralized, more controllable, than pamphlets and magazines ever could be.
Print will never die
These thoughts crossed my mind on Wednesday as I read a magazine — a magazine made of paper, which I held in my hands.
While I risk exposing my inner Luddite, I could not help but think that despite all the shortcomings of print, even the flimsiest sheath of paper is far more durable than anything online. And for all the flaws of analog media, it depended far less on a third-party distribution system whose whims dictated its fate.
For the last decade, publishers have acted as if the foundations of the internet will hold forever, but the web has only shown a propensity for the opposite — it continues to splinter at accelerating speeds. The entire premise of the blockchain, for example, rests on abandoning the internet of the last decade in favor of a new model.
Fortunately, the news media learned a critical lesson in the pivot to video era about the dangers of relying on fickle technology. Since then, publishers have operated with full awareness of the risks they chance by drawing too heavily from social media for revenue or traffic.
The question now is: What lessons should we take from its collapse? If the social platforms that we built the internet upon are indeed mortal, should we continue building on them with abandon? And what precautions should we extend to the internet writ large?
The dissolution of the platforms and the erosion of their users’ trust should serve as a lesson for publishers, as well as reporters and anyone else who now conducts their livelihood on the internet. Nothing lasts forever, but sand hardly lasts at all.
Some Good Readin’
— A fascinating case study about how Vogue used the Met Gala to turn fly-by readers into a more durable readership. (Adweek)
— A portrait of a media company whose reputation has never been squeaky but whose business has never been stronger. (Adweek)
— To my mind, the future of media looks a lot like Bloomberg. (Adweek)
— Last Adweek plug, I promise: If you are unfamiliar with Dirt, change that by reading this, because it is one of the most intriguing new media companies right now. (Adweek)
— The increasingly blurred relationship between Bitcoin mining and the fossil fuel industry. (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
— I finally read the Pulitzer Prize-winning 9/11 story from the Atlantic, and it is amazing. Set some time aside, though! (The Atlantic)
— Literally just read every Close Reads that The Times has made. (The New York Times)
— Another great piece from Terry: There are just way too many things masquerading as trends. (Vox)
Cover image: "Untitled,” by Mark Rothko