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The following questions were sent directly to friends and colleagues in order to bring about a larger conversation about how the internet has changed the way we write from the experience of a variety of people. Their answers also informed the essay at the end of this page, but they are conceived as the principal part of this project. They are also only a beginning: if you’re reading these and would like to add to them, please send us your answers, we’ll be uploading them on a rolling basis in the hope that this project will keep on living and growing with time.

Thank you to all the people who participated in this project and to Wendy Vogel for her editorial support.

Please email your answer, or answers (and state whether you want your name published or to remain anonymous) to: hdwwwwwo[at] otdac[dot]org

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Are there any forms of writing that you feel are inherent to the internet (as in blogs, social diaries, lists)? Do you try and work through these forms? Do you find them valuable?

I’m actually doing my first bit of party reporting tonight! I’d never do it for an offline source, to be honest, but for the web I can deal with it because I think people will be more focused on the pictures than my intro.

Weirdly enough, a coworker said to me recently that she doesn’t know a lot of people who actually have blogs anymore and write criticism. I would tend to agree. Personal statements are becoming aphoristic in length and circulating on social networks, especially Facebook and Twitter. I’d say a lot of online writing still has a bloggy tone, though — sidenotes about opinions, tangents, personal info (mentioning what you ate in a review of an exhibition, for example), use of the first person.

The listicle is also a form that seems made for the web. It works well with the slideshow format and allows the eye to digest a similar amount of text and image at the same time. The form also seems ideal for scrolling on a device (smartphone, iPad).

Lists for sure. Don’t work with them but I do enjoy them from time to time: who doesn’t love a Buzzfeed list comprising of red panda GIFs?! Saying that, I think there is something to be learned from the blog form, although I still do prefer the rigorousness of an online publication that acts like one, and as such has (read: employs) a stable of editors that ensure facts are correct, and text is proofed.

I don’t know if I have anything great to add here. I think there are forms, like lists, that are more popular online because they are quick to read and easy to respond to. You can ignore them in print and skip to the more substantial stuff. You can do that online, too, but generally don’t. It’s a good way to kill a minute or two, and/or start a conversation online by sharing it.

I do think there’s value in writing that can be revisited, amended, responded to outside of traditional publishing structures.

I don’t know if I have anything great to add here. I think there are forms, like lists, that are more popular online because they are quick to read and easy to respond to. You can ignore them in print and skip to the more substantial stuff. You can do that online, too, but generally don’t. It’s a good way to kill a minute or two, and/or start a conversation online by sharing it.

I do think there’s value in writing that can be revisited, amended, responded to outside of traditional publishing structures.

I don’t attribute value to list culture, I love making lists, and writing lists (I find it fun), but not digesting them as a reader because they can often be incredibly reductive and lack context; I do love the diary format, but to be frank, I see the diary format as something intrinsically tied to print culture. I love writing diaries – for print.

My initial reaction is to say that certain types of coding are the only inherent writing forms native to the internet. All other types I feel could be traced back to traditional, offline/print publication formats. For instance, one could view the Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa as a kind of “blog” or “social diary” or else look at the newspaper reporting of Félix Fénéon as a proto-list/blog format. Though these formats excel on the internet, I don’t think they are inherent or native to that platform. I don’t try to work too much in these forms, I used to keep a blog, but sometimes I don’t know if it’s helpful. Sometimes I think of Hyperjunk as being a kind of social diary, but I don’t really contribute to it enough to keep it constant (much to my dismay). I suppose if I had more time I would explore a format that was more constant, or else spoke to some of the inherent qualities of the internet more directly.

I like using images and moving image/sound as part of an article. I think that’s something very specific and valuable on the internet.

I find blogs and lists useful online, though I think the list might be dying somewhat? I try not to work through those forms, though ‘blog’ is a slippery term. The essay is always the best unit of writing, IMO.

I think there is a “voice” of the internet that is largely spun out by blogs and social media. I’m thinking of Gawker, The Awl, Today in Tabs, The Toast, etc., and on the more writerly side of things, authors like Tao Lin and Marie Calloway. The common denominators here are a self-referentiality, a slangy, quick-witted style of writing, and an attention to a broader conversation. I do follow some sites and authors that deploy this “voice,” and I definitely think they’re valuable in terms of advancing an internet vernacular that can integrate the conventions of social media (hashtag, character limits and so on) without sacrificing meaning or intelligence.

 

I definitely think that blogs are inherent to the internet. People often assume that social diaries and lists are, too, but they have existed widely within literature for centuries. (Though possibly published only posthumously). I certainly think that the proliferate number of these, as well as their uninteresting content and lack of editing is inherent to the internet. However, they can all be interesting or valuable if done well. (Realistically, I’m not sure how often they are – but again, as admitted, my knowledge is not extensive). Tumblr is an interesting one – and I always notice when someone has done something unusual, with images, writing, layout, etc. I guess I’m most interested in how people make writing online different than in print, and if it’s not, I lose attention pretty quickly and pick up a book! It doesn’t even have to be that unusual. For instance – I read this online v. in print, and thought it was great (https://nplusonemag.com/issue-18/essays/from-my-diaries/).

Personally I am quite fond of lists, but only in an abstract sense, or as a literary convention. I don’t often go online regularly to read lists, and NEVER read social diaries – however, ‘End of Year’s are definitely favourites and something I will spend a lot of time on, looking at the opinions of people whose work or minds I admire.

Personally, I find them fascinating. As a writer, my favorite thing is to refine and condense things to an aphoristic state. I have a food blog on Facebook, for example, where I have tried to distill the form as much as possible, almost making it abstract.

As an editor, too, I enjoy taking up these various forms, mostly because their true potential remains, in most cases, depressingly untapped.

