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’. 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. 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. But 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 ). 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 .
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.