By Lola Larra
Illustration: Ximena González
A few months ago I visited the offices of El País in Madrid, where I’d worked at the end of the ‘90s. As you’d expect after so many years, it was completely different. Everything that I remembered, that had surrounded me during my time there (the stained green carpet, the laminated furniture, the teleprinter office, the secretaries constantly answering the ringing telephones, the cigarette smoke – God the smoke!) had disappeared. It was transformed into a modern, hipsterish, editorial office – sterile and with minimalist furniture in calming colours dotted here and there with relaxation zones and curvaceous sofas for reading or chatting. And in the middle, two TV studios. It was all so much better and so much more beautiful than we could have even dreamt of. But apart from the new decor, and the one or two changes that come with the changing times, there were two things that really caught my attention. The first was that there was practically no paper on the desks. The desks were empty and unpolluted, whereas the desks I remembered were disaster areas of books, junk, photos, post-it notes, piles of paper, copies for correction, packets of crisps, ashtrays, and cups of coffee… And the second thing was the screens hanging over each department of the newspaper, constantly blinking and changing like the numbers for waiting in line at the butcher or the pharmacy. When I asked what they were for I was told that they recorded the number of clicks on every article published on the newspaper website, as well as the time people spent on that article. The screens were announcing which articles were winning readers, and which were losing. So the editors could highlight a particular article or put it lower on the page in every section of the web, or even, when merited, put the article on the altar of its “Most Read” list.
Of course most of the clicks didn’t go to the front page of elpais.com, for which the department heads and directors meet twice a day, discussing and arguing about the hierarchy of the front page that’ll go to print (and also, in passing, the virtual front page). No, the clicks that harass the editors and dictate the useful life of a text come from “social media”, that is, public opinion, the people, democracy even. Fine. Sounds good. Sounds democratic. Sounds very horizontal. Grassroots. Popular. At last the ponderous, prestigious media giants are listening and taking into account the humble citizen. Ok.
But also… How strange, how worrying, how unsettling.
For someone like me, a child of the those who in the ‘60s and ‘70s believed in the revolution, the beginnings of the internet meant, at one point at the beginning of the 2000s, the dawn of a new possibility for the dreams of our parents. Even though the internet was still in early days, promising to those who spent hours connecting, a slow and interrupted communication that smacked of a sort of science-fiction inter-personal-global connection, we thought that something visionary was on the horizon. That the internet would give voice to those who had no voice, would settle accounts with the powerful and mighty, would rein in the huge interest groups monopolising the media, would democratise and free knowledge, information, opinion, and the word. Theory had it that the internet was a sort of superior artificial nervous system interconnecting and coordinating operations in which the voice of the masses would be, jointly, more efficient, more correct and luckier than the voice of each of its individual components. It would be a system that would enable us to think as a community, enhancing the abilities of the individuals it was made up of. The revolution of the beehive was imminent. And the beehive, dear friends, would be the bomb, ready to blow to smithereens the unique authority of The Journalist, The Editor, The Director, The Newspaper, The Press Magnate. We’d welcome the kaleidoscope of truth, fragmentary, reducible to tiny snippets of information that could be spread by so many more channels than the large economic groups… And what we really wanted was a utopia. What we really really wanted was something collective that would redeem us from the individualism that lead the ‘90s, so we threw ourselves into the internet; we believed in it. But at the same time we were hesitant: How could we wean ourselves from the criteria of the authority of the press, from the sacrosanct figure of the editor, of the printed word, of the journalist-cum-purveyor-of-reality. How could we stop believing in our favourite newspaper – that faithful companion at the breakfast table?
“Even though the internet was still in early days [at the beginning of the 2000s], we thought that something visionary was on the horizon. That the internet would give voice to those who had no voice, would settle accounts with the mighty and powerful, would rein in the huge interest group monopolising the media, would democratise and free knowledge, information, opinion, and the word”
Within a short while the voice of the hive had the opportunity to test the extent of its truth. On the morning on 11th march 2004 ten explosions rocked three trains in the Atocha station in Madrid. José María Aznar’s government closed ranks and issued one version of events. On TV the interior minister proclaimed that ETA had placed the bombs. On the radio the foreign minister stated that Basque terrorists had struck again. A special evening edition of El País lead with a headline “ETA Massacre in Madrid”. Despite the clues, the contradictions, and the denials a lot of us still believed what “our” newspaper was telling us. And although the opinion forums and blogs on the internet started to light up with different versions of the truth than the traditional media, there we were, plugged in to what the written press, the radio, and the Spanish TV was crowing about, horrified, attentive, and visibly misinformed. For several hours we accepted that the attacks were by ETA and not Al Qaeda. But it was on the weblogs, the participative channels of information, self-managed and self-regulated, and the independent “news outlets”, that the information appeared in the form of comments, opinions and counter arguments, facts and rumours whose writers were rubbished as pseudo-journalists; information warning us that things were not quite as we were being told they were. The 11th March was of itself, and meant, and was the cause of so many terrible things. It was also a (sad) farewell to The Editor. Because on that day we had to look elsewhere. Outside the usual media. Outside the focus. Thousands of people were turning their backs on the established press and listening to the murmur of the community.
Years have gone by since them. Weblogs and photologs have been replaced by blogs, which are today omnipresent on social media. The media outlets that were the grand moderators of the debate were pushed aside. Maybe we didn’t expect the rumour of the hive to delight the tie-wearing executives of the big media conglomerates. That was a surprise. But if we think about, how much easier and cheaper is it to put together a report with the opinions gushed out by people on Twitter. How much more profitable to let the hive speak rather than to investigate and verify. How much more irrefutable and statistical to refer to the number of clicks when showing the shareholders, like with the TV ratings of yesteryear, that the newspapers are giving the public exactly what the public want to read.
Somewhere on the way the criteria of the journalist’s and the editor’s authority was buried underneath this incessant murmur which (and we chose to let it) interrupts our lives at any moment of the day. There are so many voices to listen to. So many people to follow. So many people to reply to. So many things to opine about. So many conversations to be having at the same time. So many people to like. We live submerged in a tidal wave of reality that floods us without filter and intermediary (the editor), with all the good and the bad that that implies. Contacts are made directly, horizontally. We can reach out without mediators to people who interest us; they can even reply to us. We can meet similar minds and complain, raise our voices, organise ourselves. We can watch with morbid fascination the virtual striptease of our fallen heroes, hear their confessions, their mea culpa. From being a silent mass of citizens, almost sheep-like, trained to listen, in less than two decades we’ve turned into a vociferous mass with an opinion on everything, knowing everything, with a hundred things to say about everything. We judge, criticise, point out, needle, and write. We write incontinently, at any time of day. We’re a hive of writers of 280-character aphorisms, some wittier than others, in which “opinion has been raised to the status of truth” as the sociologist Miguel de Fresno suggests. We follow daily the rumours of the hive, rumours that are deafening, often without criteria, often misinformed (or over-informed). Because, as Hannah Arendt wrote, “the liberty of opinion is a farce if it can’t be guaranteed that information is objective and if facts are not accepted”.
The hive is no longer made up of the libertarian anarchy of the early years, nor is it the new dawn of a revolutionary dream, but the territory of new monopolies belonging to Amazon, Facebook and Google. We move, blinkered, between groups that resemble us. Recently we’ve become more cautious and suspicious of what’s behind the screen, whether someone is watching us and knows not only what to sell us but also how to move us and where to take us. That’s how we’ve got to where we are – to this feud between the post-truth and the loud noises of fake news.
How much have we lost? How much have we won? For my part, and I apologise for the nostalgia, but sometimes, often, I find myself missing The Editor.