Yes there are forms that have evolved through the internet. I’ve tried a couple of them, and have discovered I prefer other ways of going about writing. This doesn’t mean that I don’t find them valuable when other people do them: I think in general, the internet has greatly enriched what’s possible for art criticism and helped to pull us away from models of orthodoxy that were prevalent even in the early 2000s.

The only thing I feel that is actually inherent to the net is the hyperlink. Which is useful in letting information, references, or otherwise sit closer to the text than a footnote; but then can be often used in the place of explanation, thought, or perspective.

Though as one tech writer said at a talk a few days ago, ‘clicking is through, it’s all about scrolling now.’ Which as a writer hasn’t impacted things much yet (I don’t think Triple Canopy’s sideways scroll constitutes much of a shift, though it’s good and more things like this should exist). This will keep changing, say with web design incorporating users’ movement into a pseudo-interactive proto-cinematic/animation motion: http://feature.rollingstone.com/feature/the-geeks-on-the-frontlines, but how that effects writing I’m not sure – part of me thinks it’s just like showy open credits animation, and the business of writing and reading will still requite stability for transmission.

Yeah, I’m particularly interested in a kind of nodal style – writing that positions itself at the nexus of a network of links and references, building connections, directing the reader to other sites of information, aggregating it and systematising it. I’m excited by the kind of democratisation of references allowed by the internet. That doesn’t mean that a lot of writers are doing this, or want to do this, only that I think that’s an interesting avenue…

Do you feel like there’s a difference in stakes on the internet, both in terms of content but also in the way it circulates – and in the emphasis on measurable circulation – online?

Do you feel like your writing is different depending on whether it’s for print (and won’t be uploaded) or online?

Do you think the internet allows for a better sense of your public (because of social networks, discussion forums, etc.?) or do the few hours of flickering online attention following publication not constitute an audience?

I’m not sure. I don’t feel like I get much feedback online on my writing. Do I need to join Twitter? Or write something for Rhizome?

I wouldn’t say that an online post does not an audience make, but I always find that the greatest responses to my writing (whether online or in print) come in person or via e-mail – through private channels of communication. Part of it owes to the intimacy of those channels, which can limit the performative dimension of hashing out a topic on a comment thread or in a discussion forum.

This observation isn’t categorical, but personal. I’m a fairly private, reserved guy and keep a minimal online footprint, so haven’t done enough fieldwork to learn about all of the publics that are generating online discourse.

Yes, you definitely get a better sense of who is reading and how the text is being circulated, and how it has been received, though it only allows for a partial image of ‘your public’, I guess.

Totally. When we were publishing a print journal, we had a list of subscribers but you don’t really know how many of those shipped issues are being read at all, how many are never opened and go straight to shelves or coffee tables. Online, your circulation is entirely determined by your audience and what they are reading, responding to, sharing and talking about. Some of this is through social networks but I also see our essays used more often as class materials, referenced in other magazine/journal texts, brought up in public conversations, linked on Wikipedia, so there’s a different type of impact that isn’t just about a private experience you have as a reader. Part of this has to do with being online, but the other part of this is about being free instead of putting up a paywall or charging for an issue.

Also, just to the idea that there are a few hours of attention immediately after publication: I think this is in some way true for online news sites, but I think that other types of writing and publishing online have a slower build and a longer life. You announce new content but it might take a while for people to get around to it and share it with others. And then it lives on in a way that a print issue of a magazine really doesn’t—it’s searchable and available to revisit whenever there’s an occasion to think about it again. With longer form writing in particular, I don’t think those first hours/days are that important. It’s just marketing noise.

I don’t always agree with this notion. Publics online can so often be staged and or performed because individuals are performing themselves and the networks they want to be a part of. So I feel hesitant to agree on this point.

I’m in a phase right now with my writing of adamantly not checking distribution metrics and outreach, so this question is somewhat hard to answer (since I think that a sense of one’s public often depends ­– or leans on – the desire to find value in a work’s spread/reach). I think talking to people face to face is the best way that I gage my readership/public. Most of the time, I won’t get very many points of feedback from articles and essays I publish online. But then often when I see people face to face they’ll tell me how much they enjoyed something, or how much something made them think, etc. I’m always surprised by this, but I enjoy that feedback immensely and get way more out of it than the flicking/limited attention of social media. That being said, the internet has exposed me to readers that I wouldn’t know existed if it wasn’t for their feedback through whatever social media. Rarely do I find that anything that I publish online have any kind of resurgence of attention after the first couple of hours, though. But again, I have no way of knowing this since I tend to avoid paying attention to that kind of thing (at least right now).

The problem here isn’t that the internet disallows concentration, it’s that its applications are specifically engineered to keep your attention. Facebook isn’t a driver of distraction, it is actually a driver of intense concentration—on Facebook. We haven’t tested this, but I assume that the traffic we see from Facebook is generally of lower duration, because people are likely to flip back over as soon as their next notification pings. So to some extent your question is correct, that our role becomes less to have our own online audience and more to engage with a segment of Facebook’s audience. Which is fine, although lately I think we angered them and we feel like we are being punished by the algorithm. So it takes some of the fun out of that job.

The interesting thing about interacting with audiences online is that you get data back and then tell yourself stories about that data. Like what I just said, it’s just a story. Another story is that it feels like our community likes it when we publish rigorous and meaningful texts even if they don’t read those texts. Which is also fine. At this moment in time, that is what writing for Facebook seems to manifest as: the longread. I wonder what else it can mean, how that might change if we started telling ourselves a different story about our engagement metrics.

