Skip to content

Why People Stopped Reading the Stuff You Post on the Internet

August 12, 2015

A few years ago, I attended a panel discussion about the state of then-contemporary film criticism. Arriving hot on the heels of lay-offs affecting some of America’s most prominent film critics, the panel’s tone was sombre and flecked with bitterness. They decried the editorial preference for celebrity gossip, they decried the lack of respect afforded serious criticism and they admitted that eight-figure publicity spends had made their writings irrelevant. The only exception to the apocalyptic rhetoric was an admission that people had started doing some interesting things online, and that maybe those new spaces would help foster serious discussion and maybe provide film critics with a source of money and social capital. Writing in 2007, the veteran critic Jonathan Rosenbaum captured the optimism about online publication in an essay arguing that the internet’s capacity to connect film lovers from across the globe might allow the creation of new cultural spaces:

I realized that the shifting paradigms of today might also transform what we normally regard as a minority taste. Once the paradigms of a single geographical base changes, all sorts of things can be transformed.

A beautiful dream… but it didn’t come true.

Many of the sites Rosenbaum mentions in his essay “Film Writing on the Web: Some Personal Reflections” have since shut down and even well-resourced and high-profile attempts at broadening the cinematic conversation like The Dissolve have resulted in humiliating failure. All across the cultural spectrum — from high-brow literature to low-brow video games – the interest in online reviews and criticism has collapsed. Optimism has been replaced by cynicism as the insightful and principled are drowned in a never-dwindling tide of recycled press releases and promotional fluff.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a short piece exploring the tension between a critic’s need to remain enthusiastic about their own work and their need to fit within the boundaries of an existing cultural conversation. The piece generated a wave of soul-searching and pledges to abandon the conventional review in search of something more in keeping with the current cultural moment.

So where did it all go wrong? What happened to Rosenbaum’s dream of self-sustaining cultural communities in which great works would generate great critical conversations? This is an essay about the decline and fall of online reviewing and how the changing nature of the internet seems to have made it harder to have a civilised conversation.

 

WNR3

 

The Internet We Had

When I first got the internet at home, I had to get someone round to install a new phone socket in my bedroom. Then, after a couple of weeks, I had to find the money to have a second line fitted as the time I wanted to go online coincided with the time my mother wanted to call her friends. My first ISP provided me with an oddly integrated piece of software that handled email, browsing and UseNet through a single interface. The fact that I had to dial-up my ISP and pay by the minute for both the phone call and the data meant that I often wound up logging on, downloading all of my email and UseNet posts, logging off and composing all of my responses before logging back in to send them all off.

It was all ridiculously convoluted process and it fostered a relationship to the online world not entirely dissimilar to that one might have had with a series of distant correspondents. You write a letter, they write a letter, you respond. While flame wars were common even in the early days of the internet, the speed of interaction combined with the fact that many people only discovered the internet once they went to university meant that the internet came to serve a function similar to that of the writing desk or the magazine rack; it was a place we went to encounter opinions. My enduring memory of UseNet is of conversations that would regularly run for months, with participants and subject matter gradually changing in the process.

Opinion was the basis for a lot of online interaction; it determined which communities you decided to join and it determined your standing within those communities once you began contributing to them. This explains not only why people were so optimistic about the future of online discourse, but also why the reviews would emerge as the basic unit of opinion-expression: You logged on, you downloaded an opinion, you read it and you decided whether or not you wanted to respond. It even seemed like a more legitimate way of spending your time as reviews were things produced by journalists and academics… it wasn’t just you chatting with complete strangers about whether Captain Kirk started wearing that green wrap-around top in order to hide Shatner’s girdle. This was serious business!

