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The Internet Was Once Flat. No Longer

4 minute read
Alex Kantrowitz avatar
Instead of one big community, the web is a community of communities that often don’t overlap.

The internet is a big newspaper that everyone reads.” When I worked at Advertising Age, an ad industry trade publication, we’d use that line whenever a source didn’t want to share news with us. We were a small, narrowly-focused magazine, yes. But once we broke a story, it would travel around the web. So why not get an in-depth, thoughtful article from us and let it rip?

The line worked often, and likely because the internet was indeed kinda flat when we used it in the early 2010s. Paywalls were rare. The “content” boom was just underway. And though concerns of “filter bubbles” percolated, social media algorithms were either rudimentary or still on the roadmap. So news from any single entity could travel just about everywhere.

Today, however, we’ve moved into a siloed web — and the line no longer applies. Information on one part of the internet is likely to stay there, and only a tiny percent of stories break through. Rather than one big community, the web is a community of communities. And often, they don’t overlap at all.

The siloed internet is, in part, a product of paywalls. Nearly every website was once available to everyone for free. But after struggling through a transition to the web, news publishers started charging for access to their sites. One by one, papers like the Washington Post, magazines like The Atlantic, and large sites like Business Insider asked people to pay. And readers dutifully obliged.

Paywalls succeeded wildly — just ask The New York Times and its $1 billion in cash reserves — but they also narrowed the sites people read. Instead of reading across the web, today people typically read a big site or two, some niche press, and maybe a substack. This means a good story from one publication won’t likely catch another’s readers’ eyes like it once did. For paywalled news to spread, other sites must aggregate it. And aggregation is dying in the paywall era.

A content boom also contributed to the silo-ization of the internet. There was always a lot of writing on the internet, but in recent years it’s exploded. Blogging in the mid-2010s expanded to passion publishing, and now every community has a few dedicated scribes and brands covering their every move. People can therefore stay informed (or entertained) without leaving their comfort zone. So ideas they’d once encounter out of necessity now no longer come close.

To make sense of this content boom, social media companies implemented and honed the algorithms that keep people and ideas in their own realms. Back in the early 2000s, the notion that Twitter would filter itself with an algorithm was heretical. But in 2015, the company replaced its pure reverse-chronological feed with one sorted by an algorithm. The company was overloaded with content and desperate to make money, so despite the inevitable blowback, it made the change.

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Algorithms like Twitter’s and those of its social media counterparts broke apart what remained of a cohesive web. They placed liberals and conservatives in so-called filter bubbles, along with people with different interests, geographies, vocations, and vibes.

The siloed internet changes the way people read and distribute news and information on the web. Audiences, for instance, matter more than ever. Amorphous internet “traffic” is no longer the measuring stick for success online. Instead, it’s a deeply engaged group of people who trust a source of information and return to it. Knowing who your audience is and producing for them is crucial today.

The value of exclusivity is also somewhat diminished. At Advertising Age, we’d get upset when someone wanted to share news with us and one other mainstream publication. (Hence: “The internet is a big newspaper that everyone reads.”) But now, sharing the news with one other publication seems like a good bargain. A niche trade audience isn’t necessarily going to overlap with a mainstream one. So you might as well take the news, write it up, and serve your readers.

Syndication also makes a ton of sense in this new world. With less cross-pollination between sites, syndicating means bringing fresh work to new audiences it likely never would’ve reached. This is a big part of why I syndicate Big Technology on other news sites. I believe content licensing agreements of this nature will become far more commonplace.

There are downsides to a no-longer-flat internet. Filter bubbles are legitimately concerning and have broken once-universal agreements on what is true. Polarization is worsening too. But the silos are here and not likely to disappear. The good news is that publications, once left for dead, are actually getting paid for their work. And if there’s one thing better than a newspaper that everyone reads, it’s many thriving newspapers, each making a go of it on their own.

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