In terms of my ego, the internet allows for a sense of false accomplishment. I enjoy the likes and comments that immediately come after publishing something. I find that most people don’t read the articles that I post on social media though, it’s mainly about the headline or the subject matter. I usually feel more accomplished when something gets published in print just because people’s responses seem to be more serious. I feel like this is shifting and I really care about being a part of this shift by doing serious online publishing, but whether I like it or not, something I write in print will be read more seriously than something I publish online.

I do think the web allows me to get closer to my audience or feel a better connection to who my readers are, simply because they can talk back to me. Online, I get validation from my readers and from other journalists. In print, the validation often comes simply from placing a piece in a reputable magazine. I do think most dialogue happens online, these days.

The internet definitely acquaints writers with their audience in an immediate and sometimes not helpful way — obviously, thanks to Twitter and social media it’s possible to see instantly who’s read your piece, what they think about it, and how you fit into a broader conversation — but it’s a very imperfect mirror, one that doesn’t always account for how a piece can reveal its significance over time. I think the internet allows for a better sense of the public — but it also makes it very difficult to perceive scale, and sometimes does a poor job of helping writers find their best readers.

This is a complicated question, in a way. As ‘audience’, ‘public’, and ‘publicity’ have come to possess incredibly different meanings in different spheres, for better or for worse. My first inclination was to say yes, because it is easier to see who is engaging with your work online, on a purely practical level. But as we know, hits, retweets, reblogs, etc. can mean a wide variety of things – it is impossible to know how someone actually engaged with something. Did they even read it? Is this kind of attention what we expect now, because some people will still read the whole thing, and other forms of attention / public are simply a different incarnation that nonetheless generates popularity (or its opposite) that are no less significant or real in terms of their effect in particular arenas. Arguably, this happens with print as well. People read book reviews of books they don’t read, but perhaps pass the information along, or recommend writers as though they have. I think, too, that print attention is flickering – who reads an article more than once or twice? Perhaps it simply feels materially as though it has more longevity.

I have gone off track here, I think, or maybe not answered the question…. But in short, YES, I do think it constitutes an audience. Albeit a reconfigured, far more various one than we currently understand or have a model for.

Roger and I had an interesting experience one time in Los Angeles. We had gone out to launch Paper Monument 3, I think it was, and we had a party at Ooga Booga. There was no reading, and things there are really laid back, so at some point, we realized no one was going to introduce us as the editors. Initially, this seemed like a bit of a slight or a waste—we had come all that way!—but we actually ended up enjoying it. People would talk about the journal right in front of us, and we could hear both the good and the bad in a way we haven’t before.

Publishing online does give you more of a sense of your audience, but I’m not sure it’s a better sense. It would be awful to pretend that each click equals some equivalent unit of reading, or that the number of likes really gauges how well-liked something is. I know that’s the direction we’re heading, but for the kinds of things I’m interested in, the audience has a more nebulous, and more lasting, presence.

I think the internet allows for a better sense of a certain kind of public. Not all publics are interested in engaging with social networks and discussion forums; for instance, the people who respond to reader surveys tend to be the types of people who like to respond to reader surveys. I think those first few hours of online attention can be gratifying or surprising in ways that they’re not in print, but they also have to be taken with a pinch of salt. The lifespan of a magazine article can be a few days, after which they fade into irrelevance, a few weeks, or a few years – sometimes pieces come back into circulation after years. I’m not personally particularly interested in, say, chasing the Jerry Saltz model of writing criticism – fast and loose, with a lively and combative online presence that reacts very speedily to its audience. It just doesn’t interest me as a writer, and doesn’t suit the way I think or write.

I don’t ascribe any importance to social network spread; while it is certainly gratifying to see shared links, ‘likes’, re-tweets, or spiked visitor numbers on your blog, I don’t think it reflects people actually reading. Perhaps noticing, and maybe filing away mentally for another time. Which isn’t to say I’m cynical about readers, but simply that it seems to serve a more social (i.e. seen/being seen/showing public appreciation) function rather than a practical one (i.e. more people getting to read the piece).

It does allow it seems for a *slightly* larger amount of feedback, in that social networks allow a more porous sense of ‘access’ to the writer, but I’m not sure it gives any better picture of who actually makes up ‘my’ audience.

Yes, but I think this can be misleading. Cursory likes or retweets might demonstrate timeliness, but rarely provide much useful feedback.

I’m always surprised by people coming to me to comment this or that piece I might have written – so to that extent, yes. Do these kinds of feedback constitute an active, engaged audience? I’m not sure, but I’m not sure it is any lesser, qualitatively, than readers flicking through a coffee table art magazine, stopping here and there for a piece they might be interested in.

Does publishing online change your approach to any of the following: length of piece, breadth of research, images you include, references to online sources?

Yes, the online format affects all of these aspects. As for length, the web is dangerous for me. When not constrained and with no editorial oversight, I definitely err toward the tl;dr category. I find it almost impossible to write anything less than 900 words in the review/analysis/profile category without a strict word count hovering over my head. I don’t know how to fix this neurotic, verbose tendency, other than writing more <100 word reviews or maybe an exercise in live tweeting. (Currently, I don’t have a Twitter account.)

It’s super easy to take shortcuts and post links online, which makes reporting much easier. When I was Editor of …might be good, an online art journal based in Austin, Texas that came out every two weeks, I was often tasked with writing a topical editor’s letter about developments in Texas — new appointments and things like that. I relied heavily on links to avoid having to do extensive interviews with people. This aspect of print journalism (“original quotes” from sources about things like new jobs or exhibitions that are going to go up six months from now) feels somewhat obsolete with the online format. Why not just post a link to a press release? Or do an interview closer to the time that the exhibition opens and post it right away?

