‘The Internet Is Broken’: @ev Is Trying to Salvage It
By DAVID STREITFELD
May 20 2017
SAN FRANCISCO — Evan Williams is the guy who opened up Pandora’s box. Until he came along, people had few places to go with their overflowing emotions and wild opinions, other than writing a letter to the newspaper or haranguing the neighbors.
Mr. Williams — a Twitter founder, a co-creator of Blogger — set everyone free, providing tools to address the world. In the history of communications technology, it was a development with echoes of Gutenberg.
And so here we are in 2017. How’s it going, Mr. Williams?
“I think the internet is broken,” he says. He has believed this for a few years, actually. But things are getting worse. “And it’s a lot more obvious to a lot of people that it’s broken.”
People are using Facebook to showcase suicides, beatings and murder, in real time. Twitter is a hive of trolling and abuse that it seems unable to stop. Fake news, whether created for ideology or profit, runs rampant. Four out of 10 adult internet users said in a Pew survey that they had been harassed online. And that was before the presidential campaign heated up last year.
“I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Mr. Williams says. “I was wrong about that.”
The Silicon Valley entrepreneur first drew notice during the dot-com boom, for developing software that allowed users to easily set up a website for broadcasting their thoughts: blogging. By the time Google bought the company in 2003, more than a million people were using it.
Then came Twitter, which wasn’t his idea but was his company. He remains the largest individual shareholder and a board member.
After fame and fortune come regrets. Mr. Williams is trying to fix some things. So, in different ways, are Google and Facebook, and even Twitter. This is a moment for patches and promises.
The trouble with the internet, Mr. Williams says, is that it rewards extremes. Say you’re driving down the road and see a car crash. Of course you look. Everyone looks. The internet interprets behavior like this to mean everyone is asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them.
His goal is to break this pattern. “If I learn that every time I drive down this road I’m going to see more and more car crashes,” he says, “I’m going to take a different road.”
But a new road may have other problems. It may, for instance, be a dead end.
Mr. Williams isn’t the only one trying to fix this mess, of course. If he and others can’t find a path forward, if they can’t solve what he calls “the architecture of content creation, distribution and monetization on the internet,” there are unsettling implications for the future of news and ideas. Maybe it will be all car crashes, all the time. Twitter already feels like that.
For five years, Mr. Williams has been refining a communications platform called Medium. Its ambition: define a new model for media in a world struggling under the weight of fake or worthless content. Medium is supposed to be social and collaborative without rewarding the smash-ups. It is supposed to be a force for good.
“A beautiful space for reading and writing — and little else,” Mr. Williams called Medium at its public debut in 2012. “The words are central.”
Early chatter was enthusiastic, based on Mr. Williams’s track record and the site’s ease of use. But Medium, which began out of step with nearly all other media, now seems to inhabit a different universe.
At a moment when buzz can appear to be everything, Medium is not afraid to be dull. (“How to Expand Your Vocabulary” was featured on the “Popular on Medium” page.) As news becomes more visually oriented, the site stays focused on words. And it continues to strive for the broadest possible reach, welcoming all sorts of untested writers, though that may be changing.
Medium’s latest incarnation, unveiled in late March, included a $5 monthly subscription for premium writing. The reaction was underwhelming. “Ev Williams Has Lost His Goddamn Mind,” ran the headline in The Next Web, an online publication.
Critics say Medium is less a company than it is Mr. Williams’s 85-employee hobby. “The notion that you’re going to succeed as a writing site simply by putting quality first is not compatible with venture capital revenue expectations,” said Bill Rosenblatt, a media technology consultant. “No one would have funded this if it weren’t by Ev Williams.”
Mr. Williams’s supporters say that it is a feature, not a bug, and that publishing needs all the experiments it can get. But they concede the road will be difficult.