Blogs were the perfect technological solution to these early social desires. They made it easy for people to express their opinions online and they did so in a way that afforded blog owners complete control over the aesthetics of their own pages. Early blog templates would often cluster around the self-consciously pretty and the newspaper-like in recognition of the fact that a blog’s appearance would often contribute to whether or not its opinions were taken seriously. Blogs may have made it easier to present carefully constructed and expressed opinions, but they also served to strip opinions of any obvious context and encouraged bloggers to treat their platforms as a place where they spoke, other people listened, and maybe they managed to attract a large audience by producing systematically engaging opinions. RSS should have made it easy to follow an entire community’s response to particular topics but it often wound up feeling like one of those ridiculous cross-over events where you wind up having to follow a story from the comics you read to the seventeen comics you never bothered to check out. Livejournal was always less flattering to the people who wanted to broadcast their carefully-considered opinions but its integrated friends list system helped to maintain the illusion that joining a conversation was like entering a shared space. Blogging has always felt like the Sermon on the Mount… or the crazy homeless guy ranting at the traffic lights.

The blogosphere was an attempt to counter the contextlessness of the blog. People joined communities, adopted local heraldries (where’s your anime avatar or dragon-themed logo?), curated their blog rolls and started bouncing off each other but the conversation never really clicked. Sure… the odd review would strike a chord and spark a few round of discourse but how would you like to sit in on a conversation in which people recite entire pages of text at each other? It’s hard enough making sense of other people when you’re comprehending them a single sentence at a time with help from their body language… how did we ever think we were going to have a meaningful conversation by writing sub-academic essays at each other?

The idea of the blogosphere as a shared cultural space where people could converse with each other didn’t survive for long but it did help to maintain the belief that reviews were things that mattered, that they held communities together and helped to create a shared subjectivity. Already a bad formal fit for the job required of them, reviews soon ran into what can only be called an extinction-level moral crisis.

 

WNR4

 

Brutalising the Professionals

Reviews haven’t just been devalued; they have been rendered completely and utterly worthless. The most obvious cause of this devaluation has been the fact that supply has completely outstripped demand and we have moved from an age where only a few people were deemed capable of opining in public to an age where you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn’t written something resembling a review at some point in their online existence. While the democratisation of the review format may have flayed the authority from the bones of established critics, it is not the real reason why people stopped paying attention to professional reviews. At the end of the day, it’s all about the Benjamins.

Reviewers have always walked a moral tightrope as reviewing has always been a part of the promotional cycle. The fact that reviewers most frequently comment on stuff as it appears on the market means that many reviewers end up fostering relationships with publicists in order to write pieces that may well wind up contributing to the success or failure of a particular commercial venture. This relationship endured for a long time as editors provided a buffer between reviewers and publicists meaning that the industry could not apply pressure to reviewers without also applying pressure to the people publishing them. However, as big institutions started to lose interest in publishing reviews, the protected critic became the self-starting freelancer and self-starting freelancers needed to cultivate relationships with publishers in order to gain access to the subject matter that would allow them to write their articles. As reviewers surrendered their critical agency in return for swag, job prospects or something as simple as friendship, the idea of the reviewer as honest broker and consumer advocate drifted away to be replaced by something closer to a role of industry cheerleader or consumerist enabler. GamerGate were absolutely right when they declared games journalism to be utterly corrupt, but the real corruption had nothing to do with women in the industry and everything to do with the fact that publications routinely placed their employees in positions where they were forced to choose between their integrity and their jobs. If anything, hiring a load of women with radical politics to write about games could conceivably have saved games journalism by undermining the industry’s culture of beer-fuelled back-room bro-downs.

