In a series about the intersection between literary culture and online life, every so often I’m tempted to stray into writing exclusively about one of those areas. It is one of those occasions, because this week marks the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web. (It is not, however, the birthday of the Internet, which booted up in 1969.)
This week also marks what some might consider to be a historic milestone: the end of Gawker’s blog-based media empire. Perhaps blogging is already dead, but Gawker was a massive force of gravity within the blogosphere, and now it’s dead for sure, with its flagship blog being shut down, its parent company in bankruptcy, and its other assets sold-off to a media corporation.
The coincidence of these two events seems a good moment to pause for thought. Now that it’s beyond its infancy, what are we to do with the Web? Are we doing the right stuff? We might also want to ask, who is doing the stuff? Let’s start there.
The story of Gawker is a great example of web stuff, how it began, and where it is going. Founded by two people, an entrepreneur and a young writer, what became a media company began as a blog, back in 2002, when blogging was still very personal, more like a notebook, and a place where anything goes. Then came the readers, the additional blogs, and of course the money, and lots of it. But once you have that much money, should you keep your “anything goes” blogging mentality, or are you now a part of the establishment, subject to the same (supposed) ethical boundaries as the rest of journalism? Gawker staked the claim that, no, anything goes. Anything, even the tabloid-style broadcasting of a sex tape involving Hulk Hogan as click-bait. If all parties are to be believed, the people in the video were filmed against their knowledge, the video was sent to Gawker anonymously, and its publication was worth thousands, if not millions, of dollars. Is any of this a good idea?
I’d like to change the subject for a moment. Earlier this month, during the Olympics, another power-blog called The Daily Beast got into some hot water for its own brand of “anything goes” behavior when one of its “journalists” faked a profile on the gay dating site Grindr, in order to get the scoop on the sex lives of Olympic athletes. This tactic, which was named “Grindr-Baiting” is an invasion of privacy to be sure, but worse, it risks outing its victims against their will, and still worse those victims might hail from countries where their sexuality is viewed as criminal or punishable. So, in a real sense, Grindr-Baiting puts innocent people in jeopardy.
Online tabloid journalism can put the not-so-innocent in jeopardy, too. That sex tape cost Hulk Hogan his livelihood as well as whatever dignity he had, because of the racist things he said on film. The Hulkster wasn’t Gawker’s first victim, though, and his lawsuit was aided by another Gawker victim, Peter Thiel, who was a cofounder of Paypal.
Thiel may not be well-liked by some, but when he was outed, against his wishes by Gawker, he was understandably upset, just as the Olympic athletes surely were this month. It’s puzzling then, that nobody seems to dwell much on this, as his probably motivation for backing the downfall of Gawker.
The downfall is complete, at any rate. The story of Gawker’s rise has many parallels with the rise of the World Wide Web itself. Does its demise tell us anything about what’s to come? A recent article in Jacobin summarises the forecast nicely, although the conclusion is suspect.
Given Gawker’s consistently fearless coverage of the rich and powerful, and its sympathetic, probing coverage of the working class, we should stop arguing about whether the writers and editors practiced responsible journalism — whatever that is — and instead focus on actually reforming a system that favors wealthy reactionaries willing to foot the bill for vanity lawsuits.
There’s no reason why we shouldn’t argue about responsible journalism. Sure, let’s also argue about the influence of power and money. Hell, let’s argue about everything. Anything goes, right?