I feel positive about being able to include many more images in pieces online, but I think they should still be used judiciously. I feel really sad when a piece that I worked so hard on becomes a footnote to a zillion-image slideshow. Even worse is when videos are uploaded that are produced by the commissioning institution (for example, a museum-produced video of a show). It completely takes away from the criticism and makes it feel like it’s a footnote to promotional material. I think there are ways to circumvent this — maybe by “footnoting” the promo video, VH1 Pop Up Video style? — but I sincerely doubt an external video production source would allow their footage to be used in that way.

A negative consequence of the long-on-images, long-on-links, short-on-text story is also that it takes away one of the greatest triumphs and challenges of art writing: the pain and pleasure of ekphrasis. The process of writing, for me, helps me to formulate my ideas. I often begin by describing something about the work and find that my mind has changed in the course of writing. The same CERTAINLY holds true of outside theoretical resources. If you can’t summarize the outside source in a way that makes sense in the body of the text, you might just want to skip it altogether. And if your description doesn’t hold up, the reader is going to click the link and go off on their own, abandoning your text. (The same thing is true with footnotes!)

Of course, images can help “ground” a piece that goes off on a tangent about another topic, but in that case, sometimes I don’t necessarily want the piece to be grounded in that way…

Absolutely. My best example has less to do with publishing than pedagogy. I’m teaching my first online course this semester (for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Low-Residency MFA), and we have bi-weekly, written discussions about the readings. These play out as a series of lengthy comments, written by the students and me, which attempt (with varying degrees of success) to simulate a classroom conversation.

In general, my writing leans quite heavily on citations, which mainly reflects my academic training. There’s something passive in how I’ve inculcated this training: I don’t just acknowledge sources, but all too often defer to them. With online teaching, however, the citation becomes the hyperlink, and deference becomes implicitly (or ideally) dialogical, as if a given link can start a conversation or enter into an existing one. This has had a real effect on how I write online, inspiring me to pull more links into the bodies of my text – to accept that a post may be looser in form, but all the richer for it.

Yes and No. Again, depends on the publication, though I would say it certainly doesn’t affect the breadth of research or references to sources, online or off. I would say what changes my approach is actually the working structure of the publication in question: Do they have a robust editorial system? Do they remunerate their writers for their labour or do they take advantage of blogging as a kind of casual labour (which it is not, if you take your craft seriously)? etc.

Yes, from the editorial point of view. We can afford to include more images and prefer to link to online sources. I don’t think that it changes the breadth of research or length of the piece, but I do think it impacts the pace and the structure—online, I think you have to start strong in order to keep a reader; whereas with print, there’s probably a little more trust that the time you invest in reading it will pay off. In that sense, the image selection and placement matters a little more, too. You can’t assume a committed reader in the same way you might if someone purchased an issue. Bottom line, though, is that you choose your reader. It might be fine if 95% of people abandon it after 2 paragraphs but the other 5% see it through and it has a real impact on them.

Yes, always. But the thing I love about online is that as a writer you can also become an editor, so you can experiment and propose different forms of writing, different lengths, and different visual to text strategies not enabled by print culture. Re: research – it’s an ambiguous point, I do the same research for everything I write, basically I only write about shit that I care deeply about.

Usually I won’t be asked to write anything in print unless it is a more substantial piece (in length, breadth of research, and references). That being said, I tend to focus a lot on research, interviews, and correctly sourcing bibliography for digital publications a bit more. Print usually has specific kinds of deadlines for me that usually don’t have the affordance of lingering or delving into something in unexpected ways. With online writing/research I can hold onto an idea for a long time before ever setting out to put thoughts to text. In this way, the research for online pieces tends to be more ongoing, where the research for print pieces tends to be very immediate. I guess it depends though, because sometimes for print I’ll be asked to write something more critical and the editorial staff will ask for some substantiation that I think might not be necessary with a digital publication. But that kind of thing varies from context to context (or publication to publication).

Not necessarily. I mean, the internet has allowed much easier research access, and has allowed me to put my hands on truly obscure primary sources that would have been nearly impossible to source in the past. But I’ve used those sources for both online and print.

One funny thing is that I guess it feels like the collective awareness cited above makes it more likely that I’ll challenge myself to push further than other people would on research, to try and make a meaningful contribution to a topic. But it’s possible that this is the wrong lesson to draw, that the real goal is just to make a tiny contribution.

I feel more liberated in terms of length when I’m writing online. I feel like the internet allows you to write as long as you want, as people are free to scroll or not. Whereas with print, there are so many other considerations and an article that is 10-pages long is somewhat of a turn-off. There is definitely a double standard there somehow! The breadth of research doesn’t change for me. As an online publisher, I feel like I’m very careful with images when I’m publishing online as you need to hit that sweet spot of writing and image balance and the article needs to make sense as a visual object.

References to online sources are much easier when you are publishing online and you can embed as many hyperlinks as you want, diversifying the reader’s experience. I like that a lot about online publishing. You can also direct people to films, video clips, sound recordings, it’s really good to create a multi-dimensional reading/publishing experience.

I tend to refer to more online sources when I write online, and I don’t cite much in print. My online pieces tend to be shorter simply because that seems to be the currency of the web, and I don’t have as much opportunity to write in print. Breadth of research—I am often getting paid more for print and thus can afford more time to research. Online work will always include more multimedia.

Publishing online doesn’t change how I approach an assignment, but where I publish online does. There’s a big difference between writing for an online magazine and a blog. I’ll follow the writerly conventions of a newspaper or magazine whether it’s online or not, and I’ll let myself go a little more if I’m writing for a blog or an email questionnaire like this. I tend to pay more attention to the formal/ideological conventions of a publication than how they choose to present what they do.

I think that exclusively the online element wouldn’t determine my approach to any of these things, so much as the context – i.e. the site, or publication, etc. – for which I was writing, and the guidelines they work within. Which are often, though not necessarily, different from those in print. Given free-reign, say a neutral (ha!) platform to write however I wanted – I would probably be inclined to change very little, though might assume it would be appropriate to cut down on length and breadth, as these are the things I struggle with – re: attention – when reading online.

