Death by a thousand clicks: how big tech is ruining literary culture

Far from democratising culture, the rise of the tech giants has just replaced the old gatekeepers with new (crude) ones

January 24, 2018
Can editors keep publications intellectually rigorous in the age of the tech giants? Photo: PA
Can editors keep publications intellectually rigorous in the age of the tech giants? Photo: PA

When the owners of the New Republic sacked the Editor Franklin Foer in December 2014, the New York-based magazine was plunged into crisis—a number of senior staff resigned and many feared for its future. For all its intellectual prestige, the magazine hadn’t been notching up enough online hits, and Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook who bought it in 2012, wanted to shake things up. He hired a former journalist at the celebrity gossip website Gawker to re-invent the New Republic for the digital era. It was a portentous moment for anyone interested in the future of publishing, apparently pitting the values of traditional journalism against the commercial cynicism of Big Tech.

In his new book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, Foer charges Facebook and its peers with having brought about “the catastrophic collapse of the news business and the degradation of American civic culture.” He casts the world of online media as a creeping dystopia, arguing that its obsession with digital interconnectedness is incompatible with the sanctity of the individual. For Foer, the idea that humanity can be morally re-shaped through the power of group scrutiny—what Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has termed “radical transparency”—raises the chilling spectre of a society where the individual is subjugated to the collective.

Is Foer right? Or are these the grumbles of an analogue-era cultural gatekeeper jealously guarding his privilege? It’s true that social media provides an outlet for our baser impulses: insecure teenagers crave Instagram “likes,” while at the darker end of the spectrum, death threats are tossed around with impunity on platforms like Twitter. But complaints about the barbarism of the crowd are as old as democracy: one person’s mob rule is another’s “radical transparency.”

Tech companies are catching up with public anxieties. Late in 2017, Twitter finally applied restrictions on hate speech. In January, Facebook made big play of adjusting its algorithms to increase the prominence of what friends share with each other over all news—fake or not. Such tinkering, however, has done little to dispel a wider unease about the impact of rapid technological change on our culture in general—and the political economy of cultural production in particular.

Silicon Valley evangelists hope the internet will bring about a new kind of communal knowledge, liberated from the constraints of intellectual property. Foer is less enthused by the prospect of the creative industries being reduced to one great “hive mind.” Such a mind, he writes, “is an intellectually incapacitated one, with diminishing ability to sort fact from fiction.” Witness click-bait journalism, fake news and—ultimately—the election of Donald Trump. For Foer, all of these are the natural consequence of Big Tech’s specious populism.

When it comes to writing, commentators like Foer see professionalism as a prerequisite of quality and integrity, whereas techno-utopians see it as a repository of elite privilege. The literary and journalistic worlds are certainly cliquey, but it is naive to think that the world of letters would be democratised by laying waste to its hierarchies. Idealistic talk about sharing is all well and good, but in practice it means a race to the bottom. The valorisation of amateurism is a boon to creative industries reliant on unpaid labour; indeed, some sites are turning away from journalist-generated content, having realised that users will generate it for free. The techno-utopian position risks de-skilling the literary and media industries.

Online journalism has collapsed the wall that traditionally separated the editorial and business sides in magazine and newspaper publishing, giving prominence to branded content or advertorial: sponsor-directed content that bears only a superficial resemblance to real journalism. Publications are prioritising “snackable content”—frivolous pieces aimed at the bored-at-work crowd. (The extraordinary success of MailOnline is a case in point.) Facebook and Google’s dominance in digital advertising makes it nigh-on impossible for an intellectually credible publication to sustain itself by web traffic alone; Facebook’s downgrading of journalism is additional bad news for publications who had built their strategy round the website. As a result, advocates of serious journalism are left pining for a return to subscription-based models. Foer suggests that cultural products need to be re-imagined as an artisanal lifestyle accessory like, say, organic food—a product for which people are prepared to pay a bit more because it’s “a symbol of social status and aspiration.”