As satisfying as it may be, blaming reviewers for their lack of moral fibre is grotesquely unfair. Honest, socially-conscious journalism requires journalists to be secure enough in their jobs that they feel empowered to call out the powerful, critique the popular and generally bite the hand that feeds them. While global capital may have reached unparalleled levels of power and buoyancy, the amount of money trickling down to normal working people has stagnated for generations and what money the system does contain is only accessible to those willing to abandon the safety that previous generations fought so hard to secure. Not merely a reflection of corporate selfishness, the precariousness of today’s worker is something that was deliberately built into the economy. In a book charting the collapse of the American left entitled The Age of Acquiescence, Steve Fraser argues that the Reagan government went out of its way to drive up unemployment and drive down wages in order to make workers feel insecure and break the resistance of unions:

Paul Volcker [Chairman of the Federal Reserve under Presidents Carter and Reagan] would later candidly observe that ‘the most important single action of the Administration helping the anti-inflation fight was defeating the air traffic controllers’ strike.’ He was driving home the point that labor unions were responsible for American industry’s lack of competitiveness. Destroying the air traffic controllers’ union was a high-visibility way of demonstrating the government’s determination to break the power of unions more generally.

London’s Metropolitan police may have brutalised the striking mine workers but what killed the power of the unions was making everyone, everywhere fearful for their jobs. Politicians may talk about coming down hard on benefit scroungers but the real targets for that kind of posturing are not the hopeless poor but the people who are just one step above them… the people who have seen their wages shrink and their job insecurity expand. Given a choice between a shitty job and being brutalised by the government, wouldn’t you sign a zero-hours contract?

The precariousness of professional reviewing is also beginning to change the nature of publications as it is now increasingly common for online publications to set up similarly-branded websites that capitalise on the original site’s reputation for editorial independence by offering authors the chance to purchase coverage. Kirkus charges between $425 and $575 for attention from the “Kirkus Indie team”, RT claim they are about to set up something called RT Review Source “a service that will allow us to review many more books at an affordable price” and Publishers Weekly had something called PW Select until they decided to replace it with a service that didn’t run on payola. Apparently, we are living through a golden age of vanity criticism where authors can pay any number of magazines for coverage that can then be used in promotional materials. In fact, this practice is now so common that experienced fiction reviewer James Nicoll recently spoke about being approached by an author who simply assumed that all reviewers were professional shills.

There are no steady jobs in film criticism, there are no steady jobs in book reviewing, there are no steady jobs in video games journalism and there are increasingly few steady jobs in academia. Critics cultivate unhealthy relationships with publicists and industry professionals because these are the people who provide access and dispense little luxuries like exclusive interviews, advance review copies, and maybe the occasional junket. There are times when it isn’t even about money but friendship and recognition of a job well done. The ever-insightful Natalie Luhrs articulates this tension in a recent article for Uncanny Magazine:

When I was a professional reviewer, I did sometimes choose not to review books if I felt I wasn’t able to keep an appropriate critical distance, particularly if it was part of a series that I’d disliked previous volumes: it felt fairer to both me and to the book to try to find it a more sympathetic reviewer. One of the reasons I made the decision to leave RT was the fact that I could feel my friendships with authors bleeding both into my reviews and into my book choices and that wasn’t fair to anyone—not to the readers, the books, the authors, or myself.

The general public is not interested in either paying for reviews or validating the actions of professional critics. The only people financially and psychologically invested in the work of reviewers are their editors and industry professionals who have come to form the primary audience for online reviews. The more the public loses interest in reviews, the more reviewers become dependent upon the attention of industry professionals and the more critics tailor their reviews to suit the needs of the industry, the more irrelevant their work becomes to the general public. Narrow even at the best of times, the moat between reviews and advertorials has turned into a cesspit and nobody crawls out of it smelling like roses.

This vicious authority-depleting cycle becomes even more apparent the second you venture beyond professional publications. While professional reviewers have had the integrity beaten out of them by wave after wave of corporate lay-offs, many of the most accomplished amateurs are so pleased to be taken seriously by the industry that they would never think about posting a negative review or denouncing an exploitative practice. Once seen as a solution to the shortcomings of the mainstream press, the blogosphere has turned into a place where people climb over each other in an effort to better serve the interests of multinational corporations.

 

 WNR5

 

Seducing the Amateurs

Though there isn’t any money or security in professional reviewing, there is prestige. The idea of consuming culture, writing about what you have consumed, and maybe influencing other people to change their consumption habits remains a much sought-after position in our society and the internet has allowed hundreds of people to assume similar positions albeit with none of the money or security that institutional backing provides.