Length is the main structural aspect that I feel more relaxed about online – there is no graphic design grid or page number that puts parameters around how much I can write. That said, I don’t believe in using all that space to ramble on indefinitely – I always try to err on the side of concision rather than digression where possible. As for breadth of research and references, I don’t see why one would pay any less attention to that online that one would in print. Regarding images, there’s scope to include more (as there is greater flexibility with word lengths) and images of different quality – the issue with print is one of resolution, which isn’t so much of a concern (and is even a feature of certain types of image) online.

I think that the trope of online writing – essentially a form of public diaristic commentary, with added hyperlinks – is there, and that has come to be expected by writer and reader: shorter, less research, referencing only online sources. I consciously try to avoid this, and keep a tone and atmosphere that would sit in either. It my be delusional on my part.

That said, of several online articles, one was commissioned as a ‘Postcard From…’ on a blog, in which writers report from a location travelled to; the editor encouraged including how you got somewhere, and images taken while on the road, things I would never otherwise incorporate into my writing. So there has been cases where the publishing host has called on parts of the blog trope.

In order: generally shorter; more breadth, less depth; more images; more references to online sources (via hyperlinks, embeds).

The length of the piece really depends on the outlet. Online publishing often comes with an accelerated publishing schedule. Everything has become more compressed, a site has to change a lot to be seen as active, which creates an insatiable demand for content. This leads logically (and very unfortunately) to smaller research and editing time. The importance of things like images and headlines, i.e. the whole “package” around the piece itself, is exacerbated since these are often what will trigger the click.

Let’s talk about attention: do you feel like you pay just as much attention to the things you read online as in print? Does your personal experience the online publications you read/write for/edit in any way affect the way you write online?

HDWWWWWO

Friedrich Nietzsche ordered one of the first portable typewriters, a writing ball (‘the “laptop” of that time’) from the Danish company Malling-Hansen in 1882. The philosopher’s eyesight was failing and on the writing ball he could type with his eyes closed. He even wrote an ode to what he called the ‘writing machine’. When a friend noted that Nietzsche’s writing style has consequently changed, he replied, ‘You are right. Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts’. 1 Jack Kerouac typed On the Road on one long roll of paper, so as to never have to change the sheet and enter into the world’s ‘inauthenticity’. Mark Twain composed the first book written on a typewriter (Life on the Mississippi in 1883), but apparently also wrote a letter to the Remington Company saying that he no longer wished to use it, since the typewriter made him swear a lot, corrupting his morals.  2 Unsurprisingly, Nietzsche was right: technology shapes our ways of communication. If that is a given, maybe it’s time to look beyond the effect and examine the results.

The methodology of this essay is to rely on the other half of this page: I use a number of quotes culled from the respondents’ answers to my questions, but mainly, I read all of their answers with enormous curiosity, highlighting certain sections, expressions, and attitudes, and realized what divergent experiences they had when writing online and how those informed very different sets of expectations. ‘How do we write when we write online?’ was a comment I left for myself in drafts of numerous essays, one I could never really answer. At times it was in retaliation for my reliance on hyperlinks, or written in response to an inflated word count. It reflects my feeling that my writing is different when meant for online circulation, but in a way I could never exactly pinpoint. It had to do with style and voice, but also a sense of the online audience, the measurability of that audience, the ongoing conversations about online attention, funding structures, the word ‘content’, the importance of likes and retweets and the stakes involved in the creation of more text online.

Opening an essay about the internet by writing about a typewriter is a quaint way of acknowledging what many others have already said better: that technology informs the way we live. I learned about Nietzsche and his typewriter-ball, for example, from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, where he discusses the literal impact the internet has had on our brains. But the goal of this essay is not to add to the literature on the internet’s impact on our lives. Rather, it’s an attempt to sketch where we are now and to call for new forms of engagement with the web when writing and reading. There are a couple reasons for the relative focus on writing about contemporary art. First, contemporary art writing is the context I think about most and it is one that I believe is a good space for any thoughtful writer to experiment. But a cultural production lens (rather than writing about journalism, for example, or social networking) also allows thinking about the internet on a very different scale. Few cultural outlets could invest the kind of money that is required to develop a Snow Fall – the Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times article that uses the digital platform to its full potential (as of 2012, that is: The hand-coded article, featuring interactive graphics, sound, video, and text took months to create). But fifty per cent of arts organizations in the United States maintain a blog, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center report. The internet clearly has an impact on the way we read; what is the flipside of that? What kind of influence does it have on the way we write? And what kind of impact will it have on the creation of new textual – critical, literary – forms?

Where we are now: scale, distribution, style

To examine online publishing raises concerns related to the internet’s financial structure, but also the way attention and relevance are gained and lost online. Overproduction, for example, happens on certain sites because of the limited shelf life of an online article: It is circulated through social networks on the day that it is published, and if it fails to garner attention, it’ll be pushed down the page or rotated out of the homepage. But the larger question is, what does it even mean to overproduce online? Any given newspaper publishes dozens of articles per day, oftentimes more than it ever published in print, whereas a site that emphasises longer analyses may choose to publish once a week, and if pressed to run a second essay quickly, will feel like the two pieces in a week took a toll on both articles’ attention. Still, there’s a clear sense of overproduction online, a reaction to the sheer scale of the web. It would take over a thousand years to view the total running time of videos posted on YouTube over its ten years of existence. That’s an impressive number. And numbers create revenue.

