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    How Writing Is Losing to Metrics in the Online Content Wars

    Written by

    Tommy Dean

    To gauge a website’s success or the success of a publication that utilizes it, one must look at metrics: clicks, views, shares, tweets, points, likes, search engine optimization, etc. As experts and amateurs analyze the trends between content and metrics, they are coming to the same conclusion: high metrics are irrefutably linked to cognitive laziness, i.e. dumbing down. The internet is pandering to the channel surfing consumers who refuse to stay in it for the long haul, and the print industry is following its lead.

    Good copy does not make an appealing read, a well-thought out article with structure and flow has been replaced by lists—“Top 10 Ways to Stay Slim Over Winter Break,” “Five Ways to Control Your Diet,” “Eight Reasons Why Liposuction is For You.” In a recent New York Times piece, Self’s vice president and publisher Laura McEwen, expounded on the recent rebranding of the publication, “The magazine is being edited for the women who think in 140 characters,” she was a quoted as saying in reference to Twitter’s word limit, and subsequently its readership’s attention span. With this dwindling willingness to commit to substance, comes a concurrent lack of discernable style and individualism—a two dimensional vacuum where the language has a closer resemblance to binary code. 

    Well, do you know how to mount a fish?

    What is flourishing amid the internet age, is the cheap sell. Evocative titles that grab the user’s attention long enough so that he or she will succumb to the sirens of a quick click just to pique his or her curiosity. Wired, in a recent article, “Tabloid Chic: How Racy Headlines Unlock Money and Power,” reports that the headline is becoming the cornerstone of internet appeal to attract viewers. At the forefront of this intrepid minimal character, maximum impact movement is a startup company Upworthy, which tests headlines and uses—you guessed it—metrics to gauge which one should be used.

    While titles may be queen, images are the Sultan in the kingdom of the quick sell. A cat in a top-hat will most likely get more views than an article detailing the cure for AIDS. It’s the 21st century incarnation of the, “Does anyone actually read the articles in Playboy?” question, and the answer seems to be … no.

    The rise of punchy headlines and intriguing images does not mean that writing is dying in the internet. It is a burgeoning field, but in a drastically different form. I was once fully employed at a reputable and fast-growing company that specialized in “content writing”—a euphemism for the soul sucking exercise in futility that has become pseudo-journalism, sales. The office was a large room, lined with large desks on either side. At any time of the day the clacking of keyboards could be heard from post-grad lackeys who had made the unfortunate mistake of getting a degree in writing.

    An employee I shared a desk with once referred to the place as a “sweatshop for writers.” The internet and concurrently the content writing that has championed it, has done to the written word what Ford did to manual labor—turned it from a skill into a lifeless process, measured in 200-word intervals. We did have a Kuerig coffee machine in the office’s kitchen nook—neat, sterile, pre-packaged cartridges, all you need to do is press a button, and you could drink all the watered down, bum piss you wanted. Anything to keep the wheels turning.

    Turnover was high and morale was low at the content writing firm—my one-month no-cigarette run (a personal best) was broken as soon as I started. Each employee’s monthly process was tracked with spreadsheets, and digitized statistics. There was the next generation of writers, banging out 4,000 words a day, list after list, “Four Tips for Preventing Bed Bugs in Your New Home,” “Four Helpful Weight Loss Tips for the Busy Body,” “Tips for Picking the Right Dentist for You,” for which I would not get a byline for. Which may have been a good thing, in retrospect.

    Human beings turned into writing machines may be a transition period to which humans are no longer needed to write ...

    The rise of content writing has decimated everything great the internet was supposed to be for writers—an equal playing field, where originality, tenacity and creativity won out. Instead, it has depleted these characteristics in favor of a formula derived from an algorithm created by the internet overlord, Google. Whereas I had once been a voracious reader and writer, after a day at the office pumping out sterile content dictated by word count and key words, my creative proclivities were debunked, and I spent the rest of the night in a zombie trance, flinching at the site of a keyboard or computer screen. Other content writers suffered the same fate—novels and writing projects went unfinished in favor of lounging in front of the television and playing hours of XBOX after work.

    Human beings turned into writing machines may be a transition period to which humans are no longer needed to write, because they are not automated enough. Forbes magazine and other publications now employ startup companies like Narrative Science that use algorithms to write news updates: “through its proprietary artificial intelligence platform, [Narrative Science] transforms data into stories and insights,” Forbes writes. Are we on a course to where writers will be relegated to plugging in equations, pulling levers, and posting cute pictures? Metrics don’t lie.

    While one could argue that the internet is affording us efficient access to news through social media outlets like Twitter and content aggregates like Longreads, it’s important to ask, “What has this news aggregation done for the industry as a whole, and does it encourage the simpler-is-easier ethos that has lead to the rise of the list and the downfall of quality content in the first place?” I don’t have the answer, but what I do know is that it’s much easier to score a job as a content writer these days—“They’ll take anyone with a pulse,” one of my co-workers poignantly pointed out to me on a smoke break—than it is to find work at a worthwhile magazine or news source (that will pay you enough to live).

    Are we dead yet?

    The longstanding question everyone with an editorial inclination may be asking themselves is, “Is this the end?” Will print go out with a 140 character epitaph?

    Amid my shit-storm of pessimism, I adamantly assert that no, we are not dead yet. Along with cyberspace’s commodification of the written word and wordsmiths, it has provided a palatable platform for guerilla content creators and engaging reporters to reach an audience—anyone can start a blog or purchase a URL. The prevailing winds of our digital age may have an odor of sterile, bottom-feeding simplicity, but we now have a vast potential to create and disseminate our original, tenacious, and creative creations within the binary world.

    Never mind the fluorescent lights, spread sheets, Kuerig coffee makers and, automated machines that are hell bent on taking your job. It’s up to you to saddle up to the keyboard and keep digging, creating, madly typing, and posting, sans cat gif.