In the pre-industrial age, the most valuable commodity was time. Would you have enough time to plant a harvest? Were there enough hours in the day before the sun set and the candles needed to be lit? People spent days and years making things-watches, dresses, meals, cathedrals. John Donne wrote whole poems about how the sun decided the day.
BUSY old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
In the YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU CLICK THIS LINK age, despite what millions of frantic lifehack articles tell us, we have enough time to do everything we want. We only don’t because we make our own lives harder by filling them with modern fluff (soccer practice for kids (paywall) and networking for adults are two that come to mind ) because we need to monopolize the time we’re not using to seem busier and more valuable.
Idleness has always been a negative trait. If you weren’t planting fields, it meant you wouldn’t eat. But we can get food whenever we want, so today’s idleness in the Western world is superficial, and because we are scared of death. We need to be occupied by whatever we deem most important to us not because it’s essential for life, but because of our ego.
Today’s most valuable commodity is attention. Seth Godin, who writes some gimmicky stuff but also some gems, wrote recently, “There’s a gold rush for attention going on. We are all in the media business.” I’ve written before about how much I hate the current shape of the mainstream media, an issue that impacts most people who live on the internet and let the internet shape their world views.
A couple weeks ago at WordCamp Philly, I talked for 45 minutes about how SEO, Twitter, and Buzzfeed are ruining good quality writing, and that if you really care about writing well, you should be writing consistently good content about things you care about because you’re passionate about them, not because you want to whore yourself out for pageclicks.
I begged people who were starting blogs not to care about making money, to write good, interesting things, and that, possibly, money might follow. I told them to write about how they grew their tomato plants or about the house they built for their cats, or about how they lived in Germany ten years ago. As long as they were interested in the topic, their sincere interest would shine through, and eventually, others would pick up on it. At the end of my talk, a man raised his hand and asked, “But you can make money off blogs, right?”
Pageviews are ruining the way we understand and process news, the same way that live CNN feeds ruined it 20 years ago.
Readers’ interests are to get as much of the story as possible, from different perspectives, written by people who truly care about reporting. The business side of the magazine is interested in pushing out sensational, stupid stories, the kind I see in my Facebook feed every morning, with increasing regularity, now that Ukraine and Israel/Gaza are heating up. The more comments and shares a post gets, the better it is. The more people click on it, even better.
By the way, the best things so far I have read on Ukraine and Gaza in the English-speaking Internet don’t come from traditionally mainstream sites. Here’s Ukraine, and here’s Gaza.
I’m posting a specific example, not to pick on people who have posted it (at least two or three in my timeline, either because they agree or disagree with it…I have no idea, I didn’t click on it), but because this exemplifies exactly the type of shit I’m angry about. Sensational image, misleading headline, all encouraging you to CLICK CLICK CLICK.
These are fun to flip through on the train or in minutes you have spare time, but really all they do is stress you out, make you angrier, and worst of all, lead to colossal misunderstandings of how the world works. I have to read at least five different sources to corroborate Israeli and Palestinian claims, and not because the issue is so complicated, which it is, but because journalists are plain lazy and editors need pageclicks faster and faster.
As a news consumer, I am just plain exhausted. I refuse to click on anything from BuzzFeed, Upworthy, or any of those stupid viral sites.
We are only solving this problem very slowly. The latest solution has been to start a hipster data journalism site. As of last count, I know of at least four: The Upshot from the New York Times, FiveThirtyEight, Vox.com, and the Washington Post just launched one last week whose name I can’t remember because I don’t care. These sites try, but they don’t do much better. For example, Nate Silver is currently writing about burritos.
The only solution is to write good shit, to hire people who genuinely care about writing good shit, and most importantly, make money doing that. Oh, and don’t forget getting people to read your content. It takes time to build up credibility, too.
There’s no way around these things, and that’s why it’s so hard. Building a good media source could take just as long, maybe, as building a cathedral or growing a tree.