The web has made it easy for anyone anywhere to publish their writing with very little effort or money, and for the most part, I believe this is a VERY GOOD THING. There probably hasn’t been a time in history when people could so easily express themselves, and instead of shouting into the void, there’s a good chance that someone somewhere is actually listening.
But as freeing as this collective outpouring is, the writers of the web are producing a lot of dreck. Originality is as rare a commodity online as it is anywhere else. But I have found that the worst writing doesn’t come from the vast sea of personal blogs (although there is plenty of bad writing there), but from the so-called professional blogs that rely on a never-ending stream of content to get ads in front of eyeballs.
It’s depressing reading the same rehashed, boring, generic prose over and over again. These sites, which seem to constitute the bulk of what gets published online (at least on a regular basis) occupy the same wasteland as the magazines in the grocery store checkout line or the Today Show and its ilk — except they are much harder to avoid. Google’s search algorithm doesn’t filter for quality, as far as I can tell.
And I have to blame Google for this never-ending babble, because these sites believe they have to publish quickly and often. I know that pageviews drop if you don’t post frequently. And if pageviews are your bread and butter, then the act of posting — rather than the content you post — becomes the crucial thing. Who cares what you have to say so long as you keep talking?
So we get list after list of 20 this or 50 that, pseudo-slideshows designed to keep us mindlessly clicking, unsupported prognostications of the end of everything, vague punditry that answers questions none of us cared to even ask. Because of the pressure to keep posting, few take the time to ruminate, percolate, revise or edit. This isn’t writing; it’s masturbation by blog post.
I’ve found the best online writing either at the very top of the food chain — on the sites of renowned print magazines like The Atlantic or The New Yorker, some publishers that have invested writer and editorial talent in their websites, and blogs of well-known writers — and at the bottom, where individual writers toil in relative obscurity, simply for love. (I try to highlight those writers here when I unearth them.) The best links rarely show up in Google searches; they are shared by my virtual friends on Twitter, Google Reader, and the comments areas of my blogs and blogs I read.
But there’s a certain randomness to waiting for good writing to fall into your lap. There is no online library where high-quality writing on all kinds of subjects has been selected, cataloged and annotated. Who would be willing to pay for such a service when we are so used to getting everything on the web for free, even if it is one that we could all benefit from?
In the meantime, we keep floundering in the sea of dreck. The reward is when we discover a new insight or thought or poetic piece of writing. Sometime it happens several times in a day; sometimes it doesn’t happen for a week or more. But still, it happens.