Like so many before him, Terry Frei didn’t realize he’d blown up his career until it was too late.
The award-winning Denver Post columnist was reflecting on Takuma Sato’s victory on Sunday in the Indianapolis 500. Frei’s father had served in World War II. What better way to express his patriotic sentiments than by indulging in some red-white-and-blue-blooded racism? “Nothing specifically personal,” Frei tweeted, “but I am very uncomfortable with a Japanese driver winning the Indianapolis 500 during Memorial Day weekend.”
As Timothy Burke reports at Deadspin, the tweet is now gone, as is Frei’s job. And once again we are left to ponder the state of civil — and uncivil — discourse in the age of the internet.
Earlier this month The New York Times published a profile of Evan Williams, an internet entrepreneur who has done as much as anyone to promote the notion that each of us can and should have a digital voice. He founded Blogger, the first widespread blogging platform. He co-founded Twitter. And, in 2012, he launched Medium, a platform for writing that he hoped would become an alternative to the sociopathy that defines too much of the online world.
It hasn’t worked — not because the quality of Medium isn’t good; much of it is. Rather, he hasn’t been able to find a workable business model that attracts readers, rewards writers, and generates profits for his investors. In other words, Williams is dealing with the same problems as publishers everywhere, and his bona fides have proven to be of little help.
“I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Williams told the Times’ David Streitfeld. “I was wrong about that.”
The problem with Medium is that, for all Williams’ idealistic talk of making it a “beautiful space for reading and writing,” it’s really little more than a blogging platform — Blogger or WordPress plus recommendations. Earlier this year Williams gave up on plans to sell advertising; he laid off 45 employees and embarked on a subscription model. Publications that had bought into his vision and moved their content to Medium, including The Awl and ThinkProgress, were left in the lurch.
Julie Bort, writing for Business Insider, described Williams as a well-liked, even beloved, figure among his employees. But it was also clear that he lacked management skills or even a consistent vision of what Medium should be. Following the abrupt move away from advertising, one anonymous publisher was quoted as saying: “Smaller publishers on Medium are in a bad way, and that’s the stuff I’m pissed about.”
Taking the long view with respect to Medium’s ups and downs is Josh Quittner, who’s been covering digital culture for several decades and is now the editorial director of Flipboard, which aggregates content from a wide variety of media sources. In his weekly newsletter, Quittner wrote that the internet’s democratic essence was what also led to the emergence of its dark side:
The point is, social media, like the Net itself, is just a collection of people, good, bad and in-between, and all of us are evolving along with our tools. We’ll figure it out and grow out of this awkward, difficult phase. As Evan Williams correctly noted, it’ll take time to debug the system: “Twenty years isn’t very long to change how society works.”
The trouble is that time may neither heal all wounds nor wound all heels. Rather, it could be that the good guys will find themselves outnumbered, fighting an unwinnable war, and that “trolls, instigators of flame wars, bullies and cheats,” in Quittner’s words, will take over. Or, should I say, will complete their takeover, which is already well advanced.
It’s not that there won’t be plenty of good stuff and civil conversation. We can avail ourselves of high-quality news sources, tightly manage our Facebook accounts, and stay away from online environments — like Twitter — that have been overrun by toxicity. (Yes, I should take my own advice.) But the dream of the internet as a democratic grassroots forum where everyone would have a constructive, worthwhile voice appears farther away today than it did in the mid-1990s, when the commercial web made its debut.
In his 2010 book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” Nicholas Carr argues that we are losing our capacity for sustained concentration. The digital world, with all of its distractions, leads us to flit from one thing to another and then to another. (And Carr was writing before smartphones and Facebook had become ubiquitous.) He quotes a Jesuit priest and media scholar named John Culkin: “We shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us.”
There is no excuse for what Terry Frei wrote. But by now we’ve seen too many of these outbursts-followed-by-firings to assume, smugly, that the perpetrators are uniquely awful people or that it could never happen to us. In the jittery world of social media, where we are all encouraged to be provocative, be edgy, and build our personal brand, it’s inevitable that some people will take it too far and indulge hateful thoughts that under normal circumstances they might not give voice to even among friends.
Did the internet make them do it? No. But did it provide a platform and all the wrong incentives so that they allowed themselves to be led into making a wrong, life-altering decision? Yes. It is that technological reality that Ev Williams is pushing back against. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. If it gets better at all.