An Eternal Flame That Gives No Heat

I woke up thinking about the maw. Web publishing — blogs, news outlets, magazines, etc. — is a numbers game, and the goal is only to make more to put in the machine. What’s most frustrating as a content creator is that it almost doesn’t matter what the content is. It just has to exist so people can see the image and headline, click Like/Share, and move on. It’s kind of a Catch-22, though: if the content is badly written filler, you’ll get dinged for gaming the system or trying to put one over on your readers, but if the content’s really good, no one will read it to know the difference. You’re just producing to produce, throwing meat into the maw.

This Slate piece digs into the way people click without reading, as if their only goal is to acknowledge that something was published before moving on:

When people land on a story, they very rarely make it all the way down the page. A lot of people don’t even make it halfway. Even more dispiriting is the relationship between scrolling and sharing. Schwartz’s data suggest that lots of people are tweeting out links to articles they haven’t fully read. If you see someone recommending a story online, you shouldn’t assume that he has read the thing he’s sharing.

[…]

The worst thing about Schwartz’s graph is the big spike at zero. About 5 percent of people who land on Slate pages and are engaged with the page in some way—that is, the page is in a foreground tab on their browser and they’re doing something on it, like perhaps moving the mouse pointer—never scroll at all. Now, do you know what you get on a typical Slate page if you never scroll? Bupkis. Depending on the size of the picture at the top of the page and the height of your browser window, you’ll get, at most, the first sentence or two. There’s a good chance you’ll see none of the article at all. And yet people are leaving without even starting. What’s wrong with them? Why’d they even click on the page?

[…]

As a writer, all this data annoys me. It may not be obvious—especially to you guys who’ve already left to watch Arrested Development—but I spend a lot of time and energy writing these stories. I’m even careful about the stuff at the very end; like right now, I’m wondering about what I should say next, and whether I should include these two other interesting graphs I got from Schwartz, or perhaps I should skip them because they would cause folks to tune out, and maybe it’s time to wrap things up anyway …

But what’s the point of all that? Schwartz tells me that on a typical Slate page, only 25 percent of readers make it past the 1,600th pixel of the page, and we’re way beyond that now. Sure, like every other writer on the Web, I want my articles to be widely read, which means I want you to Like and Tweet and email this piece to everyone you know. But if you had any inkling of doing that, you’d have done it already. You’d probably have done it just after reading the headline and seeing the picture at the top. Nothing I say at this point matters at all.

It’s getting harder and harder to make yourself heard. It’s also dispiriting that something you ache over and spend a lot of time trying to get just right will be tossed aside with the same lack of interest as a list of celebrity outfits or a list of news links. The democratization of online publishing isn’t that everyone can publish; it’s that everything starts to look the same, so there’s no effort made to sort the wheat from the chaff.

The ramifications of this for critics, journalists, and other writers are still shaking out. But it’s hard not to feel the machine taking over. Being a critic already means dealing with the studio/publicity engine that drives coverage. Studios want you to see a movie, give them a seven-word power blurb, then go to the next one, so you have to walk away and spend some time with the work to understand it. Actual criticism — seeking to understand and explore a work, and being honest about the way you bring yourself to it — always takes more time and nuance than the machine wants to allow. Now, though, many consumers of that written content are creating their own blind machine: they want only to see and click and skim, to wade through the stream and forget something the moment it passes. I can feel myself doing it with others’ work. I know it happens with mine, too. While I don’t agree with critic Charles McCarthy’s assessment of some of the films of 2013, I did find myself nodding at this:

Social media, moreover, have created a deafening echo chamber in which opinions are confirmed ad nauseam until a de facto truth has been established. Dissent from the status quo can be attention-grabbing for a time, but a limit is quickly reached at which point the dissenter becomes marginalized as a crank.

With so much editorial emphasis placed on readership numbers (hence all the award show overkill), there is the furtive temptation for critics to align themselves with marketing forces. A rave review will be widely circulated by the studio distributing the film or the theater producing the musical. The danger here isn’t so much conscious as unconscious collusion.

Popular sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, while useful to consumers, are detrimental to critics for two reasons: By tallying up the consensus of reviewers, they throw into relief the loneliness and vulnerability of the outlier position and by reducing criticism to a negative or positive assessment they are the enemy of nuance.

The decline in weekly and alternative publications of influence has endangered the long view perspective as has the demand for all journalistic outlets to keep pace with the 24/7 media cycle. There was a time when critics such as Stanley Kauffmann and Pauline Kael offered correctives to the haste of daily reviewers. What one of my editors calls “slow criticism” has long been banished to the quarterly fringe.

Creation and consumption are faster now, but not deeper. I don’t know what the next step would be to change that, or even if it can be changed, or if people would want it to. This could be a problem with no solution, or it could just be one of those things that doesn’t have any response. I just know that we’re throwing logs on the fire every day, and it never gets warmer.