New York Ideas 2014

The State of the Internet Is… Not Good?

Choire Sicha, co-founder of The Awl, shares his concerns about how we digest information online. 

(The Atlantic)

"You want [writers] to flower into their floweriness," said Choire Sicha, smiling slyly at the audience at last week’s New York Ideas. And for The Awl, the current events and culture blog that Sicha co-founded in 2009, that mantra has more or less worked.  From its daily reviews of New York City weather to interviews with people who have just eaten fruit for the first time, The Awl’s irreverent style is made for the age of online storytelling. With that in mind, we sat down with Sicha after his panel for a candid conversation on the current state of online media and what it means for The Awl’s future – and for his own.

So what’s your media diet? What’s a day in your online life like?

It’s changed a lot. I do not read a lot of things anymore. A lot of us don’t, we sort of go where the tide takes us. I feel weird about that. I opened up my Digg reader the other day, because I was on blogging duty at work, and everything was so duplicative of each other. I was like, yeah, okay, there’s that piece of news filtering through all these different websites, all the same things… no wonder I don’t go to them. I need to make a new folder in my Digg reader, I guess, that’s “Things That Are Surprising and Interesting and Maybe Weird.” It’s sort of… it’s not… I don’t know, something’s wrong.

With media online?

Yeah! Something’s funny. I wish you could shove Tumblr into RSS better, but Tumblr is so random, which is what I like about it. There’s no middle ground.

So, a day in my life online goes Twitter, Tumblr, GroupMe, Campfire, back to Twitter, maybe the New York Times Now app. Although I forgot to check [the New York Times Now app] for a week and I didn’t really notice.

So you clearly weren’t missing anything too special.

Well, I also used to read the New Yorker every Monday and now I don’t. Part of that is because they’ve become more regular and less weekly online, so I sort of think, “Oh, I can go anytime,” or I’ll go whenever someone says something of note, or when it shows up in Today in Tabs.

Do you find that with the culture of viral, things do become really duplicative? Because you’re scrolling and everything is the same video or the same article…

Well, and the other thing that happens – this happened to me yesterday –people were really mad about something, and I had to keep scrolling…

To figure out what it was.

Exactly! And they don’t even use nouns… I say “they.” Me, too, probably. We don’t even use nouns. So you think, “Someone’s mad about a thing. Oh, they’re mad about –“ You know, you eventually find the topic, and then you finally get to proper nouns as you go on.

Like, “I can’t believe they deleted their Instagram!” And you’re like, “Okay, which Instagram? Who are we talking about? You have to go Google News search it to figure out it’s Rihanna.” And then half the time, I don’t care, or I don’t need to care, and I never figure it out. I’m being so negative right now… but I don’t like it, so there.

So what do you think is the ideal situation for how to digest stuff online?

That’s a really good question. That’s something we’re struggling with right now. People are coming to news and entertainment content by lazy phone clicking. So we’re bored, we’re looking at our phones. We’re lonely, we’re looking at our phones. And so whatever weird portal you’re going through, then you’re clicking through to things from there. So news consumption is actually really passive, unless there’s some sort of virus going online, because it’s just whatever appeals to you in the fishbowl.

How does The Awl approach that with trying to expand its reach and trying to engage with an audience?

I don’t actually know. I feel like I have aged out of this a little bit, which is weird. All things new go to the young, which is true and not true. I feel like I’m a Web 1.0 native, and now there are Web 4.0 natives, and they live a little differently than I do.

But we don’t do much. From a business perspective, half of the internet is fake traffic, and fake everything, and that’s fine. But from a personal perspective, people still recommend and share and talk about things that they really like in email and IM. So we want to give people things that they really like and enjoy, but also things they maybe didn’t think they would like and enjoy, because I feel like unexpectedness is a big, wonderful component of the internet. Things that make you say, “I did not know that,” or “I did not know I wanted to know that,” or “maybe I still don’t want to know that.”

So I stalked you on Twitter, for full disclosure, and I noticed that you use it more for personal stuff as opposed to corporate stuff.

I barely use it at all. And you know why? Because once people have come for you on Twitter, you’re sort of done. It’s like, all right, this isn’t my fun place. I keep my Tumblr really isolated – it’s my fun place. It’s just pictures of shit that I like –

Pictures of your cat.

A lot of them. And I don’t care what anybody thinks about it; it’s for me, and that’s it. And with Twitter, you can’t really live like that, because it’s interactive, and there’s people there. And there’s people you know, and people you don’t know, and people connected further and further, which is strange. And it’s also sort of… it’s a challenge.

I just don’t know where this ends.  I would say I’m slightly concerned about where this is all going.

It seems like the internet is a thing that you were really into when it was Web 1.0 or Web 2.0, and now you’ve found that real life-online balance that a lot of people struggle to find.

Yeah, I think the internet gets less alluring in a couple of ways over time, probably. Really, the internet is very alluring; I spend a lot of time on the internet. We all do, right? And it’s great. I mean, honestly, it’s great. I’ve also really noticed – and this is very tangential – I’ve noticed that  with friends, email is dying. There’s more and more email, but there’s less and less friends, it’s less and less personal.

I didn’t like email that much, but now I feel like the way I felt when letter-writing died. I used to write people long emails. Then I wrote people short emails. And now I don’t know if I even really write people emails at all.

So you just gchat instead?

I feel like my gchat is dying too. I feel like even at work people don’t answer my emails. They answer me 48 hours later, and I’m like, “We’re planning a meeting, what is going on?” But they don’t care. Email is just a. an annoyance, b. inefficient, c. it’s not people’s first inclination to use on their phone.

What do you think is the next step?

I think it’s going to be some horrible Tinder/Instagram hybrid, where we direct message each other.

Through pictures?

Through pictures, through pictograms.

Like selfies that we take?

Videogram selfies. It’s going to be amazing. Or terrible.

Most of us don’t even need computers anymore. Unless you’re writing a story or a blog, where you do need a computer… we just need our phones. Maybe we’ll just sext each other.

Is that your corporate plan?

That’s my corporate plan. Sexting is the future. I’m sorry that we had to have this conversation. Now I’m depressed.