My six-year-old niece watches YouTube on the iPad. After a grab bag of Magic Loom and Minecraft tutorials, she hits her old, tried-and-true standby: kittens. I observe as she fixates on the kitten videos — kittens sleeping, kittens playing, kittens looking at other bewildered kittens. Then, I ask her what she thinks the Internet is for.
“Kittens,” she replies, predictably.
The conviction in her voice convinces me that she’s right. Maybe the Internet really is for small, furry balls of cuteness and the people who love them. But just to make sure, I Google kittens: 40 million videos show up.
I click on one: a mommy cat cuddling her baby. Meh. I try for another: a kitten standing up to a ferocious dog. It’s okay. In fact, nearly all the videos are boring, despite the cuteness. I can’t imagine sifting through the thousands of hours of grainy, home movies just to find the one Holy Grail of kitten videos.
Kitten enthusiasts, or anyone for that matter, have a big problem: there’s too much junk on the Web. With each post, tweet or video upload, more content is published today than ever, and that glut makes it harder to find the good stuff. Luckily, though, a backlash happening. People are calling for an emphasis on quality, and developers are building tools to get them to us.
On one end, long-form sites are stepping in fill the void by introducing a standard that goes beyond memes, funny videos and easily-consumed tidbits of pop culture. For example, Medium, a publishing platform created by Evan Williams and Biz Stone, the founders of Blogger and Twitter, reimagines the way we publish by using beautiful images and an engaging community to emphasize longer, original stories.
Williams and Stone already have revolutionized online publishing: Blogger gave a generation a canvas to share thoughts on politics, fashion and travel, and Twitter mixed an ingenious word limit with an old-fashioned subscribe and follow model. But Medium rethinks the process of inspiration, by using beautiful design to generate thoughtful ideas and articles.
“In the early days, I bought into the idea that the Internet would lead to a better world, that the truth was out there and that we didn’t need gatekeepers,” Williams told the New York Times. “Now, I think it’s more complicated than that.”
Medium presents articles in a Pinterest-style layout with a large-photos format, striking a fine balance between simple elegance and rich dynamism. Content is then organized into “collections,” based on a theme or subject, like “Been There, Done That,” “What I Learned Today” and “Weird Future,” with writing that covers a broad range of interests, from personal storytelling to interviews and political polemics. Popular articles are pushed to the top of each collection, but so as not stunt discovery, a section on the bottom also highlights the freshest ones.
According Williams, its service also helps writers find a following, without having the burden of developing an audience. There is one drawback, though: authors and auteurs are de-emphasized — profiles are bare, with only a link to one’s Twitter account. But it keeps the site free of relentless self-promotion.
In a strange way, I miss the unique voice and design elements that authors use to communicate a personality, but Medium takes a gorgeous step in an intriguing direction to promote depth.
Another site that aims high is Svbtle. But instead of streamlining the reader experience, it tackles the problem of glut by reinventing the tools of publishing, and controlling the contributors that use them. When designer and writer, Dustin Curtis, discovered that a minimal interface actually improved his thinking and the quality of his writing, he developed a crisp, stripped-down platform that uses a series of prompts and entry ideas to help writers easily plan and publish articles.
But not just anyone can write using Svbtle. In hopes of fostering a destination of outstanding material, it’s closed to the generic public. Instead, interested writers must apply on its site to be accepted. While Svbtle is still largely unknown outside of techie and hipster circles, it’s a novel approach to publishing that filters the growing tide of substandard content.
In the early days of the Internet, if we didn’t know what to look up, we had to comb through websites to stumble upon exactly what we needed. And if we actually found it, we might click on a link, and then another link, to browse related items, eventually ending up somewhere completely unrelated to what we had wanted. That’s how the phrase “surfing the Web” came about. Though old-fashioned, the term accurately described the way we interacted with information. We followed each wave of inspiration in a clunky, time-consuming experience.