Another shortcoming of the blog and the way it fits into our cultural ecosystem is that you can’t just set up a blog, write the occasional brilliant essay and then go back to playing with your kids. Well… you can but said brilliant essays will wind up being read by about seven people.

Blogs need content and content needs to be promoted if you want it to be read. For all its weaknesses, RSS did give bloggers a sense of security by providing a simple mechanism for delivering their opinions to anyone interested enough to sign up to their feed. When Google closed down their RSS reader and few people bothered to seek out a replacement, the link between critic and interested reader was rendered precarious and so the ambitious blogger’s workload doubled almost overnight.

It’s not just that blogging feels like you’re screaming into the void, it’s that the only way to gain any validation for your efforts is to keep screaming and occasionally wander about the place pestering people by asking them if they happened to hear you scream. This is an absolutely thankless task but publicists and professionals are only too happy to provide validation… as long as you continue screaming nice things about them.

In some ways, publicists and industry professionals are the great enablers of intellectual exploitation. They help out professional reviewers at a time when their employers would rather not pay them and they provide re-enforcement and validation to people who spend literally hundreds of hours a year trying to keep cultural conversations alive. The only problem with this relationship is that publicists and industry people aren’t interested in honest reviews and important cultural conversations… they just want to sell some shit and go home.

Allowing industry professionals to become the primary market for reviews has contributed to the creation of a strong taboo against negative reviewing. This isn’t just about authors attacking reviewers with bottles of wine or directors challenging their critics to fist-fights, this is about the sharp non-professional intake of breath and the whispered assertion that such-and-such a reviewer must be bigoted, sociopathic or deranged for daring to write so many negative reviews. This change in our culture has not just contributed to the editorial becoming almost indistinguishable from the promotional; it has also fundamentally changed the way that amateurs write about books on the internet.

Highly sophisticated and ruthlessly professional, the world of online romance reviewing is a terrifying vision of our collective critical futures: Romance reviewers don’t just write dozens and dozens of reviews a year for free, they also provide authors with platforms and create elaborate promotional campaigns designed to help authors get their messages out there. The world of online romance reviewing is now so intimately connected to the publishing industry’s PR machine that a recent attempt to stage a very modest strike in order to draw attention to the conditions that book bloggers operate under was met with genuine outrage and disbelief by authors who had long-since grown accustomed to benefiting from the unpaid labour of amateur reviewers.

The transformation of the blogosphere from space where bloggers converse to space that serves the promotional needs of the relevant industry has served to corrupt reviewing practices from within, but those practices have also been under intense pressure from without.

 

WNR6

 

Cloning the Casuals

These days reviews are everywhere. In fact, the invitation to review is now so ubiquitous that it is often impossible to find a book review without scrolling past dozens of online retail spaces inviting you to read their non-existent reviews. Whenever I want to check a start time at my local cinema, I am presented not only with reviews of the film I want to see but also with reviews of the cinema itself. TripAdvisor may have raised the ‘I have never written a review before but double-mother-fuck the person who owns this cafe’ type of screed to the status of an art form but most review venues are filled with the disembodied words of the unidentified. Who are the people who loathe novels but adore beard oils and why should I use their opinions as the basis for my purchasing decisions?

Why indeed…

Back in 2011, the New York Times investigated the reviews published at sites including Amazon.com, TripAdvisor and Yelp only to find that:

New books are better than Tolstoy, restaurants are undiscovered gems and hotels surpass the Ritz.

The reason for this explosion in critical positivity is that industry professionals seem only too happy to pay for fake five-star reviews. In September 2013, the New York district attorney levied fines approaching $350,000 against 19 businesses who had been caught posting fake reviews. Researchers at the University of Illinois estimate that up to 30% of online reviews are fake and the problem is now so endemic that sites such as Yelp have started deploying systems that flag reviews on the basis of easily avoided stylistic tics including an over-reliance on personal pronouns as a means of creating a sense of intimacy with the reader.