*** The Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s declaration that “I see the elimination of gatekeepers everywhere,” was disingenuous. Amazon plays an essentially curatorial role in managing the superabundance of the digital era, promoting some products over others through its algorithms and promotions. In place of the old gatekeepers, writes Foer, we “rely on a small handful of companies to provide us with a sense of hierarchy, to identify what we should read and what we should ignore, to pick informational winners and losers.” Power has been transferred away from editors, but instead of being redistributed downwards—to writers and readers—it has gone upwards, to corporations far bigger and more powerful than any traditional publishing house.

Advocates of e-publishing like to point to the diversity of the Kindle bestseller list as evidence of technology’s democratising influence on culture. But these books are little different from the output of the vanity print publishers that preceded them. Being able to put material out into the world might look like a production revolution, but unless it is accompanied by equivalent access to editorial skills, its promise is false. Few of these self-published books will be well crafted. And, at least without the aid of an Amazon or Facebook algorithm, relatively few will be read.

Yet all hope is not lost. New initiatives in online publishing are fruitfully exploiting the internet’s capacity to connect publishers with readers. The book publisher Unbound, which crowdfunds to cover its production costs, launched in 2011. Its business model rewrites the rulebook by effectively bringing each book’s putative readership into the editorial decision-making process: the book is promoted via an online campaign at the proposal stage, and if it reaches its target of contributions, publication goes ahead. Unbound recently launched a new web journal, Boundless, devoted to criticism and literary essays.

Literary journalism is especially vulnerable in the digital age. In the old days a reader who only wanted to read, say, the sports section of a newspaper would be obliged to buy the entire paper. Now that the onus is on each piece of content to justify its own existence, literary journalism is having to come to terms with the possibility that it may have been freeloading—or, at any rate, piggybacking—all along. This may account for some publications downsizing or even doing away with their books sections.

Against this backdrop, the rise of amateur online criticism through sites like Amazon and Goodreads has been welcomed by some as a democratising advance. Such reviews can be enjoyable and sometimes illuminating, but they do not perform quite the same function as literary criticism. “Someone has to stand up for the role and the art of the critic,” Peter Stothard, the former editor of the TLS, remarked in 2012, “otherwise it will just be drowned—overwhelmed. And literature will be worse off.” Richard Schickel of the Los Angeles Times has echoed these sentiments by insisting that “criticism… is not a democratic activity [but an] elite enterprise [drawing upon] disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s entire body of work.” This might seem a rather grandiose appraisal, but the principle is sound. Without a notion of objective merit, literary journalism loses its authority.

For the new digital cultural journals similarly grappling with the vexed question of monetisation, subscriber-funding seems the only viable solution. The Los Angeles Review of Books, which is run as a non-profit organisation, didn’t pay its contributors when it launched in 2011; within a couple of years it began soliciting donations, and it now pays writers a modest honorarium. The New York webzine, The New Inquiry, covers its costs by charging subscribers a small fee for an electronic pdf.

Here in the UK, the excellent arts journal The White Review, which has been running as a print quarterly since 2011, recently launched an online section dedicated to literary and art reviews, funded by a Kickstarter campaign. These are, of course, relatively small independent projects. But they might just offer a blueprint for an economically sustainable future for the kind of thoughtful writing so vital to a healthy intellectual culture.

In the meantime, it is worth noting that established titles like the TLS, the LRB—and indeed Prospect—have enjoyed increases in their subscriptions in recent years. Though primarily paywalled, these publications give away a small amount of their content online; this is often shared via social media, which in turn helps bolster subscription sales.

What the internet does to the world of letters matters, both in its own right and as a symbol of what it might do to the wider culture. The fate of the publishing industry is thus a straw in the wind. If it can find ways to protect the role of gatekeepers in order to safeguard editorial independence and intellectual rigour, then the convulsions of recent years will prove, in the long run, to have been no more than a blip—the growing pains of a society adapting to a historic technological shift—rather than the harbinger of a new, intellectually impoverished epoch. This will require a combination of business acumen, technological literacy and creative marketing nous. Let’s hope that publishers and editors can pull it off. The stakes could not be higher.