The value of online writing today

I’ve been thinking lately about what value long-form writing has in the current internet era, which is dominated by a combination of video (e.g. YouTube), images (e.g. Instagram), ‘in the moment’ multimedia (e.g. Snapchat, TikTok) and the black and white opinions prevalent on social media (e.g. Twitter, Facebook).

There are two key aspects of the apps I listed above:

  1. They are mostly visual (images, video, other forms of multimedia). Even when text is still important, such as Twitter and Facebook, if you’re not using emoji and GIFs…well, you’re doing it wrong.
  2. The content is short-form (and typically short term, as well).

I have to admit, I am not optimized for either of those two internet trends. The way I personally explore and absorb ideas is through writing; and typically long-form writing.

This way of thinking has always been a part of my DNA. I was an avid reader as a child and later majored in English Literature (many early webheads did, I discovered later – probably because there were no other jobs for us!).

But it wasn’t until I discovered blogging in the early 2000s that I found my true vocation in life.

Over the past couple of decades, I’ve found that blogging has improved my ability to think through complex topics. Primarily by the process of researching and writing, but also by reading other bloggers. Part of the beauty of blogging is that it’s a two-way street: what you read from other people often inspires thoughts of your own.

That’s just the amateur side of blogging (nothing wrong with being an amateur blogger btw; it’s what I’m doing right now). Long-form writing has also greatly informed and influenced my career. In a way, I ‘think through writing’ for a living.

As I look back on my career in digital media so far, there’s been a slow but sure progression in how I approach and analyze new internet technology (my chosen field of interest).

When I was first starting out, I was a ‘technical writer.’ Well, my actual job title was ‘Knowledge Management Consultant’, which sounded fancier – but basically I was documenting technical systems. So at that point in my life, still young and learning the ropes, I was focused on documentation.

I then moved on to become a ‘Web Manager’ for a couple of local corporations – basically managing their internet and intranet sites. My role encompassed other creative things too – like web design – but on the writing side I was still mostly documenting things. Primarily the company’s products on the public website, and its business processes on the intranet.

I started blogging in the early 2000s, and by that point I was confident enough to express in writing my opinions (called takes in today’s world) about new technology. This came about because I actively sought out what was new on the internet, read up on it as much as I could, and – most importantly – began networking with industry people who were working at the cutting edge of new tech. Many of them, it turned out, were in Silicon Valley…which I mention because I’m in New Zealand, so it was proved to me early on that it really is a World Wide Web.

The site I founded in 2003, ReadWriteWeb, became known for its in-depth analysis of web technology. My online writing style quickly formed as I built up RWW. I wrote usually fairly long articles (at least in comparison with some of the other tech bloggers I got to know in the first several years of RWW), I took a product-focused view of startups (as opposed to coming at it from a VC/money perspective), and I liked to take a high-level look at the trends shaping the internet (what I soon crystalized as my ongoing theme: ‘what’s next on the web’).

After I sold RWW at the end of 2011 and left the site in 2012, I extended my writing career in other ways – writing a nonfiction book, then a fiction one, and becoming a columnist for NZ mainstream news media. Most recently, I joined The New Stack as Senior Editor and began a weekly column there.

This is my typically long way of saying: I’m a writer first and foremost, and have been ever since I started my internet career as a Technical Writer back in the late 1990s. But there has also been an evolution in my writing – and thinking – over that time. And that evolution has been profoundly shaped by the practice of blogging.

But of course, times change. And blogging isn’t the center of the online media ecosystem any more. Nor, as it happens, is long-form writing. The proverbial – and literal in the case of Facebook – writing was on the wall when social media began to ramp up from about 2009 on. Services like Facebook and Twitter favored much shorter, attention-grabbing content. Then over the 2010s, multimedia formats began to predominate on these platforms – leading to GIF-heavy video and image apps like Instagram and TikTok.

The modern app that has always made the least sense to me, as a writer and active archivist of my content over time, is Snapchat. Why? Because your content disappears after you post it – on purpose. It can’t get any more short term than that. I understand why this appeals to younger generations, who are escaping their snooping Facebook-addicted parents. But Snapchat isn’t for me.

This shift in how people create and consume content on the internet has fundamentally changed how we form and express ideas and opinions. What we think of as narrative today has been shaped by social media in particular, to the detriment of what blogs turned out to be good at – which is arguing a point of view in a mostly text article.

Look no further than the format Snapchat pioneered and Instagram later copied: “stories”. That term has a long history in journalism, among other industries. When I was running RWW, me and my team would use that term every day – “I’m working on a story about RSS Readers,” and so on. But now when you say the word “story” in online media, people probably think you’re talking about an ephemeral 30-second or so selection of GIF-annotated photos and videos that you just put up on Instagram.

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that there isn’t value in the type of story you find on Instagram or Snapchat. The best of these stories are an art form all their own; and can indeed tell a fascinating narrative story.

What I find most problematic in today’s internet era is the groupthink that predominates on social media – especially Twitter and Facebook. Independent thought is not embraced on these platforms, because it either gets shouted down by the mob or (if you happen to have a lot of followers) everything you tweet is greeted by a barrage of ‘likes’. Even if you don’t consciously post things that either appeal to the mob or aim to antagonize it, subconsciously you become addicted to the ‘likes’ and attention – it changes how you write, and it changes how you think (or don’t think, as the case may be).

There’s also something disturbing to me about the tone of social media and how words are deployed. It’s too easy to take an extreme position on a topic, or exaggerate something in order to get attention. Sadly, I think this has influenced many columnists at major news media companies. I am a digital subscriber to The New York Times, for instance, but I dislike and avoid the opinion section. Indeed if I scan the headlines (‘Opinion’ spreads down the right-hand site of NYTimes.com) it looks just like my Twitter timeline. That’s because almost all those articles were written primarily to stir up attention on social media.

I’m not all ‘get off my lawn!’ about social apps. Twitter has been an awesome networking and research tool in my career; and I’ve come to appreciate that it’s also a valuable societal platform for people less privileged than me. There was no better platform to listen to and absorb the messages – and lessons – flowing in from the tragic George Floyd incident over the past couple of weeks, than Twitter. As for Facebook, I still value and appreciate it as a way to keep in touch with family and real-world friends.

So I use social media, but I don’t find value in it either as a writer or a reader. Whereas I used to find value in blogging – and the blogosphere as a whole – as both a reader and a writer.

I’m trying to find value in blogging again, this year, by occasionally writing down my thoughts about digital media and tech here on richardm106.sg-host.com. Who knows if anyone will read it, but I’m not really after attention or likes…I’m just doing it for me at this point, and maybe it’ll have value down the road for someone else.

Lead image by Monoar Rahman Rony from Pixabay