This past summer, the Drudge Report surpassed the New York Times to become the sixth most trafficked U.S. media publication on the internet. The ubiquitous website features a melange of headlines—ranging from smut, to tribal politics, to disdain for the world’s elite, to just weird yet entertaining local stories. Of course, the Drudge Report is also categorically not intellectual.
Now news consumers who share a different worldview have the opportunity to engage with their own Drudge-like website, thanks to a new project called New Models. While its main interface is an aggregator that looks an awful lot like Drudge, the content is different. It’s more of a lit-crit aggregator than a receptacle for the day’s hate reads. The current layout has categories that include “Structural Sexism,” “Art & Cultural Production,” and “Cops & Kardashians.” The links range from culture magazines, to literary journals, to even YouTube videos.
The millennial-aged people behind New Models come from slightly different backgrounds, although they’ve run in similar art and theory circles. Carly Busta used to work in the print world, including art magazines like Artforum, where she witnessed media consumption patterns becoming usurped by digital platforms. As Facebook and Twitter rose to ascendance, Busta recalls, “You had to be subservient to the rhythms of social media.” The places she worked and wrote for followed the platforms’ lead, believing that they had to win at social media to survive. Ironically, it was this social media ecosphere that was strangling these institutions. All this got Busta to thinking about ways to attract people’s attention outside of this platform-centric model.
It was a similar story for Julian Wadsworth–also known as Lil Internet–who has the kind of diverse background you might expect from someone with his chosen name. He’s worked in music, and on larger media/advertising projects. He’s also done audio and video direction, as well as media theory writing. But Lil Internet says few outlets bridge those analytical, more academic modes of thought with the current cultural moment. “There’s no outlet,” he says, for writers and creators who aren’t quite in the academic world but are dabbling with the bigger themes of media and network theory. And when there are articles that do focus on this intersection, “Those pieces were always scattered and hard to find.”
The ultimate goal for New Models, says Lil Internet, is to “create an aggregator that synthesized some of the most interesting macro-level systems of thought.” Which is to say, New Models is a place for people who want to read a mix of cultural and media criticism without having to trawl Twitter to see what their former art history and political theory professors are sharing.
Right now, New Models is both its aggregator home page–which launched last June–as well as a podcast (the first episode aired in late May). The site decidedly has no ads on it–in contradistinction to Drudge, which, the founders point out to me many times during our conversation, is known to contain tracking software that plants cookies on unknowing users’ devices. The audio component is spearheaded by a third cofounder, Daniel Keller, an artist who describes one of his primary themes as “internet speculation.” Much of his work, he says, focuses on how people digest internet culture. Keller sees the podcast as a way to approach exactly those kinds of topics.
All three of the brains behind the site currently reside in Berlin (or at least, as they put it, pay taxes and rent there). While New Models is a primary project for them for the time being, they continue to pursue their own personal forays as well.
Homemade zine vibes
Busta, Lil Internet, and Keller had been discussing this project for a while. Busta says she’s always had a respect for the indie magazine movement of the 1990s. Have an idea or theme? Slap together some homemade graphics, write some content, print, and suddenly you have a product. “That was so empowering,” she says, adding that it’s depressing to realize that it’s almost impossible to re-create such a movement in the digital era. “There was a desire to play with the platforms we did have access to,” she says, namely those on the internet.
The look of New Models came to them during a discussion about current layout trends. “In the art world, there is a privileging of hyper-rationalized space,” says Busta. People expect clear, smooth, pristine access to information. New Models, instead, wanted to create a homepage that exhibited “some kind of vulnerability.” The Drudge-like look seemed like a perfect access point. It’s messy, culturally ubiquitous, and yet hearkens back to old web 1.0 aesthetics. “The format is so good,” Lil Internet says of Drudge, and so New Models wanted to “recuperate” that for something more progressive. They hired designer Eric Wrenn and developer Jon Lucas, who have architected digital projects for places like Artforum and Helmut Lang, to build the site.
None of New Models‘s content is privileged or isolated, Lil Internet explains. “You can scan [the site] really quickly” and understand what’s going on. “Everything is very equalized,” he says. Not only that, but everything relates to each other—”these things all connect to a similar narrative.”
What’s most important about New Models is that it goes against the trend of algorithmically delivered content. Platforms like Facebook force writers to almost be in constant competition with each other. To be successful, you have to be shared, you have to catch people’s attention; you have to conform to the algorithm du jour. Publishers are at the whim of the tech companies, and it’s the creators who suffer as a result.
Busta realized that, in her circles, that everyone was in dialog, so it made sense to create a space for all of their work to intermingle. Similarly, the podcast is meant to make the whole project more human. Being a reader of content is being an atomized consumer. It’s isolating, happening on a one-to-one relation between you and your phone or computer. A podcast, however, is a conversation. It provides more context. The idea with the New Models audio programming, says Busta, is that it “hopefully engenders a greater sense of empathy.”
The most recent episode begins by focusing crypto-raves, which are exactly what they sound like, but then branches out into a more vast cultural conversation. Like all the others, this episode invites guests to interrogate the subjects at hand. It features the New Models crew, along with journalist Michelle Lhooq, musician and technologist Mat Dryhurst, and musician and architect Martti Kalliala.
In addition to the aggregator and podcast, New Models has future ambitions to produce original content, in-person talks, a Twitch stream, and maybe even a print product, too. The original content will begin early next year, and hopefully the other parts will follow. Busta explains that the plan is to cultivate a captive audience. In a follow-up email to me, she writes, “While ‘scaling’ isn’t our main goal, becoming deeply resonant within a widening community of critically thinking cultural producers is. Our aim is to carve a niche at the intersection of art, tech, politics, and pop/mass cultural production from which we can continue to map the changing ways value is being generated.”
Right now, New Models‘s reach is admittedly very small. The podcast gets a few thousand listeners, and the website’s active community may be a little less than that. The intent, Busta says, is to incrementally grow–and become “a community-supported node for ideas and analysis.” While New Models has done no marketing yet, the group sees the planned extensions–like original content–as a way to attract more attention.
The idea is to subvert the dominant systems that dictate how online content is shared. All the while, they want to build up a community of critical leaders to shepherd this thought. Online conversation is currently dominated by the platforms–a list of curated links is one, simple antidote to that. It’s at least one way to go against individuated social media feeds. Which is, perhaps, why New Models‘s founders refer often to the community they hope to create.
Says Busta, “We think of ourselves as a good underground bookstore.”