Information overload and the loss of meaning…

One drawback I see in our ability to communicate faster than ever before is that we have become lazy about our language. A word or phrase will suddenly pop up everywhere, and we tend to pick it up and repeat it without really questioning what it means or how it’s being used. See, for example, the term deep state, which I had never heard before a couple of weeks ago but now seem to see all over the place. By using and reusing this term without really interrogating it, we lend credence to it. Without being aware of it, something that was just an idea or a concept becomes objective reality. (For more on this fascinating phenomenon and how it infects our thinking, see this article.)

There is a pervasive sense now that writing of all kinds should be done quickly and published as soon as possible to maximize virality. I’m guilty of this kind of thinking myself. I have a hard time now taking my time with my writing, putting my energy into longer pieces, and crafting them to communicate my thoughts as precisely as possible. The medium of blogs, Facebook posts, and tweets reward the hastily composed post and the quick trigger finger when it comes to clicking “Publish.” Even with this post right now, I am scribbling my initial thoughts and planning to publish what amounts to a rough draft.

This is what we’ve come to expect from blogs and other online writing, and I find that I consume it in the same way it was written: as quickly as possible, without pause to reflect on what the author is actually saying. Web writing is quick to produce, quick to consume, and if I may be crude about it, quite often amounts to a gigantic mound of shit.

My challenge to myself, and to you, is to question the language that constantly swirls around us. Instead of skimming a report or story, read it word by word and try to parse the writer’s exact meaning. (Often you will find that you can’t pin down that meaning because the writing is lazy or purposely obfuscating, and therefore untrustworthy.) Read the story in print instead of on the computer screen and see if that makes a difference. Write down words or phrases whose meanings you can’t quite pin down and look them up–is the writer using them in accordance with their accepted definitions?

Being bombarded by so much rapid-fire information has led to a kind of paralysis. It has become more difficult to determine what is fact and what is hyperbole and what is propaganda and what is advertisement. It’s like walking down a grocery-store aisle and freezing when presented with a thousand different options for hand lotion or breakfast cereal–which is the best choice? Or are they all essentially the same?

The best strategy for dealing with overwhelming amounts of information may be similar to that for dealing with too much stuff: consume less and focus on the quality of what we do take in.

A few thoughts (and some links) about content mills…

Over the last couple of days, I have been reading a lot about content mills. In case you aren’t familiar with the term, content mills or content farms are websites or networks of sites that churn out thousands of pieces of content per day, which are optimized to score high on specific search engine results. These content mills pay freelance writers very poorly to pump out the content, and their quality reflects that. This is the crap that is cluttering up your Google search results, which I have written about before here.

I don’t have much to say about content mills, except that once I identify one, I avoid it with extreme prejudice. I also noticed that when you google the term content mill, the first result, “What Is a Content Mill,” comes from a well-known content mill. Irony in action.

Anyway, it appears a backlash is a-brewin’. People want this crap out of their search results. Yeah, me too. Anyhoo, here are some good links on the subject for further reading:

The Search Engine Backlash Against ‘Content Mills’ (MIT Technology Review)
Google, Content Farms & Why This May Be Blekko’s Moment (Search Engine Land)
MediaShift’s Guide to Content Farms (PBS)
Content Farms: Why Media, Blogs & Google Should Be Worried and How Google Can Combat Content Farms (ReadWriteWeb)
Content farms v. curating farmers (BuzzMachine)
Content dust bowls (Magellan Media)
The Future of Media Isn’t Free Content, It’s Cheap Content (Metafilter)

So much crappy writing, so little time…

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.

You should also read:
The Future of Print (Booksquare)
Why I Blog by Andrew Sullivan (The Atlantic)
Slow Blogging Manifesto

Let’s all stop saying “after the jump”…

The phrase “after the jump” on blogs is one of my particular pet peeves, and I have noticed that usage does not seem to be abating. One reason why it’s annoying is because the majority of the readership has no idea what it means — including the blogger, in many cases. Besides being unintelligible, it’s also meaningless in many blog-reading situations. More after the paragraph break.

