The Internet Never Ends: You Can Deny That Or Embrace It

Over at NiemanLab, there’s a good interview with Tom Standage who runs the Economist’s digital efforts, in which he reveals the Economist’s general view of how it approaches the internet — which could be summarized as “deny it exists.” Basically, the argument that Standage makes is that people want to feel like they’ve “completed” something and that they’re fully informed, and so the Economist likes to pretend that once you’ve read it, you’re completely informed and you don’t have to look elsewhere. This is also why the Economist refuses to link to anyone else, because it would disabuse you of the “illusion” that the Economist provided you everything you needed:

…what we actually sell is what I like to call the feeling of being informed when you get to the very end. So we sell the antidote to information overload — we sell a finite, finishable, very tightly curated bundle of content. And we did that initially as a weekly print product. Then it turns out you can take that same content and deliver it through an app.

The “you’ve got to the end and now you’ve got permission to go do something else” is something you never get. You can never finish the Internet, you can never finish Twitter, and you can never really finish The New York Times, to be honest. So at its heart is that we have this very high density of information, and the promise we make to the reader is that if you trust us to filter and distill the news, and if you give us an hour and a half of your time — which is roughly how long people spend reading The Economist each week — then we’ll tell you what matters in the world and what’s going on. And if you only read one thing, we want to be the desert-island magazine. And our readers, that’s what they say.

And as for links:

Another aspect of it is — and I get all the morning briefings, Sentences, the FT one, and Quartz’s, and the rest of them — is that we don’t do links. The reason that we don’t do links, again, if you want to get links you can get them from other people. You can go on Twitter and get as many as you like. But the idea was everything that you need to know is distilled into this thing that you can get to the end of, and you can get to the end of it without worrying that you should’ve clicked on those links in case there was something interesting. So we’ve clicked on the links already and we’ve decided what’s interesting, and we’ve put it in Espresso.

That’s the same that we do in the weekly as well — we’re not big on linking out. And it’s not because we’re luddites, or not because we don’t want to send traffic to other people. It’s that we don’t want to undermine the reassuring impression that if you want to understand Subject X, here’s an Economist article on it — read it and that’s what you need to know. And it’s not covered in links that invite you to go elsewhere.

Mathew Ingram rightly calls this view of things selling an illusion. He notes that such an illusion can be very powerful — and even very satisfying and appealing. But it’s still an illusion.

To me, it’s also a version of denial — a somewhat hubristic denial that actually says (loudly) that the Economist thinks it’s much, much smarter than its readers. That seems like a pretty big mistake in the internet age, where (quite frequently) your readers are much smarter. In many ways, we at Techdirt have always taken the opposite approach. We link aggressively outward to source material, knowing that it will help people explore the subject more deeply. We encourage discussion and conversation in our comments, knowing that many of our readers are more knowledgeable on these subjects than we are.

The Economist is obviously super successful, but as we’ve stated before, the way people consume the news these days is changing. The kind of people who want to just sit down, consume one thing and feel that they’re “informed” are going away. That’s just not how people consume news these days, and young people especially don’t want to consume news that way. They want to explore and dig and share and discuss. The ability to truly interact with the news, research things yourself, share your thoughts and actually be a part of the effort is what’s appealing to so many people.

Maybe the Economist’s view of things works for people who are scared of the internet and don’t like the endless firehose of information that’s available, but I’m betting that’s a population that will be progressively shrinking, rather than growing.

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