What was the promise of internet media at first?
There’s a book called Say Everything, by Scott Rosenberg, which captures the optimism of the early days in internet media. At the most basic, the web allowed writers and other creators to communicate ideas that could be accessed by anybody on the internet — at zero cost. That was a revolution. People could “say everything” — put out ideas without having them watered down or mangled by a large media institution. The internet idealists — and I’d put myself among them — believed that everything would be known. All information would be available. The truth would be out there. And then — though this next step was not thought out — we would somehow achieve a state of perfect mutual understanding. At Gawker, our mission was to take the information that spreads among journalists and other people in the know and to share that with a wider public. It’s what we called the story behind the story.
Let’s talk about how we’ve fared, like ten or 15 years down the line, on some of those promises of the web — e.g., “all information being out there.”
In South Africa and other places that suffered traumas, a process of “truth and reconciliation” was necessary for societies to move on. We have got most of the truth out, but it’s swamped by insult masquerading as truth. The conflict is intense. It’s an internet-based civil war. And we’re as far away from reconciliation as ever. In the early days of forums, it became clear that a few trolls, by provoking angry reactions, could initiate a flame war that would leave the place in ruins: feelings hurt; moderates abandoning the conversation; and eventually a wasteland dominated by the worst elements. What seems to be happening now is an internetwide flame war, manifested in real-world conflicts such as this U.S. presidential election, hostility to refugees in Europe, and the defection of the U.K. from the Union. It’s not as if the internet makes people racist or xenophobic. They just are. But the public expression of those feelings encourages others, elicits a reaction, and a reaction to that reaction, giving energy to extreme political movements.
If people just are racist and xenophobic, then more-democratic kinds of media like the internet tend to fuel racism and xenophobia?
I don’t think it is just the internet. Talk radio was more participatory than traditional broadcast media. This is a long trend that has been building since at least the 1970s. Yuval Harari in Sapiens talks about the coevolution of human beings, uniquely plastic creatures, and the media that we use to influence each other. We make the media, and we are made by the media. The dominant current forms of social media encourage self-promotion and identity politics. But there will be a reaction. We can design media systems that encourage more constructive and educational engagement, a better society, just like we will be able to genetically engineer our own bodies. It’s not all predestined. And there’s a strong correlation between the spread of the internet and the spread of more liberal attitudes on matters such as marijuana use or gay relationships. The internet’s greatest social achievement has been in helping people from invisible minorities to find each other, define their identities, and get the rest of society to acknowledge their existence. As a gay guy in an interracial relationship, I’ve seen that firsthand. The internet is a liberating force; I discovered myself on the medium. But it’s these new tribes that have also stirred up conflict. The social-justice movement among gamers also helped stimulate the Gamergate reaction and gave new energy to the alt-right online movement, for instance. It’s liberating to find one’s tribe — but the tribes are often defined in opposition to each other. And now we’re in a state of tribal warfare, playing out on Facebook, Twitter, and other internet battlegrounds. It looks like Somalia, a country of clans, in a war of all against all. And right now it’s hard to see that freedom and conflict go hand in hand.
I also want to discuss Peter Thiel’s backing of that lawsuit against you. Do you think it revealed anything new about the power of billionaires? There’s an idea that sites like Gawker can sort of dethrone the powerful, at least to some extent. I wonder if what Thiel did suggests that the limit of the journalists’ power is tighter than we thought.
Billionaires can control pretty much everything — politicians, third-party litigation, etcetera — but not their reputations. A reputation is the one thing that money can’t buy.
Right, but they can also potentially bankrupt media companies that are worth a couple hundred million dollars. What does that mean for the future of this kind of defiant journalism?
Defiant journalism has never had that great a business model. Most of the attempts — like Spy — end in reputational triumph and commercial failure. But the reach of the internet allowed Gawker to get to profitability and scale without outside capital or deferring too much to conservative advertisers. We didn’t make enough money to see off a Peter Thiel, but we put out great stories for more than a decade, the sale will be respectable, and the brands will live on. The internet has been a better environment for an independent press than any medium before it.