Even if we ignore the internal corruption of professional and hobbyist reviewing, the prevalence of fraudulent online reviews has served to place a question mark over every single review that appears online. I question the integrity of people whose blogs seem to serve no purpose other than to provide weight to self-promotional tweets. I question the judgement of the people whose five-star reviews keep being enthusiastically quoted from the covers of godawful DVDs.

Corrupted from within and undermined from without, the online review has slowly migrated from social currency to being a part of the class of things that we automatically screen out as a result of living in an environment where every surface is trying to sell us something. We learned to ignore reviews the same way we learned to ignore those adverts they place at eye-level above urinals… we hardened our hearts and closed our minds because the only alternative was to go mad.

 

Louis Cahill Photography

 

The Shallows

Last year I wrote a lengthy piece airing my suspicion that only people with ties to the publishing industry were still bothering to read the hundreds and hundreds of short stories generated every year by the fields of science fiction, fantasy and horror. The piece generated a bit of discussion and some push-back but nobody made the point that always struck me as blindingly obvious. Namely that nobody is bothering to read the short fiction that gets published online because nobody goes online to read long-form writing anymore.

Todd VanDerWerff reached a very similar conclusion in an excellent piece about the differences between the internet of 2005 and the internet of 2015. Considering the problems facing Gawker and the collapse of sites like The Dissolve, VanDerWerff argues that the internet is no longer a place where opinion serves as a form of social currency:

The internet of five or 10 or 20 years ago, is going away as surely as print media, replaced by a new internet that reimagines personal identity as something easily commodified, that plays less on the desire for information or thoughtfulness than it does the desire for a quick jolt of emotion.

Where blogs and RSS gave writers power and assumed that the internet would come to those with strong enough voices, today’s infrastructure assumes that the internet will only pay attention to those it considers useful:

The rise of social has flipped the old writer/reader balance, restoring power to the reader. On social media, you share an article because you agree with the take, sure, but also because it says something about you, whether that fact is that you’re angry about a political issue, or that you like cute bunnies, or that you love Back to the Future. Your social media feed is a curation of things you want people to know about you. Inconvenient truths, negative views, or anything too dark will be pushed aside… Your social media feed is a curation of things you want people to know about you. Inconvenient truths, negative views, or anything too dark will be pushed aside.

VanDerWerff also references a beautiful piece by the Iranian activist Hossein Derakhshan who returned to the internet after a number of years in jail only to find that ‘his’ blogosphere had been completely abandoned, replaced by websites that monitor people’s attentions and use the resulting data to produce a more-or-less personalised content stream to which you are made passively subject:

The web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.

As someone who tends to naturally write quite long pieces, I am sympathetic to VanDerWerff’s position and as someone who was once quite deeply involved in a book-related blogosphere, I too regret the way that those institutions were hollowed out and allowed to rot away. However, I also think that VanDerWerff is seriously underestimating the complexity of online behaviour.

The narrative contained within VanDerWerff’s piece will be instantly familiar to anyone who remembers the brief fad for books lamenting the changes imposed by the internet on both our culture and our brains. Referred to as the ‘Better-Nevers’ in an excellent review article by Adam Gopnik, thinkers like Nicholas Carr and Sherry Turkle made significant waves by claiming that the internet was both devaluing our relationships and shortening our attention spans. As Carr famously put it:

Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

The problem with the Better-Never critique of online living is that while the narrative was certainly compelling, there was little hard evidence supporting the idea that the internet was either shortening attention spans or undermining our capacity to handle complex pieces of information. In fact, studies relating to internet usage suggested that spending time online encouraged the growth of neural circuitry that was directly related to both attention and abstract thought.

So if the internet is encouraging us to develop new cognitive skills, why are we less likely to read reviews, short fiction and long-form essays? I’m not a neuro-psychologist but I think that we have all spent the last ten years developing our own version of the spam filter.