Arguably, one of the internet’s most ubiquitous phenomena is clickbait. The economy of the internet revolves around analysing clicks and time spent on a page for advertising purposes, but an unexpected result of the tendency toward quick-to-consume content that attracts many people (so you could show your advertisers the amazing numbers of visits) is that it is as easily consumed as it is easy to leave. It’s become trite to complain about the minimal time readers spend on any given website. But after being lured by a clickbait heading – ‘You’d Never Believe What Happened When…’ – readers are on the site and they need to be kept there. That thing better involve a lot of links leading readers through your site (so as to increase the pages per viewer and decrease the bounce rate), images, video, and so on. This system works so well that even a site meant to satirize it – The Onion’s Clickhole – is successful clickbait. But what does the pace of this culture do to writing?

Overproduction stems from the web’s analytics-driven economy, but also from a certain misconception about the fast pace of the internet. Because of the technical capability to upload and publish a text as soon as it is done, writers believe that the work process is mainly theirs. The role of the web editor is to format, proofread, upload and publish, unlike the print editor, who engages in a back-and-forth dialogue with the writer. The need to work quickly takes away from the slow process of understanding through writing that many writers know. (Wendy Vogel: ‘A negative consequence of the long-on-images, long-on-links, short-on-text story is also that it takes away one of the greatest triumphs and challenges of art writing: the pain and pleasure of ekphrasis.’) But beyond rapid filing dates and the need for ever more content to populate websites, the pace we have come to associate with the internet also means that writers who want to reach a wider audience may need to simplify their ideas in order to not only reach more viewers, but also to keep them on the page. The kind of writing that print allows – slow, considered – is either discouraged or fetishised online.

The fixation with essayistic writing online has a name: longform. Since the term came into widespread use around 2011, longform has been introduced as the past of online writing (it is an older, more established form that does not involve linkbait or any other kind of ‘snacking’, as quick-to-consume content is sometimes called) and its future (since longform seems to generate a lot of interest, as well as investment in digital media companies that produce it), but never as its present. Part of the anxiety around the longform is rooted in its proximity to recognizable modes of journalism, especially the magazine feature. Is longform, a term that started from a hashtag, too big of an umbrella for ‘creative nonfiction’? Or is it just the word for that kind of writing when it ends up on the internet? In other words, it remains to be seen whether longform is an adjective or a genre. Is longform, a term that started from a hashtag, too big of an umbrella for ‘creative nonfiction’? Or is it just the word for that kind of writing when it ends up on the internet? In other words, it remains to be seen whether longform is an adjective or a genre. Is longform, a term that started from a hashtag, too big of an umbrella for ‘creative nonfiction’? Or is it just the word for that kind of writing when it ends up on the internet? In other words, it remains to be seen whether longform is an adjective or a genre.

The average time spent on BuzzFeed’s longer commissioned nonfiction pieces (they refer to them as ‘features’ or ‘buzzreads’) is 10 minutes and 23 seconds, twice the site’s (already high) average. With a winning tone, BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith wrote about his site’s investment in editorial, stressing that magazine-style features are ‘unlikely’ to survive in the (dying) industry of print magazines, but rather would migrate to sites such as BuzzFeed, Medium, and First Look Media (the other two had also hired dedicated ‘longform editors’ in the past two years). Smith is right to recognize that readers spend over ten minutes on an article not because of its length but in spite of it, but BuzzFeed’s features section still wears tl;dr (‘too long; didn’t read’, a hashtag common on social media for links shared based on content and title alone) like a badge of honor. Forget embedding videos, hyperlinks, and all that stuff – we are committed to the text, is the impression Smith gives. Yes, it’s long. And if readers make it to the end, that’s a ‘deep satisfaction’, and if they don’t, then it’s a reminder that ‘a clunky transition can simply lose a reader.’ Now go figure BuzzFeed’s editorial style.

Losing readers is worrisome in an internet economy based on metrics. Even those sites that don’t need to report to advertisers look at analytics data in order to understand readers’ engagement. ‘At this moment in time, that is what writing for Facebook seems to manifest as: the longread,’ says editor Michael Connor. Tl;dr is an aspect of distribution, as is ‘writing for Facebook’. Neither signals any true engagement that goes beyond numbers and most of the people who responded to the questions in this project expressed doubts about the significance of likes, faves and retweets beyond instant gratification. I would argue, however, that the social web offers a more meaningful, measurable form of engagement than unique visit counts: it activates a small, particularly engaged public (the one intrigued enough to participate in an online conversation, even if it is only 140 characters long) and makes the writer accountable to his or her public directly.

But who is that public? One of the promises of the internet is that audiences form organically around what they are interested in, and so any online publication has a natural audience that will find it via search, social networks, links and so on. 3But this does not liberate any writer or publisher from the internet’s scale and the expectations related to it. Merve Unsal brings up the extremely pertinent idea that ‘being read by 50 people a day online is seen as an underachievement, whereas having a circulation of 500 monthly for a print publication is acceptable. We need to support niche online publications and not underestimate their achievement of having 50 people come back consistently!’.

A modestly circulated online publication could provide its writers with a newfound freedom to write as much as they want about subjects that may not appeal to a wide audience. But a modest distribution also means a modest budget, and with it, in all probability, less of an ability to employ the web’s technical possibilities in any novel way. And we haven’t developed many novel ways – as the above example of Snow Fall attests. The fact that it was hand-coded, rather than coding a new platform or system that could create other, custom-made Snow Falls, exemplifies the enormous investment the New York Times made, but also that that type of technical innovation may not be the newspaper’s first priority at the moment, because they are labour intensive and expensive. At the moment, in smaller magazines technical possibilities are exemplified in using more images than they would in print, embedding videos, and hyperlinking profusely. Which is not only not enough, it also breeds new problems. Many of the participants in this project had pointed to the trouble with links: that what we always thought was positive, productive, a new way of thinking, can actually become a new form of laziness. Dan Fox: ‘Online allows for a certain kind of show-and-tell shorthand – for instance, you could write online “the painting was almost as bad as this” and have a link through to an image, whereas in print you need to spell things out a bit more.’

