Web writing, hate reading, and the decline of quality

Nothing new, but this is worth a read on web writing and hate-reading – that old trick of being as controversial as possible in order to get an extreme response, purely because extremes get more attention, and in a pageview-driven business model, controversy is seen as good purely because, based on the metrics, it’s the controversial stuff that’s driving engagement.

This infantile attitude of provocation to get attention is increasingly being combined with ream upon ream of cheap content, because the more content you’ve got, the more potential PVs you can attract. We end up with the most depressing (and false) equation of online publishing:

Cheap content + Controversy = Clicks = Cash

It’s an attitude that’s lazy *and* massively short-termist in thinking – over the long term, quality can and should trump quantity. But even if it doesn’t, cheap, crappy content is a turn-off for audiences. The more sites that start to rely on hastily-produced, poorly-checked copy, or lazy semi-plagiarisms of things that desperate teams of poorly-paid hacks with deadlines and quotas to hit have found elsewhere, the less distinctive sites get, and the fewer returning visitors you’ll get. As that linked article puts it:

“With a business model based on a ton of cheap content, Web publishers can rely too heavily on acid-reflux-style aggregation, in which young writers destroy the savor of interesting stories and an interesting world by constantly regurgitating the news with added bile.”

There’s also an interesting point made from John Waters in the Irish Times (now behind a paywall), on the impact of comment sections under online articles: “Because everything written specifically for online consumption is written in the expectation of addressing a hostile community, the writing process demands, as a prerequisite, either a defensive or antagonistic demeanor.”

Having learned my online publishing trade in the realm of message boards, chatrooms and blogs, I’m incredibly aware of the vast levels of bile that exist in comment sections. But it doesn’t have to be this way. With careful community management, it’s perfectly possible to build online communities that are supportive, friendly, and constructive, rather than the supposed default of objectionable and offensive. Check out the likes of b3ta, imgur and Metafilter for some prime examples of sites with vast *positive* communities of commenters. And then contrast those with the comments sections of pretty much any national newspaper site – packed with trolls and maniacs.

It doesn’t have to be this way.