Snarkmarket Turns 20
Today, November 3rd, is my 44th birthday. Tomorrow, the 4th, is my first wedding anniversary. But today is also an important day in my personal history of the web, and I’d argue, in the history of blogging, or at least our corner of it. It’s the twentieth anniversary of Snarkmarket, founded by Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson. It’s also the fifteenth anniversary of the day I joined as the site’s third blogger, or Snarkmaster, after five years of being part of the site’s community (the Snarkmatrix). (Coincidentally, Obama was first elected President that November 4th. It was a really good couple of days.)
If you didn’t have the good fortune to read Snarkmarket while it was active, I’ll give you a quick précis. Robin and Matt both graduated college in 2002, then completed a year of journalism study at the Poynter Institute. They started Snarkmarket as a way to write about the future of media, but also to keep in touch with each other as they scattered across the country to look for jobs in media. And for over a decade, that’s exactly what they did.
Now, there were a lot (for relatively small values of “a lot”) of blogs that purported to be about the future of media in 2003. But too many of these were navel-gazing armchair speculations that were mostly about settling scores within the industries they covered.
Snarkmarket was different. (For one thing, it wasn’t really very snarky.)
Matt and Robin were two young practitioners of journalism who loved the web but largely saw it for what it was — which is to say, a set of imperfect communities and technologies that were in danger of calcifying around a limited set of interests, and in even greater danger of being dominated by big companies.
Snarkmarket’s clearest vision of this future was a Flash video released in 2004 called EPIC 2014. It imagines a future of journalism where search, social media, and personalization transform the production and consumption of news, creating an ecosystem where traditional news sources (and traditional journalistic ethics) get displaced by the new techno-capitalist hegemony. The specific predictions seem quaint now (Google buys Amazon; Apple doesn’t release an iPhone, but a WiFiPod; The New York Times goes print-only, etc.), but for the most part it describes the world we live in shockingly well.
There’s also a coda/update to EPIC 2014 called, appropriate, EPIC 2015: in this version, along with the corporate dominance, there’s democratic pushback, with people using their own devices to create and share their own content, communicating with another in a loose, messy, but ultimately humanistic way, in smaller communities united by local interests. And I would argue that this future — the flip side of what we’ve known as Web 2.0 — has ultimately come true as well.
Both videos are now marvelous time capsules. Even at their inception, they were framed as an artifacts from an imagined history at a date in the future. I think this helps to explain what made Snarkmarket so different from the much snarkier blogs about media with which it was intertwined.
Snarkmarket was never about one future of media, but a plurality of them. And it wasn’t focused on the narrow present, but the Long Now: a confluence of histories that took the past, present, and future of media (and the communities formed around media) equally seriously.
At the time, I was a graduate student at Penn, studying comparative literature. My main fields were literary theory, twentieth-century modernism, the history of the book, and cinema and media studies. I was zeroed in on the media universe circa 1450-1950. I felt that it was at this moment, when all our assumptions about books and newspapers and movies and documents as such were being washed away, that we could finally see the past as it actually was. (I still think that’s true.)
But Snarkmarket was the site and the community that most fully yanked my brain out of the past and into the present, and through that, into the future. It made me care about what was happening now not just as casual politics or lifehacks, but as an essential element in that long history. And I think — fuck it, I know it for a fact, it’s just empirically true — that talking to me helped Robin and Matt think about their present and future concerns as part of that long history too.
It’s probably too easy to say that Robin was the voice of the future, Matt of the present, and Tim of the past. We were all (and are still) continually bouncing like pinballs between all three historical perspectives. But it is nevertheless true that Robin was and is an inventor, Matt a journalist, and me a scholar. We all helped each other and our readers think through those perspectives, even if it was just in how we reframed a quick link.
I don’t know anyone today who genuinely does what we did.
The same thing happened to Snarkmarket that happens to a lot of great web sites driven by people rather than organizations. Students stop being students, junior professionals become senior ones, people start families, and all the other demands on your time become more demanding.
Also the ground moved beneath our feet. The rise of social media and Google’s embrace, extend, extinguish approach to RSS changed how news and commentary on the web was distributed.
We still had plenty of fans and friends who kept their old RSS readers active or were willing to navigate to the URL every day, but there are reasons why sites like Kottke (or Waxy.org, or insert your favorite long-running blog here) are special. It’s hard to keep something like this going unless you can make it your full-time job, and the economics of that for three people are even harder than for a sole proprietor.
And at a certain point, at a certain moment in the web’s history, you have to think long and hard about what you want to put on a blog and why. From 2003-2013, you just didn’t have to think as hard about it. The blog was your post of first resort. Now, too often, it’s the last.
There are things I would change, and things I wouldn’t. Nothing could change the fact that after five years of watching them live, I got a solid five years to be a part of my favorite band. Isn’t that what it’s like to have a website that you love?
And now that site is twenty years old. The babies who were born at the same time Snarkmarket began are now old enough to have their own thoughts about the past, present, and future of media, old enough to start thinking about graduate school, or maybe even apply to a place like Poynter and try their hand at building the future of media themselves.
Maybe one of them might meet a friend or two in school and decide they want to document that journey: write down a few thoughts, link to things they’ve read, and keep in touch with their friends.
If anyone in Gen Z is reading this, remember: it’s never too late to start a website. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to get a million readers. It doesn’t have to change the world. All it has to be is a reflection on the past, a time capsule for the future — a document for the now. Your readers are out there, waiting. They’ll find you.