Here’s something I probably shouldn’t tell you: part of me—a big part of me—hates the Internet with a passion I usually reserve for war criminals and people who grunt loudly at the gym. Maybe 50% of me wishes that I could’ve been born a writer 70 years ago, allowed to live my life peacefully in a library, still benefiting from the miracles of antibiotics and air travel but without dreading the constant pings from my phone … or wondering what’s wrong when the pings aren’t coming.
The other 50% of me is grateful. Just look at all I can do now: the other day, I wanted to know what happened to the guy who played “Hannibal” on the “A Team.” “Ask the oracle,” my girlfriend said. So I asked, and it told me that, sadly, George Peppard died in 1994, and he only did one show after the A Team, called Man Against the Mob, about a detective in the 1940s, which, I learned, is when he actually started his acting career—well before his breakthrough performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And what’s this? He played Ernest Hemingway in a movie called Papa? How have I never seen that? I wonder if it’s streaming on Netflix.
It is not. Damn.
But there’s more. This Internet thing gives writers a way to get heard, sometimes, if they’re lucky. I’ve been lucky enough to have publications go viral. Because of that, people from around the country have asked me for writing. It doesn’t always work out, but I just did an Indiegogo fundraising drive for a writing retreat, and I got a donation from Hong Kong.
Last time I checked, that is on the other side of the world.
Still, sometimes I wonder—after checking my email for the 132nd time that day, after losing an entire afternoon to a Facebook fight with someone I’m not sure I’ll be able to look in the face anymore if I see them in person, after realizing with horror that I feel panic (real, visceral, I’m-at-school-with-no-clothes-on panic) if I can’t check my email when I first wake up in the morning—whether or not I should just get off this thing entirely.
I mean, it’s a tool, right? If it’s a tool, it means we should be using it, and not the other way around.
I lied. There are no five easy steps to writing on the Internet. I cheated. People are more likely to click on a link if it looks like it’s a list.
I’m sorry. I feel dirty now, if it makes you feel better.
As I write this in a coffee shop, the staff of an online news publication is meeting behind me, figuring out their stories for the day. They are not out on the streets or holed up in seedy hotel rooms tracking down stories like Woodward and Bernstein. They are searching Twitter for trending stories that have just hit, emailing back and forth with leads, discussing what sorts of headlines are more likely to garner the most traffic. With a world’s worth of police blotters at their fingertips, they are questioning whether people will care about the carjacking of an ambulance (“That one is in the suburbs. Maybe if it was in a target neighborhood?”) or whether anyone cares about a body painting competition (“Really? Body painting?” “Yes, body painting.” “Hm. I don’t think people are into that.”). They are constantly checking their analytics, a tool that shows them how many hits they are getting and where they are coming from, seeing which of their stories are trending, trying to replicate that success over and over, because the more clicks they get, the more advertising revenue they get. And the more advertising revenue they can get, the more they can pay themselves and their writers, who, if I were to venture a guess, are lucky to get $50 a story, with bonuses if their material goes viral.
These writers are good at what they do, and what they do is drive traffic. Their website garners a helluva lot of that. But for them, a click has become an end in itself. And when most people think of writing on the Internet, this is what they think of.
I think we can do better than that. I think that together, we can come up with some answers that can lead to better writing and more clicks. I think that there has to be another way.
I don’t claim to know what that is.
About sixteen years ago, a couple of researchers at Stanford developed a theory about how people interact with the Internet. They found that people do what is called “information foraging.” When reading online, people look for information like a chimp forages for food. They grab what they need and move on, using the least possible amount of energy to get the largest amount of what they’re seeking, whether that be nutrition or information. For Internet users, this means almost never finishing articles.
When you sit to read a book, you generally have in mind to read the whole thing. When you sit down at the computer to find out about, say, Mr. T, you might scan his Wikipedia page, maybe go to his website, and see what kind of press clippings there’ve been lately. I bet you that you won’t read the entirety of any one of those articles.
In fact, most readers won’t even scroll down once when they visit a web page. Did you just publish a viral essay on the Internet? If you see that your essay has received 100,000 pageviews, it feels great. Until you actually look at what that means. If you’re lucky, maybe 5,000 of those people read the whole thing. Almost half didn’t interact with the material at all.
But you, reader, you’ve made it this far. I like you.
Because of the Internet, more people are reading and writing than ever before in history. 3 billion people used the Internet in 2014, mostly from the developing world. Sure, some of those people are probably only watching videos, but any way you look at it, that’s a lot of people reading and writing. And reading in a different way than the average person picking up a book at Barnes and Noble.
What I mean is: how many of us who view writing as an artistic pursuit have thought much about this? How could we use, for example, the idea of “information foraging” to our aesthetic advantage, instead of thinking it only as a commercial one?
In Paper to Pixels, we’ll explore some examples of work by those who have explored the questions above, and I’ll give you findings about how reading as a practice is changing because of new technologies. But I won’t give you any easy answers, because I don’t think there are any. In sum, we’ll explore how to use different aspects of this interface—from social media to linked fiction to figuring out where it is in cyberspace that your work can speak the loudest—to serve our own artistic goals.
Seth’s Class: From Paper to Pixels: Writing Internet Content that Matters and Gets Noticed begins July 5.
Seth Fischer is a writer/editor whose writing has appeared in Best Sex Writing, PANK, The Rumpus, Guernica, and it has been listed as notable in The Best American Essays. Winner of fellowships and residencies by Lambda Literary, Jentel, and Woodstock Byrdcliffe. Seth also teaches at Antioch University Los Angeles and Writing Workshops Los Angeles.