 

WNR8

 

A Series of Filters for a Series of Pipes

One of the major differences between the internet of today and the internet of ten years ago is that we used to spend a lot more time actively seeking out content. Sure… we had RSS readers and sites we visited more frequently than others but finding stuff used to be just a whole lot harder. Nowadays we fire up Twitter, Facebook or Reddit and the Internet spurts right at our faces. Hossein Derakhshan refers to the modern internet as “The Stream”:

The Stream means you don’t need to open so many websites any more. You don’t need numerous tabs. You don’t even need a web browser. You open Twitter or Facebook on your smartphone and dive deep in. The mountain has come to you. Algorithms have picked everything for you. According to what you or your friends have read or seen before, they predict what you might like to see. It feels great not to waste time in finding interesting things on so many websites.

The big difference between an internet requiring active discovery and an internet premised on passive consumption is that if you go in search of something new and happen to come across something upsetting then you’re not only psychologically prepared for the shock, you’re also more likely to blame yourself for wandering into hostile territory. However, if you assume that the internet is something that comes to you and that what you encounter will be determined by your past interest and those of your friends then encountering something upsetting is both inherently unpleasant and a major social mishap. Why did you dump this racist shit in my timeline? Trigger warnings are at least partially a response to the fact that we have surrendered a lot of our control over what we happen to encounter online.

VanDerWerff describes the social-first internet in less than flattering terms:

On social media, you share an article because you agree with the take, sure, but also because it says something about you, whether that fact is that you’re angry about a political issue, or that you like cute bunnies, or that you love Back to the Future. Your social media feed is a curation of things you want people to know about you.

The only times we tend to think critically about the performative aspects of online living are when we are either complaining about online bullying or giving people advice on how to use social media to con people into buying their products. As a result, it is difficult to talk about how we behave online without making us sound like a bunch of total bell-ends. VanDerWerff dives eagerly into this trap but while I agree that the desire to share stuff online is now intimately connected to the desire to present oneself in a particular light, it is important to understand why this type of signalling matters and what purposes it actually serves.

We live in an age of omnipresent advertising, where every surface seems to cry out for our time, attention, and money. These demands on our limited resources are so persistent that we are forced to learn how to ignore them. Just as people learned to step over the homeless without seeing them, we learned to un-see the adverts and promotions that fill virtually every inch of our urban environments. Of course… the publicists and advertisers know this and so we have turned our culture into one great arms race; a war between our right to control what we do with our own time and money and the urge to surrender to those forces that would suck us dry.

At first the internet seemed to give power to the little people as spam filters and ad-blockers helped us to exert control over the images we saw and the ideas we encountered. However, as we moved from an internet of active discovery to an internet of passive consumption, the technology began to fail us and we had to learn how to protect ourselves from ‘friends’ who are forever spraying us with adverts and emotional detritus. We became cynical and suspicious, wary of investing our time and energy in anything that might turn out to be a drain on our already limited time and resources. We relentlessly police our borders, constantly re-assesses who we trust and who we pay attention to… angry call-outs and collective bullying an old-fashioned solution to the new-fangled problem of who we trust with our time and attention.

Much of the preening and social-positioning that happens on social media is about the cultivation of trust. We share things that tell people about who we are because we want to attract certain types of people and encourage them to trust us on certain types of issues: If I systematically re-tweet every image coming out of Fergusson or Baltimore then I am inviting you to trust me, I am saying that you can relax your filters around me without having to worry about my suddenly exploding into a rant about how an armed 120kg police officer is perfectly entitled to stick a gun in the face of a 45kg teenaged girl clad only in a bikini. I want you to like me… I want you to trust me.