Writing for a platform that supports hyperlinking (in other words, not a print publication and not an app) often results in very referential writing. In the best-case scenario a reader will look up all those links in separate tabs, creating a new way through a network of thinking that is horizontal like the browser window: one thing leads to another, links are saved, new connections made. In the worst-case, however, hyperlinking masks an inability to describe, which seems especially worrisome in the context of the visual arts. Linking to YouTube or even embedding a video does not constitute describing it, or commenting on it. The process merely shifts content from one context to another, or lets the link do the writer’s work. Links also oftentimes replace citations, doing away with long-developed standards of crediting work and avoiding plagiarism. All in all, links have generated a culture of writing described succinctly by Ben Eastham: ‘more breadth, less depth’.

People used to measure influence by column space: ‘34 inches of coverage!’ Now that unit has become time. As if writing has morphed into television, we measure time spent engaging and have introduced a new prime time slot: 13:00–14:00 on weekdays. The emphasis on time spent online and on writers’ quick turnaround has created an obsession with the new, which may not necessarily be founded in reality. When asked in an interview where the most innovative writing finds a home online these days, Choire Sicha, founder of The Awl (a home for longform writing) replied: ‘I would say the most fascinating and challenging writing is happening on GroupMe, Hipchat, IRC, Campfire, maybe Snapchat and Whisper and then on the more conversational corners of Tumblr and maybe sometimes Twitter, but not that often, because Twitter is for the olds’. The assumption that the mere existence of these technologies will create new forms of writing is superficial and it also points to a youth obsession on the internet. If Twitter is for the old, that is why, perhaps, we see more interest in Twitter in traditional literary modes than platforms associated with younger users or that have a less public face. Twitter users create essays that span over time, with each tweet functioning almost as a pull-quote in a magazine article, and poetry (see, for example, Olivia Rosane’s Internet as Literature, and actually, much of her writing for The State, which examines the literary possibilities of online writing).

All of the above – technical innovation, circulation, relationships to older forms, the publishing economy – inform the creation of a style. At the moment, online writing style revolves around a number of familiar forms. Longform is one of the most prevalent designations to emerge among writing meant for the web. Other forms are blogs, listicles and social diaries. Like longform, all of these relate to older examples of writing and publishing: the social diary is as old as society and is clearly still a form that interests people, from celebrity gossip to Artforum’s ‘Scene and Herd’ (an interesting, if flattering, precursor to could be found in Proust’s conflation of writing about art and society for Le Figaro  4). The listicle is also prevalent in print publishing (the obvious example is fleshed out in the Wikipedia page for ‘listicle’: a cover of Cosmopolitan which promises ‘10 Shocking Truths About Guys & Sex’). Lists generate traffic and even though they are specific to certain kinds of publications, they participate in the creation of an internet-specific voice, the kind that’s also prevalent in blogs (see Jessica Loudis’ comment about the internet voice: ‘it’s very distinctive and valuable in its way’). That voice is quick to react to news or gossip, uses vernacular, is hyper aware of its location on the internet (and as a result, uses hyperlinks) and is very comfortable switching between social media and longer pieces of writing (see: Hyperallergic, Art F City). The term ‘voice’ could easily be replaced with ‘style’ in this context. The term ‘voice’ could easily be replaced with ‘style’ in this context.

Though the vernacular voice may be the most recognizable stylistic tropes of online publishing, social networks and blogging platforms, what does its inverse – the slow web – look like? It doesn’t have to look ‘printed’, like Triple Canopy’s old horizontal scroll (as beloved as it was by many, this writer included), but it should be inspired by print forms and expand on them to create new forms. The incessant conversation about time and space, for example, could have inspired a return to publishing fiction in serial form (a very newspaper-oriented style, actually), which could generate continuous traffic to a site but also create a high-brow, punchy literary voice on the internet since, as we learned from BuzzFeed, clunky transitions can cost you a reader. But serial publication does not have to mean quickness, either: seriality could mean a constant addition to research, as oftentimes happens with online resources, which continuously add material 5.

There is – and there is room for – a slow web.There is – and there is room for – a slow web. The changing habits of readers promote slow, considered writing online. Read-it-later apps like Pocket and Instapaper were described by the founder of Pocket as ‘essentially the article’s second chance’, since they improve the likelihood that any saved article will be read, rather than just seen. Writing for an app, or keeping in mind a smartphone reader, necessitates taking away a lot of the bells and whistles of embedding videos, images, sound files and so on. What are we left with? Essentially, a style that is very close to traditional publishing; it means that styles like longform may ‘excel on the internet, but are not necessarily inherent to it’, as Nicholas O’Brien said. And that’s not a bad thing: it’s a response to the constant obsession with the new.

At the end of content

When the terminology of Web 2.0 was popularized in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it opened a door (or a can of worms) to a new world online, one in which everyone is contributing and hardly anyone is remunerated. Much has been written about the social web and unremunerated work (check this out), but even the turn toward professionalising online genres, especially the blog, did little to promote experimentation with new forms.

