The ripple effects of writing
When I was a child, I wanted to be an author.
Unfortunately, my father, who was a smart man, took me aside and said to me, “Son, you might enjoy reading, but you’re never going to make money writing.”
Now, years later, I’ve proven him wrong, but he had a point. The world was changing. This was the 90s: in the course of the next two decades, cell phones invade our lives and turned into smartphones, the Internet came along and wired us all up together, technology – especially consumer technology – accelerated at lightspeed.
Now I, and every other 90’s kid, had the great fortune to be born right into the era of biggest change. We’ve seen our favourite stories go from massive series of books to massive TV series. We’ve watched friends and colleagues put aside their books and blogs in favor of shorter and shorter tweets and more and more images and video from Instagram. We’ve watched video explode until YouTube became the second biggest search engine on the planet. We’ve watched the amount of attention that we give a piece of writing decrease until our favourite articles are now not New York Times articles, but cat pictures and lists from Buzzfeed.
Now of course, this sounds like terrible news for us writers. Every piece of research out there is telling us that more people prefer consuming video than text, that you shouldn’t write long articles – John Oliver, for example, now reaches more people than any New York Times journalist ever did. That’s real change. Common sense and content experts both say the written word is dead. Get on Snapchat. Get on Instagram. Get on YouTube. Or get out. Unless you’re a hot babe or a cat, you have no chance of being heard anymore.
But is that true? A year ago, I started investigating this question. Should we, as writers, give up and go back to school, learn how to crank out videos?
I found something interesting.
Despite SEO guidelines and research on attention spans, longform written content isn’t dying: it’s thriving. The New Yorker hasn’t shut down. Nor has the Guardian. Nor have longform tech sites like Anandtech or Arstechnica. Generally, businesses that depend on people reading their content are the first to adapt. Instead, Buzzfeed News now does some of the finest journalism in the world. They recently ran a massive, 4700-word investigation on a scandal involving Sri Lankan banks, done by Chris Hamby, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist. The company that made short, meaningless drivel a thing is investing into actual researched, longform writing.
It’s not just news sites. Three of my favourite sites in the world are Aeon, Brainpickings and WaitButWhy. Brainpickings and Aeon assembles the thoughts of scientists, intellectuals and prodigies on subjects. WaitButWhy picks apart ideas with precision and great clarity. Both write reams. You can easily open up any of these three and find three thousand new words waiting to be read.
It’s not even just sites. Pocket, an app designed to let people save stuff for later reading – and which I use – apparently has 20 million users who have collectively saved 2 billion articles to read on their phones. Amazon US, in January, sold over 1 million paid ebooks a day – that’s about 2.1 billion US dollars a year on books. People. Are. Reading. As much as we love House of Cards, we also, apparently, read. And in fact, going back over my work, my most-shared articles are longform.
So are the data analysts wrong and SEO experts wrong? Are they misreading the number of people who just share memes and obsess over TV series on Twitter?
No. They’re right, too.
The way I see it, there is a polarized curve of content. On one end of this curve you find 3,500-word undercover reporting on the situation on the Palestine border. Stuff like the Panama expose, the Snowden reports, Michio Kaku’s books, they’re here. On the other side of the curve, you have celebrity gossip, click-bait SJW articles and listicles on cat memes.
There’s no inherent good or bad, but people consume the entire curve. We know the frequency of consumption is in inverse proportion to the complexity of the subject; we also know that it gets easier to consume content as we go from the complex end to the simple end. However, where we go wrong is by assuming that because the numbers are stacked on one side, the other end is wrong. Where we go wrong is in saying things like “a successful article has to be 500 words in length, not more,” or “a successful novel has to be 60,000 words or less.” Not true.
The actual value in writing, and in writing large, long pieces of content, is that they become the source for many of what later becomes content across this entire curve. Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point turned from a 1996 essay for the New Yorker into a theory of social situations. Once you create an original, well-researched, long piece of writing, it lives on. As quotations. As influence. That’s why the 2013 report by the Guardian and the Washington Post on the NSA’s surveillance shook the entire world. That’s why we all know of PRISM and the NSA despite so few of us actually having read and shared those original articles. This is why Brainpickings and WaitButWhy are viable. Good writing is hard to produce and will be read by fewer people, but will have longer potential effects on the world. Picture it as a scientist writing a research paper. He knows only a few other scientists and a few journalists will read it, but then those journalists will decipher it, simplify it, package it and spread on the idea.
This is why, despite the mathematics of views and clicks and social media shares, longform still exists. This is why most of John Oliver’s news is sourced from investigative journalists – a fact that he acknowledged in a recent tribute to journalism.
By attempting to make that complex end of the curve bend more and more towards the averages, we’re doing it – and us- a disservice. It’s a bit like looking at the world’s population, realizing that 50% is male and 50% is female, and writing a report saying the average human has one breast and one testicle.
The lengthy, written word becomes a mineable treasure trove that the rest of the curve slowly unpacks, disseminating it until it becomes a meme and someone photoshops a cat next to it.
So what can we – writers, bloggers, journalists take away from this?
Firstly we need to pick where we want to stand on that curve.
We can draw a lot of lessons from the fact that the most popular sites have a lot of very shallow content.
Consider Alexa’s ranking for the top sites in Sri Lanka. Weed out the search engines, social media and porn sites, and the top sites are HiruFM, GossipLankaNews and HiruNews. All of which are little more than gossip sites blasting out crap into the ether.
Now map this onto your writing. Are we going to be a) that relatively little-read, but influential blog on, say, third-world economics and social structures? Or are we going to be b) chasing popularity? Remember that Justin Bieber has more fans than Bach right now.
It’s the typical researcher / reporter analogue even if you dial into single subjects. As a researcher, very few people may read what you write; as a journalist reporting on research, many people may read your article, but what they will ultimately take away is the researcher’s message.
The ripple effects of one end of the content curve is higher than the other, but comes at the cost of clicks, views and such immediate rewards. Each of us need to pick a place on this curve that keeps us happy.
Secondly: reconsider the mediums we specialize in. Despite everything I’ve said here about the written word, nothing changes the fact that we live in a world of mixed media – podcasts and video are often as powerful text, sometimes even more. I’ve met many former bloggers who’ve just given up. Video is inherently further along the curve towards the simpler end, because it’s easier to consume; and thus makes it easier to pick up the numbers you want.
(Unfortunately, it’s still just as hard to make a living in those fields as it is to be in writing. You think your blog doesn’t make anything? Try being a YouTuber and competing with the roughly 81 million other videos online.)
The good thing is behind every great podcast and talkshow episode is a script. Behind every well-written TV series is months, maybe years of writing. Behind most John Oliver episodes are extensive articles by other journalists; in this case, they’re the researchers.
My conclusion is that despite the immediate popularity of shallow content, this is, now more than ever, a writer’s world. Every single day, we type out emails. We tweet. We write witty Facebook statuses that we want everyone to like. We read. We write. The amount of text, the amount of writing, that a human being is exposed to hasn’t shrunk; it’s grown. And in this mess of tweets and 9gag memes and cat pictures, good writing, good longform writing, stands out, sending out ripple effects that spread across the entirety of that curve. The written word has been the backbone of human civilization for thousands of years – it’s not going to go away just because someone figured out that moving images are more popular.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to my writing.