Metafilter’s downfall is the perfect metaphor for the way we Internet now


A screenshot from MetaFilter, which is soliciting donations to stay online.

To the millions of people who have frequented it since 1999, MetaFilter is more than a Web site — it’s an icon of an earlier Internet. But this week, as the collective newsboard/discussion forum laid off staff and revealed deep financial troubles that have plagued it since 2012, MetaFilter also became something else: a perfect metaphor for the challenges and pitfalls of how we Internet now.

The collective newsboard and discussion forum — anachronistically and somewhat misleadingly termed a “weblog” by its founder, Matt Haughey — filled the functions of Reddit and Quora before either of those sites existed. Its forums, renowned for their unusual level of civility, teem with conversation about news, cultural ephemera, and “life’s little questions.” A MetaFilter spin-off, called “Ask MetaFilter,” operates like Yahoo Answers’ older, smarter brother.

But 15 years in, MetaFilter is on the rocks.

“Unfortunately in the last couple years we have seen our Google ranking fall precipitously for unexplained reasons,” Haughey wrote in an essay on Medium, “and the corresponding drop in ad revenue means that the future of the site has come into question.”

To consumers who don’t spend much time contemplating the intricacies of digital publishing — where readers come from, how they find things, why they do the things they do — that all probably sounds kind of technical. Maybe mundane. But what Haughey is saying, more or less, is that the way people use the Internet, and the forces that influence the way people use the Internet, are totally different than they were when MetaFilter started. And so even if you’ve never used MetaFilter and couldn’t care less if the whole thing goes under, the issues are still relevant to you.

Three interwoven trends are at play here. First, there’s this issue of how people encounter the content they consume online. Chances are, you did not reach this article by typing washington post dot com into your browser — and that’s a problem MetaFilter, for one, has not been able to figure out. Ten or 15 years ago, when “social networking” meant a cocktail party hosted by some professional group, most people reached sites like MetaFilter and The Washington Post by navigating to their URLs directly.

In other words, to quote The Awl’s John Herrman, “MetaFilter came from two or three internets ago, when a website’s core audience—people showing up there every day or every week, directly—was its main source of visitors.”

That Internet, however, no longer exists. Instead, the bulk of readers come in “sideways” through social media, search engines, links on other Web sites or something we term “dark social” — often, people sending links to their friends. This model really favors Web sites with highly shareable content, a la Buzzfeed. It does not lend itself quite as well to measured intellectual discussion, a la MetaFilter. Sites that Google ranks highly, like authoritative news sites, also do pretty well.

But this brings us to problematic trend #2: the unknowable omniscience of Google, Facebook and other algorithmically driven sites. As you’re probably well aware, neither of these sites serve content up randomly — which articles or baby photos or Web sites they surface are calculated according to a long series of factors that nobody really knows. Maybe that wasn’t such a big deal at some point in the past. But now that so many people navigate the Internet via Google and Facebook, etc., these algorithms have a profound, hand-wringing impact on which sites succeed and which don’t. In many ways, MetaFilter is a textbook case: per Haughey, Google penalized the site for suspected spam in 2012, leading to an immediate — and almost-fatal — drop in the site’s traffic and profits.

As much as Google is to blame for MetaFilter’s downfall, however, MetaFilter may be responsible, too: It simply hasn’t evolved to keep up with the rest of the Web. The site’s wonky, old-school navigation — not to mention its throwback interface — requires an FAQ section several dozen questions long. Metafilter’s most interesting core functions, like its discussion boards and Q&A feature, have since been cannibalized by more usable sites like Reddit and Quora.

Meanwhile, MetaFilter hasn’t moved any eggs outside the Google basket, even as that basket got smaller. The site has no presence on Facebook or Twitter; it has not, by all accounts, really tried to scale beyond its core audience. Editorially, perhaps, that was a wise decision: The quality-over-quantity approach has given Metafilter its reputation for substantive, interesting discussion. But when it comes to revenue, of course, quantity is the only thing that matters.

“MetaFilter is frequently mentioned as one of the best places to find high quality conversations on the Internet, and it got that way through having a large dedicated moderation staff, ” Haughey wrote — a breath before explaining that, for financial reasons, half that staff was getting axed.

That may be the most striking, prescient takeaway from the whole MetaFilter episode: the extent to which the modern Web does not incentivize quality. And when I write “modern Web,” I actually mean Facebook and Google. Because without many of us even noticing it, those are the selective screens through which we see the Internet.

Other publishers who have faced this predicament have generally come around to two options: change what they’re doing, or put themselves at the mercy of whatever Internet minority still appreciates “quality.” That’s essentially the logic behind paywalls — and it’s certainly the economic reality propping up high-quality niche Web publications like Matter and The Atavist.

So far, MetaFilter has cut its own costs: the site laid off half its moderators and switched to a different, cheaper type of hosting. The remaining employees have taken pay cuts and resigned themselves to the crowds.

In an effort to “cover server and hosting costs, and to pay for moderation staff and site maintenance and development,” the site is accepting donations. Only 1,564 people have donated. That is, for better or worse, the way we Internet now.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · May 21