But then, blogs arrived. As a channel to help us cull and curate content, they were initially sites that repackaged stories from major news outlets, adding bits of commentary and opinion before kicking a link back to the source. It wasn’t until the introduction of WordPress and Blogger that the publishing truly democratized. The services took care of the technical upkeep of running a site, so writers could focus solely on writing.
More importantly, though, anyone could now become a publisher. And they did.
As a whole generation of media stars emerged, auteurs became brands in and of themselves. The most popular ones garnered a locus of power backed by large followings and equally large sums of advertising dollars. They destabilized established newspapers and magazines in clout. After all, why read Vanity Fair when we could browse Gawker? Instead of People, we had Perez Hilton.
But as the number of blogs skyrocketed at a viral speed, so did the good content along with the bad. In fact, it was mostly all bad.
Blogs often rewrote and regurgitated the same stories, creating a sort of echo chamber. If the Wall Street Journal broke a story about the iPhone, for example, thousands of blogs would repackaged and rebroadcast that same article, with a link to at the end, of course, and broadcast it across the Web. Each site puts their own spin on the facts, but in the end, really, nothing interesting is added.
In the race for revenue, so-called content farms emerged, as well. With a blatant disregard for quality, and a laser-focus on money, these websites churned out mediocre, and often laughably unreadable, content, merely to rank in Google.
Today, the Web bears little resemblance to the useful library of knowledge it once was. Instead, it looks like late-night infomercials on cable. We don’t surf the Web to discover upstart bands or creative projects anymore — we stumble into a minefield of misinformation written by charlatans.
As Google chairman Eric Schmidt famously put it, the Internet is a “cesspool,” and it’s harder than ever to filter through it all. Facebook and Twitter offered some relief, giving us a safer way to discover interesting articles and thought-provoking videos through friends.
But there are problems there, too. Facebook doesn’t show every shared post on its feed. And the site is pushing more ads to appease shareholders, adding to its cacophony. In truth, while Facebook and Twitter are great at spreading ideas, all too often they shares the same five kitten videos, failing to unearth the undiscovered gems.
Competitors have recognized the need and are coming up with ways to improve the quality of discovery. Google, for example, constantly adjusts its algorithm, in part to outfox content farms that try to game its system, and blogs, too, improved sidebars and recommendations to make navigation easier. And Facebook tweaks its formulas to push to us what it thinks we’ll find most interesting and engaging.
Meanwhile, community-driven sites, like Buzzfeed and Reddit, are relying on a thriving community to submit, rate and promote content. Think of them as blogs on steroids. Tumblr rose on the back of its simple “reblog” tool, which allowed people to share and discover content with one click. But sites like these, while active and fun, are tailored to feed short bursts of information to a generation inflicted with ADHD.
In other words, these sites are the bars and nightclubs of the Internet: loud and full of fun, with a guarantee to find something interesting. But, like a hangover in the morning, you don’t remember much the next day.
Collectively, Medium and Svbtle have attracted a limited audience in tech and journalism circles. But they’re gaining traction, hinting at new directions, and potential issues, in publishing and consumption. The importance of visual appeal is paramount, but that simplicity comes at a cost of space for advertising — a critical part that sustains the lifeblood of a website.
What these sites do recognize, though, is the beginnings of a pendulum swing away from free-floating bits of information that dominate our online experiences. Their success will be a barometer of how starved we are for exceptional writing. While most people are, no doubt, happy with sides of appetizers in the buffet that is the Internet, there’s a significant audience that’s hungry for main courses: more ambitious, complex stories and ideas.
With the billions of websites out there, there will never be a shortage of outstanding content, but there is a dearth of channels we use to discover them.
It’s hard to say if Medium will change the way we read. Or maybe another site will bring back the magic of discovery. After all, the Internet has, in some ways, become a vehicle for bite-sized nuggets of, yes, kitten videos. Collectively, I suppose, we’ll never really outgrow a love of furry little animals. But we do need easier ways of finding the cutest ones. ♦