See how annoying that was? Anyway, “after the jump” originated as a newspaper term, referring to front-page stories that were continued inside the paper. Bloggers took up the term to refer to stories that continued after a break caused by an inline advertisement. It might also refer to a break from the truncated story on the blog’s front page to the full post.

Even though it started as a newspaper term, editors did not put the actual words “after the jump” in the paper. Instead, they said something more intelligible and helpful, such as “continued on A-23.” And since newspapers don’t change format from one reader to another, the text was helpful for all readers.

This is not true on the web. In many cases, I see “after the jump” where there is in actuality no jump of any kind. That’s because I’m either reading the full story in the RSS feed or on the interior of the blog (not the front page). In some instances, I’ve seen the phrase used several paragraphs before or even after said jump. This is just confusing. And it breaks the flow of what I’m reading, making me less inclined to finish your post, whether there’s any jump or not.

Even if there is a so-called jump, many readers are still scratching their heads. Jump? What’s that? I may have to click a link to get to the rest of the story, or I may have to scroll down a page. But I am never required to jump.

If you really must signal to your less-than-intelligent readers that they should click on a link or scroll past an ad to continue reading, why not use a phrase that everyone can parse instantly. How about: “Continue reading” or “Click for more” or “Scroll down for more”? And here’s an idea — don’t put this in the content but with the element that the Internet boneheads must successfully navigate around. That way, those of us who don’t have to perform the maneuver don’t have to be bothered with the instructions either.

“After the jump” is so overused these days that it’s becoming a tired cliche. You don’t want your writing to be tired, do you? I didn’t think so.

Rant over.

After the Jump on Ask MetaFilter
After the Jump on Urban Dictionary

Practical uses for blogs: Journals and research notebooks

The blog has become so popular because it is a format that has a wide variety of uses. Generally, web surfers are used to seeing blogs used in one of the following ways:

  • to present information and news on a narrow subject in small, manageable chunks, generally supported by advertising
  • to communicate news about a service, product, organization or program
  • as a diary, detailing the daily life of the writer, which may or may not be of interest to anyone else
  • in its original usage, as a place to post interesting links (although I think other tools have surpassed the blog for this purpose)

Or as some combination of the above.

I have found the blog to be a useful format for another purpose: as a notebook or journal. I keep 6 blogs (5 public, 1 private), which I grant you, seems like a lot. But to my mind, they are the virtual equivalents of 6 notebooks I might have once kept or did keep before I discovered blogging. Yet they are so much more powerful.

I think of my blogs as journals or research notebooks. Journals differ from diaries in that diaries typically focus on the mundane day-to-day events in the life of a person. A journal, on the other hand, is a record of a person’s thoughts and learnings, often about a particular subject. For instance, you might keep a journal recording your thoughts about the books you read, as I do. Or if you are teaching yourself to cook, you might keep a journal of tips, recipes, ingredient notes, etc. (again, as I do).

A journal can also be the equivalent of a research notebook, although I differ between the two because I tend to keep more clips, quotes, pictures and other people’s writing in a research notebook, while a journal is usually all original writing. For instance, one of my blogs is my notebook of post-apocalyptic research. It contains photographs, lists, article summaries, poetry and my own thoughts, all mixed together.

Blogs have it all over physical notebooks, though. Here’s why:

  • Links – you can link to articles of interest, research sources, related pieces, etc.
  • Media – it is relatively easy to incorporate graphics, photographs, audio and media into a blog to enrich the content.
  • Search – a blog is fully searchable, making it a simple matter to locate whatever you’re looking for.
  • Tagging – enables you to quickly categorize your work, cross-reference related items and visually see patterns emerge over time.
  • Unexpected feedback – Blogs can be public or private. But if you make your blog public, you are inviting comment, which allows others to contribute their own ideas, other resources, questions and support to your work, which may enrich your work in unanticipated ways.

Whenever I start a new project from now on, I intend to start a blog to accompany it. Whether it amounts to anything is not important. What is important to me are the tools that blogs offer to help me plan, record, organize and — yes, this one is important, as well — share my work and what I’ve learned.