How to Really Write for the Internet
It's hard to believe (and I'm dating myself by admitting I remember it), but there was a time that writers didn't use the Internet.
A time when a creative person with an opinion, or an idea, might sit with it. Stew with it. Let the potent parts of it react inside of them, rising up and out of their consciousness and onto composition notebooks and ink-blotched typewriter pages. A time when the first people to see a writer's work were other writers: coffee shop poets, aspiring journalists, and local mentors that weren't rooting just for the success of a person, but for the triumph of craft.
We're talking about a time when men like Ernest Hemingway took pride in throwing entire drafts of their work into the fireplace. A time when the prospect of publication of any sort loomed with the daunting, heavy impossibility of serious accomplishment. A time when working at it, and working at it, and shamelessly cultivating that capricious, darting specter of hope, didn't guarantee any writer access to a printing machine.
Not as much time has passed as you might imagine. But the way of things has immeasurably changed. We have the capacity now to blink, breathe, write and publish a sentiment all within the same moment. The quiet reflection that characterized generations of writers is replaced by a primal urgency, a zeitgeist. To have the thought is to react to the thought. To react to the thought is to publish a response to the thoughts of another. In a century supposedly dominated by the talents of introverts, the space for analysis and examination has all but disappeared.
In a way, it makes sense. Why mine for conclusions when data says it all? Why pain to observe when we've got it all on tape? And since we're taking in way more media (some estimates say 10 hours a day) than we could even fully disseminate, what would be the point of drawing out the nuances of all of it? Wouldn't that just make our media experience even more immersive and, therefore, mind-dulling?
I was born into an age of craft. But my craft came of age in the era of content. The tension that exists between those two had me thinking for some time that I couldn't exist as a writer at all. I was either too early, or -- more likely -- way too late. Like any idealist, I had to first accept that the world was not what I wanted it to be before I could begin talking about what was wrong with it. And a very big part of what was wrong came out of the creative community that I longed so much to be a part of.
I never thought being a writer would make me wildly rich, or even moderately famous. I didn't hold the illusion that my words would unlock for me a treasury of prestige. I did think that being a writer would mean I was searching for the truth about things, and that I would have a decent amount of time and opportunities to find it. I thought somebody, a group of somebodies even, would want the truth, presented with documentation and a poetic flourish or two. I thought the free press was a legitimate place to go to try to work for social justice. And I thought that being a cog in the publishing gears: no matter how small, and no matter how taxed, would give me a sense of place. A sense of purpose, a raison d'êtrer for the accumulation of specific and tiny unfairnesses I had borne witness to in my short lifetime.
There are people, and publications, that are doing this important work. I don't want to invalidate or dismiss that they are there. There are writers and editors right now that are grinding it out and making it work and they are killing it. It is affirming and encouraging in every way.
But then there's those of us that aren't doing that work. For some valid reasons, like we can't afford to take a pay cut, or we were shut out or blacklisted early on in our careers for one reason or another. And for some less valid reasons, like editors won't take our pitches because they're just looking for something that will go viral, or because leading publications are at once tone deaf and desperate to grab hold of the trend of the moment. I know too many good writers that have accepted a life sentence of writing clickbait. And I know a great deal of others that, unwilling to publish without integrity, have bowed out entirely, choosing less creative pursuits over a lifestyle of creative compromise.
But the pendulum is swinging now in the other direction. Publication without representation doesn't work for long. In order to speak the language of their audience, editors and publishers have to accept that there's only so much viral content they can throw on their servers before the system gets, well, infected. Corrupted. Kaput.
I believe we are entering a new golden age of the craft of writing. The Internet has finally been around long enough for us to understand a little bit about what it means to our experience as human beings. Readers are grasping the fact that their clicks mean something, and that they are the ones with ultimate control over what big sites choose to publish. Creative minds are waking up to the fact that while things were looking pretty bad for us there, they can get better. Writers that were shut out, compromised or discouraged are finding alternative ways to present their message, and those messages are echoing across our world.
Indulge the INFJ in me for a second when I say that we have a chance to resurrect the free press. Forget the tabloids, the smear jobs, the inflammatory headlines. Forget the graphics meant to be "shareable," the cartoonish, gaudy attempts at the Old Guard to keep their web design current. They failed us. That doesn't mean we have to fail. These crazy mysterious fiber-optic cables have given us the greatest democratic power that we writers have ever had, if only we will wield it.
Writing for the Internet means nasty comments, dismissive friends and family members, misappropriated messages, dismembered meanings, mansplaining, cyber-bullying, and for some writers, even death threats. Like all potent pills, it can be bitter.
But writing on the Internet also means a mouthpiece, unparalleled. A platform. A surprising, dazzling coalescence of the Speaker with the spoken-to. It means limitless resources, and lightning-fast sources. It's "one weird trick" to own the narrative. We only have to steward and be disciplined with the opportunity.
There's a metaphor here about swords and pens and other things that are mighty as they are double-edged, but I think you get the picture. Thing is, I spent a long time trying to get the words just right, so scared I might say the wrong thing. Then I spent a blessedly short amount of time throwing craft out the window for clicks. Neither was an approach I'd recommend. For now, I'm going to keep writing for the Internet. But I'm going to do it the way I started writing, the way I never should have stopped. It's only way this media wasteland will ever get any better.
One. Word. At. A. Time.