The Rise and Fall of Online Civilization


Never has the decline of Western Civilization been more obvious than over the last decade or so of the Internet.

It was supposed to be an information revolution that would transform and enrich our lives, unite us with the rest of the globe, and propel a great leap forward for humanity. (Haven’t we heard that song before?) Instead it’s resulted in posting Grumpy Cat pictures or clips of silly stuff kitties do – depending on your mood or manner – online quote-unquote publications that traffic in “click bait” (headlines that sneakily seduce you to check out what almost inevitably disappoints) and “listicles” (sorry, but the richness of existence and its many gifts is qualitative not quantitative).”News” is as much what the Kardashians are up to as, say, people dying in pitched conflicts around the globe or natural disasters.

Instead of a global town hall it’s too often a smarmy free-for-all, an intellectually shallow swamp of irrelevance, and short attention span theater. Not all of it, mind you. But too much in ever increasing proportions.

Yes, there’s a certain appeal to the Internet being thoroughly democratized and free in that people can post as well as find and read whatever they want. But it saddens me that the result is a slide towards the lowest common denominator.

One aspect of the World Wide Web is that you can, to a large degree, take what you need and leave the rest. But what has saddened me is the one realm where I got what I needed – the latest news and cogent analysis – has declined. For a number of years over morning coffee I could feel like an informed citizen of the world and this nation by going to The Huffington Post, Salon (which I have written a few pieces for), Slate and Alternet (this publication prints articles from and also is seen in those sources) alongside cherry picking the New York Times.

In recent years I have noticed a troubling downward slide in accuracy, quality, depth and breadth from all those online publications except, for the most part, Alternet. Part of it is due to the sad fact that people largely only read short articles on the Web; a few years back the CEO of WordPress cited the disturbing statistic that the average time people spend on a webpage is a mere eight seconds. (I also prefer print for longer-form reads.) Hence whatever gets run almost always has to fit into a mere 500 to 800 or a bit more words. Rather than all the news that fits we now get as much of it that fits into the tightly proscribed formats.

All of the guilty parties cited above have also taken to running more celebrity and pop culture pieces, along with the dreaded listicles. And they have all also fallen prey to click bait headlines, HuffPo being the biggest offender on that count.

I can’t totally blame them. The stats that drive advertising are clicks – how many times visitors not only come to a site but at least open an article. I’d like to think that great writing and reporting could overcome that issue, but the state of affairs indicates my idealism is archaic.

It does make my AM run through the usual sources faster, but I end up feeling far less informed. And this is further exacerbated by stats about what is “trending,” hence what brings people in. Very weighty and important matters get glossed over and even ignored as a result.

In the end, I can’t totally blame the Internet or the online publications, as this situation is akin to kvetching about the tabloids and gossip rags displayed on the supermarket checkout line. The reason behind why they run what they do is that’s what ultimately more people want to read. Yep, follow the money....

There are other factors involved such as declining literacy, but they all come back around to what drives it all: We the people and our interests. And in the end I don’t see this sad state of affairs improving, which augurs poorly for mankind and indicates to me that the potential of the Internet has still yet to yield what it could.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2014

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