Are you missing out on life? If you aren’t on social media, you probably are. At least, that’s the rumor I hear. I use social media so I wouldn’t know. I may be a rat in a cage but at least I’m being fed creative hashtags. I actually only use one social media platform. I don’t have any of the major social media apps on my phone, still have time to read actual books, and don’t show any signs of severe addiction, and yet when I don’t check my feed for a day or two I do feel a slight fear of missing out (#FOMO) and a persistent, nasty little compulsion to get out the laptop and scroll just a little bit (just a little bit). I don’t fight it too much, but I do hope that if it ever becomes a problem those who love me most will take my electronics away and intervene to save me.
As a writer who thrives on attention and people hanging on my every word like I’m some sort of genius, I kind of don’t mind if you’re also slightly compelled to check out the newsfeeds to see what new brilliance has emerged today in the internet, among them my own humble thoughts. I might even optimize my writing for likes and hearts. I used to be bothered by negative reactions to what I write, now I’m kind of desensitized because I realized it doesn’t really matter what I write (TEMPORARY SATIRE ALERT BUT SADLY KINDA TRUE?). At least people clicked and read, ya know? The attention is all that matters.
To succeed at the internet writing game, you need hits. Lots of hits. I’ve seen the numbers, and even when I get those hits the rate at which readers spend enough time to fully read and absorb the writing is very low. Maybe it’s because I’m not a good enough writer. Maybe I’m boring. Maybe my beloved personal anecdotes are wearisome. Again, I already got the hit. I tricked you into clicking the link so I win.
Even better is if you give me some likes and some shares. You don’t need to read the article, just pretend you did and pass it on so I can get more hits and more likes. The easiest way for me to convince you to do this is to title the article in a way that it seems controversial and courageous but that the vast majority of readers will actually agree with and not need to think about too much. I can say, for instance that the MET Gala was lame. Or I can tell you that being a minimalist is lame. It doesn’t matter much what I write just so long as you all think I’m cool and I can convince you that you will be cooler if you share my article with your friends.
I want a quick reaction because, economically speaking, it’s a cheap way to succeed.
On her blog, Vi Hart breaks down the economics of the internet clickability into four quadrants:
- Common human experience – Cats being awesome, terrible puns, inspirational quotes. To like this stuff is very easy, so if I inhabit this space I will succeed.
- Common mass media experience – a controversial argument but ultimately one that is unimportant. We can debate all day long about whether Gerard Manley Hopkins is a great poet or the greatest poet, or more prosaically, whether Brideshead Revisited is Waugh’s best book or if maybe, just maybe, it might actually be Sword of Honour? These debates might get lots of traction and are really fun, but everyone knows the fate of the world doesn’t hang on getting the correct answer.
- Common criticism – aka stereotyping. A politician said something insane and we all universally condemn it. The substance of the criticism isn’t all that controversial but it is about an important, trending topic and so garners attention. I can do it: Families are awesome so let’s not separate families at the border, okay? Easy.
- True controversy on party lines – preaching to the choir. A specific social script has taken over the conversation and takes on a life of its own. It may be a controversial topic but is written in such a way as to bolster one side or the other.
Notice something interesting about all these categories? Actual, thoughtful, nuanced content is not optimized to succeed. Rather, the optimization is to fit a certain style of writing for the purpose of winning the internet. As a writer, it’s not about whether you like my writing, or are challenged by it, or if it begins a discussion that expands your world. I care about whether you find my writing useful to share on social media or to virtue-signal. This changes how writers write.
Vi Hart does the math:
In practice, inspiring and satisfying pieces of content are dead ends for user actions. Thoughtful pieces of content that take twenty minutes to read get one vote in the time it takes for pretty pictures and amusing memes to get dozens.
Lots of likes is better than one, got it?
We’ve gotten to the point that we don’t deserve each other’s time. Meaningful connection, at least via the digital world, is well nigh impossible. Am I overthinking this, or should we all be worried?
Being a good writer means, among other things, to make readers into your friends, to find some sort of human connection buried in the meaning of the words, the way in which we communicate with each other and find a space wherein the self unfolds within the soul of the other. But it’s harder and harder to be a good writer because shallow engagement with a bunch of strangers is preferable, or at least that’s how you make money as a freelance writer. It’s sad but understandable, because writers have to fight for an audience every single time they publish.
The social media companies hosting these conversations aren’t helping. As much as they pretend to foster genuine human community, any healthy online communities prosper in corners of the internet in spite of the big social media companies, not as part of their design. There’s a mathematical layout to social media, a feedback loop of notifications, likes, and comments that delivers direct, chemical satisfaction to users via phones and laptops. It doesn’t pay to deliver thoughtful, long-form content to your feed.
I need to retract some of what I wrote above. I’m sorry, I do care what you think of me. I honestly probably care too much. I care about you, too, and want to engage in a genuine dialogue with you or at least give you something interesting to think about. I like to write for the internet and I’ve been blessed to have found publishers willing to accept my content with a minimum of social media gamesmanship. Sure, sometimes I show my work with a “5 ways to…” format, and I never get to title my pieces with an obscure, punny title like I want to, but I’ve always been proud of the content that I’ve produced. The way I look at it, if it helps people organize the flow of thought in the essay, then I’m happy to provide bullet points. If the title has to be a certain way adn super obvious so people know what they’re clicking on, that’s fine. In a way, these practices have been helpful for me because they force my writing to be hyper-focused.
In general, though, tech has absolutely changed the way we write, and you don’t need to look far for examples of how negative those changes have been. Here’s why I’m hopeful, though. Eventually addictive tech will fade away, at least as a major force. I know that your shaking hand reaching for your mobile phone in your pocket at the checkout line to just check your email real quick belies that opinion, but ultimately tech that aligns with human flourishing will win. As facebook, twitter, google, et al overreach they’re already beginning to suffer as users are cutting back on time spent on those platforms.
Niche social apps are the wave of the future. There are some interesting examples of how really good apps use positive feedback loops not to enslave us but to promote positive habit-forming. One example I’m very familiar with is Strava. Strava is an app that tracks running and cycling workouts. I use the app while I exercise and at the end it shows me a map of my route, my speed, my mileage, and all sorts of other useful data. I can follow friends and see how their exercise is coming along and comment on how strong and amazing they are. Strava creates an online community that affects its members positively by not only giving us useful info about our exercise, but also by using some of the habit-forming tricks of social media to keep us engaged. It sends “kudos” when a friend gives you a virtual pat on the back, it allows for personal mileage challenges to be set as goals, and it creates a highly devoted user community that ends up being based not in the virtual world but through developing real life, healthy interactions.
Another social app that I’m a fan of is Ora. Ora creates a prayer network to both submit prayers and pray for others. It sends prayer reminders to jog your memory throughout the day and it sends a note each time your prayer request is prayed for by someone. There’s nothing better than getting a notification on your phone that someone is really, truly praying for you. Ora is designed to form positive prayer habits and it cleverly uses technology to promote holiness. In the end, an Ora user will not become addicted to the platform itself but to regular prayer.
When it comes to writing, I do think that while internet click-bait style writing will always be with us, writing that deeply engages readers will also continue to flourish and even make a bit of a comeback. This is because, like those niche apps, there will always be a place for quality writing and I would even guess that it will make a bit of a comeback. We already see how a million people are willing watch extensive Jordan Peterson lectures or how even longform articles about sports at sites like The Ringer get plenty of readers. This type of writing doesn’t have the immediate rewards the internet typically smiles upon, but high quality writing does build a loyal readership and there’s plenty of value in that.
Who knows if you read this far. If you did, I’m genuinely happy.