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Writing Is More Than Useful
Or at least it should be.
Around the turn of the new year, I received a short email. It read:
On this day, in 2006 you registered in LiveJournal! Share this news with your friends!
(That LiveJournal still exists, btw. My wife was one of my only readers and commenters back then, when we were 16-years-old and just friends.)
I just turned 32-years-old a few months ago. This means, when you include the Xanga blog I started couple of years before my LiveJournal, I’ve been writing online for over half of my life.
The Xanga led to the LiveJournal which led to a group Wordpress which led to a college scholarship which led to an education which led to a career and personal life full of writing online. I never would have imagined my adolescent hobby of writing on the internet in 2003-2009 would have led me to where I’m at. But here we are.
Over the years I’ve written about a lot of different things online. I’ve written public journal entires. I’ve written reflections on faith and life. I’ve written about millennials’ relationship with faith. I’ve written about social media and our relationship with it. I’ve written about how to write online. I’ve written about how to build a social media platform while guarding against narcissism and deception. And a time is coming, probably quite soon, where I won’t write much at all online, at least for a while anyway. I’m scared of that, but hopeful for it all the same.
Last year I read Kate Eichhorn’s little book Content from The MIT Press Essential Knowledge series. It’s a wonderful little book, and I highly recommend it if internet content and the culture around it fascinates you at all.
In Content, Eichhorn has an entire chapter dedicated to “content farms,” and this is probably my favorite chapter in the book.
She writes a lot about clickbait, the beginnings of AdSense, and other factors that led to a transformation of writing in the late 1990s and early 2000s. She explains how career websites were an especially lucrative place for advertisements on the early internet, and that readers were sort of deceived by these websites. She writes on page 68:
For example, a reader might think she has stumbled across a site with fantastic information about how to become a teacher or an engineer. In fact, most career sites were made with an entirely different purpose in mind—namely, to create a space in which to place AdSense advertisements and generate revenue for the domain owner. This doesn’t necessarily mean the content is always bad—sometimes it is good enough—but the error is assuming that the content was generated with the purpose of sharing information about becoming a teacher or an engineer or anything else.
What is most interesting about this phenomenon, in my view, is not the basic facts that career websites existed primarily to farm ad revenue rather than provide a service. That’s interesting, but that’s just sort of how ad-based businesses work.
What is most interesting to me about this phenomenon is the deeper truth that it reveals: we don’t care why something exists online, as long as it serves our needs.
In the early 2000s, someone looking for a job would have come across a job board and been “annoyed by the ads on this career website” without actually realizing that it was actually a virtual billboard cosplaying as a career website.
As someone who likes writing, writes books, and works for a publisher, I think about writing a lot. I don’t really claim to be a “good” writer, even if I recognize I’m probably more proficient and efficient than most. Claiming to be a good writer feels a little bit like claiming to be a good parent: wrong even if it’s right.
Because I care about writing and I’ve devoted virtually my whole career to writing on the internet, it concerns me that writing seems to be measured more by its usefulness than its heart.
Writing is both a science and an art, to be fair. But in a world obsessed with science and what we can verifiably observe, I fear we threaten beautiful writing when it is not as useful as we think it ought to be.
Of course it’s good for writing to be useful. I’m not one to suggest that it shouldn’t be. But I do hope that we might want writing to be more than useful.
Our relationship with the internet has changed a lot about us, about our relationships with each other, and our relationship with the wider world. I, like many, fear that our relationship with the internet has changed us in more harmful ways than helpful ways. I think one of the ways the internet has deformed us is by how it has led us to measure writing by its utility rather than its beauty.
We shouldn’t let that be.