In many ways, yes.
It’s commodifying content and readers alike, sacrificing pleasure for purpose and putting publishing standards to shame. Everything is unbelievable, breathtaking and incredible, yet nothing is memorable. We’ve become an era of list-obsessed know-it-alls peddling our anecdotal advice to anybody who will listen (or, more preferably, click ‘share’).
Even worse, we’ve gotten our egos involved. Writing has become an exercise in self-justification. 10 Things Only ____ Will Understand, 7 Things Never To Say To Someone Who Is ____. We identify as open-minded people who are devoted to self-improvement, yet we create and engage with content that celebrates and coddles even the worst aspects of our personalities. In many cases we’re not devoted to self-improvement, we’re devoted to self-acceptance. And unsubstantial, ego-driven writing is what many online publications are seeking because it attracts ego-driven clicks and ego-driven readers. “This article/website make me feel good about myself. I think I’ll follow them for more.”
These publications know that our words are disposable. They have their underpaid (or unpaid) editors skim our submissions to decide if the body content warrants an exaggerated headline that may attract attention. If the article seems like it might pull in a few readers, the editor performs a half-assed read-through for grammar and formatting before placing it online, where the publication retains permanent ownership and the right to refuse to remove the article in the future. Which is bad news if you, the writer, decide later that the self-centric, unsubstantiated, poorly edited article you wrote years ago isn’t something you wish to have lurking just a Google search away from anybody who enters your name.
Am I generalizing? Of course, and I apologize for demonizing the very worst of online writing to emphasize my point. Not all writing on the Internet is terrible. There will always be great writers and great publications, and there is a near abundance of quality reading material online for those who care to look. However, the Internet is a distraction based medium where everything comes with an ulterior motive and the good stuff doesn’t leap out of its way to find you, not when the majority of content is circulated and discovered on social platforms such as Facebook. Aside from a few premium publications, there are very few websites with professional editorial teams who curate and publish high quality long-format articles.
Why? Because publishing high quality content requires time, money, and other resources, and because there are people behind every publication and people need to make a living. Websites are monetized, either by selling products or advertising space, or both, and paying established writers to produce premium content is difficult to fit into most monetization strategies. It’s easier instead to pay little or nothing for several articles from non-established writers, or to pay a staff writer to produce several short pieces, often ‘listicles’. There has been a recent influx of high quality content created to educate and help people, but this falls under the category of content marketing – gaining credibility with readers in order to upsell them on a product or training course.
Much of this resembles the unfortunate decay of television news, which devolved from long-format, critical journalism into a 24 hour cycle of sensationalized headlines, polarizing opinions and a focus only on content designed to hold viewers’ attention long enough for them to sit through the next commercial break. Paying journalists to research and produce long-format pieces stopped making sense because it ran the risk of boring viewers who weren’t engaged with the subject matter, causing them to switch the channel. With low viewer retention, programs lack value to advertisers and fail to be profitable. It’s safer, cheaper, and more lucrative to provide short-format coverage of a number of issues, using sensationalism to bait viewers from one segment to the next.
This is the exact logic that dominates publishing calendars across the web. The average web user is proven to be distracted, frequently opening new tabs and never staying on a single web page for very long. Sites such as BuzzFeed function on the assumption that readers are distracted, offering short, digestible articles and providing the distractions themselves, the goal being that readers will stay and read 10 articles on their site instead of leaving and reading 9 articles somewhere else.
And, although I don’t personally enjoy BuzzFeed, it’s hard to criticize them because they’ve done a great job of epitomizing new-age journalism – it’s quick, comprehensive, and relatable. Millions of readers love it, and this scares me because my heart still resides in a place where reading and writing are slow, immersive experiences, requiring earnest hard work. I enjoy paragraphs, narratives and well-structured ideas. I enjoy the gratification of reading with intention, dancing from word to word, empathizing with the author and contemplating their thoughts, rather than just skimming from point to point (or GIF to GIF).
I’m not saying that the print publishing industry of the past was some sort of golden age, not at all. The politics of becoming established as an author were ruthless and unfair; some of the world’s great writers were rejected hundreds of times before having their first works published. The profit model of the publishing industry punished newcomers by design and very few writers made a profit even after their work was accepted by a reputable publisher. It was only after an author had established a name for themselves that their writing could be guaranteed to sell, providing them with a lifelong golden ticket to have their works published and promoted adequately to provide a profit.
The main advantage of the print publishing model for novels, magazines and newspapers alike, was twofold. First, writers were more likely to be paid for their work. Second, strict publishing standards encouraged higher quality writing and helped many world class authors refine their skills on their rise to success. Today, it’s much easier to get published but, as a beginner, you are almost guaranteed not to be paid for it, and loose publishing standards mean that you aren’t encouraged to improve as a writer. The politics of being established in order to profit still remain, however modern publishers will analyze how large your social/email following is when deciding whether to publish you. If you don’t have a large, immediate audience to whom you can promote your book for pre-sale, a publisher almost certainly will not accept you.
In defence of the web, publishing on the Internet is arguably more democratic than its predecessor. Sociopolitical criticism – an important part of a democratic society – has a strong presence in online publishing. Opinions that were previously considered ‘alternative’ are often given a popular voice on the Internet and, for many web users, the Internet is a device of empowerment and truth. Anybody with passion, tenacity and a skill for self-promotion can find success publishing online, without being suppressed by the gatekeepers of the pre-Internet publishing age.
All things considered, I’m just exhausted of the absurdity. Which 2009 Pop Hit Are You?; I Got a Facial For My Butt, And I Have Ass-olutely No Regrets – these are just a couple of the titles I encountered while taking a 30 second break from writing this to skim the homepages of some popular online journals. I’m sorry if these sound riveting to you, but I have trouble accepting that such articles are exemplary of our modern collective intelligence.
And now that my tirade is complete, I’ll admit that I’ve made a hypocrite of myself. As a writer, I’ve been guilty numerous times of producing lazy, ego-driven content. As an editor, I’ve employed poor standards when curating and proofing new pieces. Properly formatted, error-free, high quality articles require hard work, and sometimes hard work is just unappealing. As a writer, it’s easy to get caught in the habit of doing the minimum amount of work required to put your words in front of others. As a publisher, it’s tempting to do the minimum amount of work required to fulfil your content calendar and drive traffic.
So, to whom it may concern: I hereby swear to only write opinions that can be substantiated with proper articulation, relevant research, or (preferably) both. I vow to never publish a piece that hasn’t been rigorously proofed and revised. I promise that all content published on The Self Actual will adhere to a strict editorial standard, and that all money generated from ads on The Self Actual will be re-allocated to building our editorial team and producing high quality content.
The Self Actual will never exploit clickbait to appeal to the masses. Because it’s not about the traffic. There’s no honour in that. It’s about the simple pleasure of words on a page, and it always has been.
Thank you for reading.