Did the Millennial Internet Die?

The millennial internet first died in 2015.

I remember the day exactly because I was one of seven staffers, in addition to many more permalancers, at Gawker Media who were laid off as part of a company-wide restructuring. I received a message on Slack, was asked to join a meeting in a nearby conference room, told that today, November 17, was my last day working for Gawker, and by the time I returned to my desk all of my accounts were disabled. For the company to “optimize and sharpen all the sites going forward,” executive editor John Cook explained in a memo—sites that also included Jezebel, Deadspin, Lifehacker, and Gizmodo—“shifting personnel” was necessary.

In truth, I’d lasted much longer than I ever expected to. In my 18 months as a senior editor, I commissioned more than 150 stories and published young writers like Vann Newkirk II, P. E. Moskowitz, Donovan X. Ramsey, and Josie Duffy. When people ask me what it was like to work at Gawker, notorious for its sometimes unrealistic traffic demands on staffers, my answer is always the same: “I had no road map. I threw things at the wall to see what stuck.”

My directive was to help expand the voice of the site, so I intentionally cast a wide net. I tasked writers—people like me who never once considered that their work could be published on Gawker—to report on topics ranging from the rise of suburban poverty and the shady business of secondary policing to workplace racism, gentrification, interracial dating, and the joys of eating ass.

Gawker, like every other media company trying to survive this next internet evolution, was chasing virality. Good stories mattered, but numbers mattered just as much. There was never an exact science to the stories I commissioned. Some did exceedingly well for obvious reasons—“Tinder Is Full of Robot Prostitutes” (198,000 visitors); “What Serial Gets Wrong” (296,000); “Why I Pee Sitting Down” (110,000)—while others bombed for reasons I still can’t make sense of.

But there was no sense to be made of the moment we found ourselves in. The internet was undergoing a transformation that would determine the ethos of the generation ahead. Facebook, Twitter, and the introduction of social media had completely reengineered business models. Everything, as Nicholas Carr has suggested about the pinballing effect of social media, was being uprooted. “Radically biased toward space and against time, social media is inherently destabilizing,” he wrote in 2018. “What it teaches us, through its whirlwind of fleeting messages, is that nothing lasts. Everything is disposable. Novelty rules.”

BuzzFeed knew a thing or two about novelty. It was also trying to understand how to seize the attention of a mass audience. Unlike Gawker, BuzzFeed took a much more wholesale approach to gaming traffic. Steered by CEO Jonah Peretti, it implemented a medley of quizzes, Twitter recaps, listicles, news stories, and long-form investigations as its bread and butter. BuzzFeed was the apex of internet production for a brief period. Remember the dress? Elsewhere, sites like The Awl and The Hairpin platformed newbie writers—Lauren Michele Jackson, Vinson Cunningham, Bryan Washington—with a renegade interest in pop culture. Before I had the great fortune of working with him at Gawker, I obsessively read Tom Scocca’s weather reviews with a mix of anticipation and private glee. They were like small mood boards for a generation still finding its way. The temperature of the millennial internet, of course, was never the same. It was in a state of continuous change, entertaining and elusive all at once.

THE SECOND TIME the millennial internet died, when The Awl shut its doors for good on January 31, 2018, I remember thinking how Scocca had captured the sentiment of the millennial web and the era it birthed perfectly: “Every fugitive bit of light might be the last one.” Because that’s how it felt to create, work, and waste time on the internet of the 2010s. It was one big secret that all of us were in on, having fun as we remade digital media in a way that felt true to us, never knowing if tomorrow the light we illuminated with the stories we blogged would be the last.

I was able to make a home and a career on the internet because sites like Grantland, Okayplayer, and Jezebel gave me license as a writer and thinker. They validated my weirdness as much as they challenged my ways of thinking around gender politics, movies, sports, and identity. Stumbling on responses by Greg Tate in the Okayplayer message boards was its own masterclass in music and political theory. Before that, blogs like Crunk & DisorderlyThe Cynical Ones, and FreeDarko showed me how sweeping this territory we called the internet was. They were proof that a single voice could take up space in a unique and original tone.

My internet, the millennial internet, was a province of play and possibility. Of course, it’s mostly all gone now. The trend toward consolidation is near complete. There is no happy ending to this story. Journalists, editors, and media makers of all sorts are losing jobs. This year seemed especially cruel to those of us who make a living in this fickle industry. Independent media is a dwindling business model, a fate ominously true for niche publications with an outsider’s eye.

The millennial internet died, perhaps for the final time, in April, when BuzzFeed News closed shop. A week later, Traffic—a book by former editor-in-chief Ben Smith, about the mad dash to reinvent digital media during this specific period—was published to enthusiastic reviews, its release bookmarking the end to a decade colored by omnivorous virality. By late fall, Vice downsized, Okayplayer fired its entire editorial staff, pivoting to god knows what, and Jezebel, the pioneering feminist site, was forced to shut down. (It was acquired by Paste in late November, saving it from an early death.) According to a recent employment analysis, the news media sector lost more jobs this year than it did across 2022 and 2021 combined.

The 2010s coincided with the mainstreaming of social media. Tumblr, Twitter, and Vine broadened the reach of communication, amplifying a generation of voices that otherwise would have gone unheard. These platforms were the engine of creativity before everything was milked into sponsored content. That was then. This year, Tumblr announced plans to significantly curb its operations. Under the ownership of Elon Musk, Twitter, rebranded as X, has decayed into a petri dish of misinformation and harassment, inciting an exodus from the platform. As for Vine, which discontinued in 2017, TikTok has taken its place though it can never replicate its hypnotic charm.

YOU’RE PROBABLY WONDERING how we got here. How all of this happened. Don’t. It’s a fool’s errand in a time of spectacular fools, crooks, and private equity monsters. My internet is dying. It’s been dying for some time. Everything I knew about it will soon vanish, its histories regurgitated via 60-second TikTok videos shared in group chats, eulogized annually in the cocoon of darkened movie theaters, where tickets run $30.

The contours of the digital era are receding. So much of what I loved is gone or changed, its parts sold for scraps. Why and how it had to be like this, I will never know. Greed or mismanagement seem too cheap an answer even though I know it is one of them.

What is also true is how new technologies jockey to replace old ones. It’s how the game works. Radio killed newspapers. TV killed radio. The internet killed them all. That’s how the narrative goes, anyway. Today, as text-based tech fades into the hipster denim of the 2010s, video and audio reign dominant. That is, until it’s time to pivot to the next shiny thing. We like what we like until we’re told to like something new.

Gawker shut down, for the second time, in February. When it happened, I was reminded of what John Cook wrote in his memo the day I got let go. Gawker was pivoting to politics with a mandate to “hump the campaign” (LOL). The plan failed, but not because of the writers and editors who stayed, or management’s course correction (though that was also a doomed enterprise). Hilary Clinton lost the election. Donald Trump won. Reality blurred into vulgar theater. Theater so vulgar and unbelievable we’re still reeling from it.

Before it was first shot dead, in 2016, Gawker failed the way most digital media properties of the millennial internet failed: by trying to fathom, and build a business model around, something that is unfathomable—the way the internet works. Nick Denton, Gawker’s muckraking founder, couldn’t hack it. Neither could Jonah Peretti. In truth, no one can. Today I find solace in that atom of unpredictability. It’s the one lesson I’ve carried with me since that day.

None of us have it figured out. We never will. Onward.

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