Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Edit 2/12/09: A few comments have reminded me that like any claims about writing, this shouldn't be taken as the only kind of valid writing. A good website needs to host a huge variety of styles to to keep up the best of both ways to generate traffic.
I try to avoid using statcounter. I had to install the program to this blog to check out a hypothesis I had on traffic and links and now it sits there, tempting me. The hellish quest to find personal validation through people reading your blog is about as fulfilling as trying to win an argument on the internet. I don’t have to take the numbers personally since most of this stuff just links to my stuff on Popmatters, but it still generates a really bad habit in me: living from post to post.
Since I don’t really have any constraints on what I write, I decided a while ago to test out a combination of ideas about writing on the internet in the long term. The first is something Alan Moore said that I still puzzle over: our culture is transforming from a liquid into vapor. To summarize the analogy, centuries ago information and knowledge was both so rare and required so much work that specialization was necessary. A person who was a doctor had studied medicine all their lives, a scholar studied a particular field, and so on. They didn’t really overlap, except for philosophers who dabbled in a bit of everything. The printing press, combined with urban areas that enabled distribution of documents, began to shift culture from being a solid into a liquid. Ideas from alien fields could be mixed because someone could just read a book on the subject and relate to it. What Moore was commenting on was that due to the internet, that cross-pollination is beginning to occur much more rapidly. Just look at a website like Boing Boing: science post, literature post, everything should be free post, law, theory, science, gardening, funny video, steam punk. Whereas people would create an organized journal to discuss and espouse these ideas, the journal is now combining multiple fields. Obviously newspapers did this all before but it was liquid then: everything was broken into sections and they didn’t overlap. On the internet, the information is zapped through quick blurbs and twitters. We’re absorbing all of it, science, art, philosophy, in one big flow instead of organized sections.
The second was an observation made by Amazon’s CEO on Web 2.0 culture: you don’t advertise a product, you create a system that can fulfill any request. In application to writing on the internet, it means you stop treating your writing like a product. Most people still do it the old way, writing out an interesting story and then watching the clicks. Whether for money or personal validation, treating your writing like a product basically boils down to writing something that will generate the most response and interest from people at that precise moment. The problem with this approach is that it still relies on our culture operating like a liquid. You are still presuming that people are accessing your writing out of curiosity or common interest, that you have enticed or appealed to them somehow.
Let’s go through a hypothetical. I want to know about Prince of Persia. I google it. Ubisoft’s page, Wikipedia, IGN, IMDB, etc. etc. What are the reasons you don’t click on those links? Ubisoft’s website is just going to be commercial fluff. Wikipedia is something I personally use, but it’s unreliable because it can’t be held accountable for errors and its shallow. IGN is commercial fluff, IMDB is useful but limited in scope. The solution to this is obviously to narrow your search but…how? You google Prince of Persia and then add a connector that’s usually a trusted source. Prince of Persia and The Escapist, Prince of Persia and Edge Magazine, etc. The opening for the writer, for the entrepreneur, is in the connector term. The habit you are locking into with vapor culture is realizing that the people who live post to post are going to get lost in the long game. You can’t possibly keep up with every news event, every game, every film that comes out. What you can do instead is create a body of writing whose individual components can be accessed at any time and stand independently. When someone who is reading a science essay wants to bark a reference about a movie essay which depends on a philosophical argument, they are going to do this exact process. You have to become a trusted resource, not a day to day product.
There are pros and cons to writing like this. In order to make sure my stuff is going to age well, I typically build up a huge collection of posts and then let them cook. What seemed brilliant 2 months ago will often not seem quite so sharp when I decide it’s time to post. Almost all of my essays get overhauled and repaired with new info and better sources when I look at them 2 months later. Sometimes I’ll do a complete 180 and change my opinion by picking up on a flaw in my thinking. Writer’s Block is also not really a problem for me because I always have something to post. I’ll often go a week or two without writing one, focusing on other projects, having a social life, or just getting out of the house for a bit. It also means I can juggle school with writing part-time.
The problem, as you’ve probably guessed, is that I have no idea if any of this is going to work. People may change the way they access information in the future or dinosaurs might take over the planet. All I’ve done is connect a few dots on how people currently consume information and started writing in a way that supports this method. I try to pick topics that will also be interesting to a person years from now, but if I was psychic I’d go buy a lottery ticket. I also doubt I’ll see much money from it but like I said, you can do this on top of a job. And finally…this is going to take a very long time. My plan is to operate like this until I finish school (May 2010) and then make a decision about how successful this approach has been. The more I watch the statcounter figures though, the more I’m seeing people access my older stuff at random while my day to day work stays at a steady pace.
In other words, I’m writing to establish a higher quality long tail and then banking on the notion that THIS, provided I put enough energy into it, will become more viable than writing post to post.
A great deal of this thinking comes from law school and the techniques used in the stuff I read all day. A Judge, when writing a solution to a complex problem, fully expects people to be reading that case decades from then because many courts will still consider it the definitive method for solving a legal issue. As I was reading the other critics for the trilogy of articles on game criticism, I also began to realize that I was approaching their writing in the same way. I read Pauline Kael’s review of Star Wars because I wanted to know what she thought of it. I read Samuel Johnson’s essay on Julius Caesar because it’s my favorite Shakespeare play and Johnson usually has something interesting to say. What I’m getting at is that if culture is now overlapping to such a degree that everything is mixing together constantly, you’ve got to make your own work more solid and accessible than ever before. You’ve got to quit trying to keep up with the storm and instead make a safe harbor from it.