Blogs have updated and expanded the idea of the memoir to create a new term that uncomfortably encompasses personal, diaristic writing and cultural criticism. The two types of writing do not necessarily appear in the same places (though sometimes they do), but the proliferation of blogs means that more and more outlets rely on non-professional writers to add content to their sites. And professionally written blogs, especially on established print-media sites where these chronicles are billed as ‘web-only’ content, did little to provide a model for non-professional writers or improve the reputation of the blog. Rather than being perceived as quicker, off-the-cuff pieces that react to a text, an event, or news in a direct, immediate way, blogs are thought of as sloppier, unedited work. With the shift from what was initially a network of independent forms of publishing to an economic model (think political blog based in DC, think lifestyle blog written by a young urban professional), blogs have shifted from a new, exciting format in which wayward, hard-to-pinpoint writers could excel in writing outside the boundaries of genre (think Donald Barthelme), to something we have come to frame as an offhand form, taking away one of the most interesting possibilities of writing that the internet has given rise to. What happened to the blog? Its form was assimilated into more official outlets and its attitude migrated to social networks.

What’s next for online publishing? There are a number of other forms that have developed online and like the blog, are not used to their full potential. The first and foremost is bacn (“the email you want to read – just not now”). e-flux, for example, gained cultural and monetary value by creating what is essentially a mailing list to disseminate press releases. But, under the aegis of their parallel platform Art-Agenda, they also send out long, edited reviews of a standard identical to print magazines. More and more information is being sent into our mailboxes and we read it: research at Mailchimp, the automated email marketing service, for example, states that 18 to 30 per cent of emails they send are opened (the percentage depends on industry, with eCommerce at 17.35 per cent and Hobbies at 30.71. Arts and artists, by the way, are high up there with 27.97 per cent of emails opened). The intimacy of material sent directly to inboxes could create a new style that is straightforward, aware of its audience and experimental in its forms of engagement. What is and isn’t uploaded to the sender’s site, or archive? What do you keep between you and your readers? Can they reply? Listservs were a very early internet form that were almost abandoned with the creation of discussion forums. Since we use the internet mostly for communication (via emails, social media, online discussion spaces, or any other form), discourse should trigger new ways of writing and communicating online. Consider the comments section of internet forums, where the public assumes the online persona, as analogous to an opera in which the spectators come in full costume. The sphere of online discourse sometimes feels like a kind of Rocky Horror Picture Show in which everyone involved assumes all roles. Commentators on websites ‘could have done it better’, writers are linking to the texts that inspire them and most people use that snarky style born out of the comment option. These sections are so infamous for uncontrolled language that many sites now employ moderators. Maybe bacn is a way forward to a more intimate internet. It also will create new space for a publication that, like Merve Unsal says above, can cater to 50 people a day.

Like almost everything else online, bacn is mainly used for advertising, the oil that greases the web economy. The idea of bacn-as-publishing is totally useless financially, but maybe we should keep certain things financially unstable. The belief that there is money to be made on the internet has led to overcapitalising on platforms that weren’t considered extremely profitable before – even if they were stable – like art publishing. As we develop new forms of writing online, many of them will be commercialised. A perfect example is the idea of annotations: when we talk about networked thinking, we usually think of the hyperlink, but one exciting prospect is the idea of the online annotation. Any text online could be layered with annotations – they could be private, semi-public (shared), or totally public, depending on a site’s settings or a browser add-on. This could create a completely different way of reading, researching and working collaboratively online, and a whole new way of writing in response to other texts. One company is already experimenting with this idea, paying writers to annotate such things as sports news and Shakespeare sonnets. They also raised $40 million, which means that whatever form their annotations application takes, it will be profit-oriented.

A large number of the respondents to my questions above rightly asserted that writing is not influenced by whether it is online or in print, but by the venue in which it is published. Writing for the New Yorker’s site is a very different context than writing a BuzzFeed advertorial, though both are online and circulate via social networks. In a way, it’s impossible to disagree with Nicholas O’Brien’s initial reaction that ‘certain types of coding are the only inherent writing forms native to the internet’. They are also mostly remunerated forms. The economy of the internet and the language that developed on it are interlinked. When thinking about online writing and publishing, we need to think about the parallel development of new forms and new business models. The origins of many styles are in financial structures: Remington, the famous typewriter producer, is an arms manufacturer who searched for new metal-based technology to develop following a short period in the mid-19th century in which there were no major wars in Europe, which led to a short drop in purchases of firearms. The phenomenon that would lead to a new landscape of online publishing is saturation. On with the snacking, an intellectually nutritious internet means advancing publishing platforms that engage readers on a smaller scale and no longer depend on free labour (and are hopefully not be organized by large corporations). Style will follow.

Essay and project by Orit Gat.

Notes:

  1. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), 19.
  2. Joan Acocella, “The Typing Life,” The New Yorker (April 9, 2007) and Josh Jones, “Mark Twain Wrote the First Book Ever Written on a Typewriter,” Open Culture (March 15, 2013).
  3. There’s a very interesting moment in former BuzzFeed editor Steve Kandell’s article against longform where he talks about how the website’s features are constructed specifically to find their own audience online rather than ‘hit a specific magazine’s voice or imagined reader’. See Steve Kandell, ‘Who Needs Paper? What I Learned from a Year of Doing Features at Buzzfeed’.
  4. Amazingly, a quick Google search of Proust and Le Figaro brings forth an article from the newspaper about Proust’s contribution over the years, in which writer Etienne de Montety describes some of the same stylistic contradictions between literature and newspaper journalism that I am discussing in relation to the shift from print to online: ‘Proust at the Figaro. Can you imagine a more improbable collaboration than the most literary, most unaffected-by-reality writer, and a national daily newspaper? On the one hand, the fast pace that information necessitates, the brevity that the constraints of the page impose. On the other, the procrastination, the constant reassessment of phrases, unending and superb. The quilling of tireless rewrites.’ Etienne de Montety, ‘Proust, chroniqueur au Figaro. (Translation mine.)
  5. Topical addition: clearly, I am not the only one thinking in these terms – the creators of NPR’s ‘This American Life’ have recently introduced the podcast Serial, which has garnered a lot of attention.