How did we get here?
In the early days, people wrote about their day — their life. Public diaries or journals formed the basis of early social blogging platforms — LiveJournal, DiaryLand, and Blogger — any thoughts of blogs covering a niche or subject were years away. It’s worth remembering that most people carried brick mobile phones, and connected once or twice a day to the internet via a screeching black box that trickled content onto the screen like a leaky tap.
Over time, rather than throwing content into the wind and relying on chance, authors began searching for an audience. Platforms evolved to enable writers — taking advantage of both content creators and consumers while feeding the mighty search engines with bait.
The Emperor’s new statistically derived clothes
People have become obsessed with traffic, search engine optimisation, and any number of other seemingly pointless escapades. Writing online has become the Emperor’s new clothes — people have been brainwashed to believe their writing should be short, snappy, direct, frequent, and focused. Forgive me for saying it, but that’s a sausage machine, and all they’re good at is churning out detritus — again, and again.
Not all subjects can be distilled to one or two paragraphs — sometimes you need to tell a story — sometimes you need to take the reader on a journey. Popular wisdom dictates that so-called “long reads” perform badly online — and yet most writers aspire to one day be published in big-name periodicals. The irony is not lost that publications such as The New Yorker, Wired, or Cosmopolitan almost exclusively post “long reads”.
When everybody is special, nobody is special
Chasing online traffic destroys creativity and originality. Attempts to exploit search engine discovery algorithms typically cause content to be forced through a virtual mangle that outputs homogenous content — bite-size nuggets decorated with headings, vaguely connected visuals, and glib quotes.
Which wolf are we feeding? Are we exploiting the search engines, or have the search engines already exploited us? Has the attention span of the online audience become so short that we must conduct fishing expeditions for readers armed only with a bag of headlines and single sentences?
What happened to serendipity?
Targetted delivery of content destroys discovery by chance. Algorithmic feeds turn the gigantic cloud machine we feed into nothing more than an endless line of spoons filled with suggested brain food.
There is value to wandering aimlessly. How many times do we have to read about “taking a step back”, before we realise how big the productivity lie really is?
I remember reading an interview with Jeff Bezos many years ago — back before Amazon took over the world. He described a perfect book store, where you walk in and only one book is presented to you — the exact book you were looking for, derived through everything known about you.
Let’s not connect the breadcrumbs from Bezos’ perfect book store to its inevitable dystopian conclusion.
Are conclusions always needed?
I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this — but perhaps that’s the point. What you’re reading is a direct transcript of my thoughts as they left my head, rolled through my fingers and appeared on the screen. The improvised stage play versus the edited movie.
I am reminded of the movie “Finding Forrester”, where a reclusive author sits a student down at a typewriter and instructs them to write — not to think — just to write — writing comes first.
Perhaps there is a message here after all.
By following meandering streams of thought, we get to know authors a little better than we might otherwise — or at least better than through a headline, a quote, or a stock photograph. As we come to know them, we might want to read more — so we follow, subscribe, and search. The rest takes care of itself.
Originally published at https://jonbeckett.com on December 23, 2020.