I had a nice chat the other day with a young lawyer who has a very popular legal website. His site is a business, intended for profit and designed to maximize the number of eyeballs it draws. He was disgusted, well, concerned (actually, I was disgusted, so I’m projecting my own feelings about his website onto him. He didn’t hate his website anywhere near as much as I did), that in the zeal to create the website and draw the eyeballs, he might have lost a critical ingredient. Purpose.
It gave rise to the concerns raised by Alissa Walker at Good Technology :
One of the reasons I wanted to become a writer is that I was fascinated by a journalist’s ability to shape public opinion. Yet, the more information I have about who actually reads my words, the further removed I feel from the field of journalism. Sometimes my writerly self takes a back seat to my other personality, the one that’s obsessed with getting strangers to like me for something I wrote. As a slave to data, my success as a writer now hinges on how often I get Stumbled Upon, Voted Up, Promoted, Ffffound, Dugg, RTed, and Liked.
One might argue that I’m more machine than journalist. I actually enjoy the rush of attracting traffic. But does it make me any less of a creative person?
She writes about her learning the lessons of the internet, and how she became consumed by what they had to offer.
I remember the first time I was confronted with this new reality. I had written a blog post with the most perfect, pun-filled headline. But when I saw it, edited and published, I did not recognize it as my own. My headline had been swapped with a gimmick that anyone who writes for the web (and anyone who reads it) will instantly recognize: The dreaded formula of “The Top 5 Things That Will Prove Something Important.” My post had been turned into a list. My editor—a hardened blogging authority at the age of 26—shrugged. It had been proven somewhere (where?) that people love lists.
At first I was skeptical, borderline insulted. But when I saw how a slight tweak to my text would make my page views skyrocket, I became a convert. Now, instead of organizing my thoughts into pithy paragraphs for readers, I engineer my words so they’re algorithmically attractive. I rewrite my headlines to make them more enticing to Google. I tag them with dozens of relevant phrases to boost my authority on specific topics. I add search terms to my text to further optimize my SEO ranking. I admit that I don’t totally understand what that last sentence even means.
What’s left unmentioned is her concern with providing substantive information, well-written prose and thought-provoking commentary. Apparently, no one told her that a simple picture of a cute kitten was enough to draw the love of millions, cheap though it may be.
People love lists. Social media gurus regurgitate the same list of Top 10 things constantly, to the wild applause of the crowds. The comments that follow, extolling their utter fascination with the writer’s sheer brilliance, will warm even the coldest heart.
A while back, the emptiness of much offered by the blawgosphere began to gnaw at me. I knew people cared about things, but you couldn’t tell by the insipid crap they wrote. I wrote a post imploring people to take a stand, write something meaningful, put their ass on the line.
If you ask most people who blog, they tell you they want to be relevant and meaningful. They just don’t want to risk losing the love of readers. After all, what good is being meaningful if no one reads what you write, and so they put their efforts into trying to collect eyeballs, as if a day will come when they will have enough, sufficiently own them that they can then, finally, offer a real contribution to thought. They’re still waiting for that day to come, but it never does.
So the young lawyer with whom I chatted asked me what I thought he could do to improve the quality of the content on his website. His actual words were, “what can I do to not suck?” I offered him a few suggestions, including that he make certain that the articles/posts that appeared not make anyone stupider for having read them. This was a major problem for him.
But more importantly, he had things to say, things he had learned between his third year of practice, when he knew everything there was to know about the law, and his eighth year, when he recognized how much he still had to learn. He was aching to get these things out, to tell others what he had learned. But he was afraid that he would offend his readers by telling them they were ugly and dressed funny, and they would run away from him and never come back. He would lose their eyeballs.
Walker too had to come to grips with life on the interwebz, where any ploy that gets more eyeballs trumps quality and substance, even to the point of titling a post “what time is the Super Bowl” because that’s the predominant inquiry on Google at the moment.
Take it as the exception, but in fact this is not too different from how many sites with a veneer of journalistic integrity are generating stories right now. The sorts of stories you’ve no doubt clicked on. Instead of stumbling across a story idea while walking down the street, or meeting a stranger, or pondering an issue in the shower, a writer—maybe even me—skims Twitter’s trending topics or the most-searched phrases on Google Trends and then writes a piece. In most cases, a piece of crap.
So write a piece of crap and gather as many eyeballs as possible. Then what? It won’t matter.