Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Technology Triumphalism

Clive Thompson argues, somewhat persuasively, that the Internet -- particularly tweets and etc. -- is making us better, more attentive readers of long-form writing. The simple version: people are tending to tweet their little ideas and spend more time developing their big ones. Meanwhile, apps like Readability and Instant Paper, designed to make long articles more readable, have become quite popular. And of course you know my thoughts on how electronic readers are making readers more ambitious.

I think though that Thompson's thesis might be more precisely stated if it weren't aiming for the all-important counter-intuitive headline: it's not so much that the Internet is getting better at long-form as that the wide variety of venues wherein we can share our thoughts is making it easier for ideas to find forms and outlets appropriate to their contents. In other words, it turns out that quite a lot of blog posts were better expressed as tweets, which is why personal blogs are disappearing -- not entirely, no, but they'll never be the force again that they were in say the early 2000s. Tweets are also more conversational than blogs, which makes them (as Thompson says) a good way to mull something over.

And then if you want to do something a little longer but not exceedingly rigorous, you can do a blog post. And then if you want to do something a little bigger and more rigorous than that, you can write a column or an essay for a website somewhere. If it's the sort of thing you've got to host yourself then you can do that. If it needs to be a sort of novella-length thing, you can serialize it online, or you can distribute it via e-readers, or sometimes you just put it all out there and people read it anyway if the content warrants the length. It's not so much that there aren't constraints of formats or reader expectations -- there very much are -- as that you can choose a time and place and style of presentation appropriate to the needs of your writing. This is a Good Thing.

I've always been fairly optimistic about the Internet's impact on reading, which feeling has been tested by the rise of streaming video and still found, I think, fairly strong. The Internet is good at text, is primarily good a text, and it's getting better: we're finding more and more ways to make our text readable. It used to be that words on a screen were inherently ugly. Today they can be very pleasing if you're willing to spend a few minutes learning some CSS.

This site is of course especially concerned with fiction and poetry. Poetry online is actually in about as good a position as it can be -- I think there's a lack of attractive venues out there, but it's easy to read short poems at least online and people have been doing it for a long time. The main frustration self-perceived poets face is that there isn't any centralized way of controlling the readership: nobody online in poetry gets to declare what good poetry is, and so people choose for themselves, often preferring what we might call the LiveJournal school. I don't really see this as a problem (I like a lot of the LiveJournal school myself, oddly enough) but I think that's the main issue there.

Fiction is more difficult. Part of the problem is the necessity of eroding the perception of fiction online as inferior -- a perception I myself shared until recently -- and part of the challenge is that most of us still don't really know how to make an attractive, professional reading environment online. (Note to everyone: your font should probably be bigger and your body paragraphs more narrow.)

The biggest problem literature generally faces online, though, I think, is that we're focusing on the wrong things. There are basically three goals for your average online publisher: get eyeballs, develop public community, develop private community (i.e., networks and friendships). These goals are fine and short-term I would describe them as laudable/inevitable, but while it's generally pretty well-accepted that writing online gets more eyeballs than writing in print (it almost has to, print sales being what they are), I think most people suspect that the quality of this readership is pretty low. In other words, readers aren't especially engaged with what they're reading, they're not finishing anything very long, and they're not necessarily coming back regularly except to case the joint for their own submissions. The response has largely been to double down, emphasizing the sort of material that draws these readers in: short, punchy, sometimes ephemeral work delivered frequently. We might also call this strategy shoveling more coal on the fire.

So what should people be doing instead? I would suggest that the goal should be the cultivation of a better readership -- that is, readers who enjoy engaging work as long as it has to be for as much time as it takes, readers who return because they trust the venue to provide them with something worth their time, readers who feel an investment in the venue not only as potential contributors, but actually and truly as readers. Almost nobody in online publishing defines themselves primarily by their selectiveness, by their careful curating: mostly online publishers are all about the "new," the "voices that aren't being heard." The word "new" is meaningless in this context and at this point if you've got a voice worth hearing odds are very good someone's listening. What I think we need more of is a focus on taking responsibility for providing work that will be of lasting interest and merit, work that people will remember past the week it comes out in. This is why we're posting our online-only material one piece at a time, once a month: we want to emphasize that thing and that thing only, to make our name on it. And we don't want it to be buried and forgotten when the next piece comes along. Rather we want them to make each other stronger, to reinforce each other -- and us in the process.

No comments:

Post a Comment