The reason that reviews, short-fiction and long-form essays struggle to gain much traction in the age of social media is that all three of these formats are hard sells: It is difficult to encourage people to read a review you happened to like as the review format throws up almost as many flags as an actual advert. We stopped trusting reviews, we stopped considering worthy of the investment, and we stopped reading them. The same is also true of long-form essays as sharing one of those on social media is tantamount to asking people to invest 25 minutes concerted reading time in an essay they might not enjoy and with which they might aggressively disagree. When you realise that loss of trust can end friendships, you will begin to see why people might have become so risk-averse: I really don’t want to believe that you’re the type of person who would fill my timeline with racist bullshit, so I’m just going to ignore all of those things you want me to read. Cat pictures and dumb jokes pose little risk and frequently provide big returns for the people who invest in them. This is why they spread much better than complex opinions and longer pieces filled with nuance and unresolved tensions.

 

WTNR9

 

Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes

Whenever I read the comments attached to this type of article, someone always seems to complain about the author’s failure to provide solutions to the problems they explored.

Sure… I could talk about the importance of stylistic innovation (Shorter! Pithier! More Personal!) as a means of by-passing reduced trust in certain ossified formats. I could also point out that podcasts and videos do incredibly well because they restore many of the trust-building social cues that are absent from the printed word. I could even talk about how Google+ was on the right track when its ‘circles’ allowed you to share different types of information with different types of people thereby making the bonds between people more secure.

I could write about all of these things at length and yet I don’t want to because I don’t think that anyone has a right to another person’s attention and I have no desire to help you get your message out there. There’s already an entire literature devoted to helping people trick other people into paying attention to them, I see no reason to add to it on my own time and at my own expense.

We used to have a culture. Now we have a system of inter-connecting battlefields where we vie for each other’s attention: Every meeting a duel, every venue a siege, and every fandom a bloodbath. Cultural spaces born of the enlightenment and nurtured by mass education have now been sold off, locked down, and forced to turn a profit. This is war and when we talk about finding new ways to get our ideas out there we are actually talking about trying to circumvent the defensive fortifications that people have built around their innermost thoughts and feelings.

The answer to the commercialisation of public space and the defensive cynicism it breeds will never be better megaphones or catchier jingles. There will always be room for another layer of cynical detachment, another layer of white noise that we screen out as a matter of course.

When I started writing this piece, I had in the back of my mind that there was nothing actually stopping us from re-building the blogosphere and paying a bit more attention to what we all have to say but then I realised that my vision of smaller, more-tightly bound communities was really nothing more than the same empty hopefulness expressed by Jonathan Rosenbaum all the way back in 2007. Maybe if we all just find a quiet corner and talk to each other in whispers then everything will be okay… Now I’m not so sure that we can fix the problem or even attenuate it by scaling back our desire to self-promote and treating people like friends rather than potential consumers. I’d like to think that we could slough off those layers of cynicism but I’m not sure that we can trust each other not to waste our time.

15 Comments
  1. August 12, 2015 5:27 pm

    I’m not sure the blogosphere has necessarily failed, so much as that it’s hard to see amidst an ocean of other stuff.

    My blog is part of a conversation mostly with other bloggers. We read books that others review, discuss them in the comments, it’s a long slow conversation and pretty much I think what blogging always aimed to do (though whether reviews are the right tool is I think a very legitimate query).

    It’s lost though, as are many other blogs, in a sea of “content”. I get fairly good follower numbers, I think, and have been “Freshly pressed” twice, but that’s still a paper boat on a bloody big sea. Plus I tend to write longer form stuff on often difficult books, again limiting the audience.

    Was it ever realistic that people like me would be more widely read? I don’t think so. By contrast, a blogger who covers more popular books in shorter form and with gushing enthusiasm will I think naturally attract a wider audience, though often a fleeting one.

    I do agree that the review copy thing can be deeply pernicious. Once you become part of an ecosystem of recognition by publishers, free books, invitations to events and so on (which in part I am of course) you immediately risk becoming a shill. If a publisher gives you a free book and you say it’s shit, will they give you another? Many won’t take the risk.

    The net though is a mirror of ourselves. There have always been longer, slower conversations trying for depth even if not always succeeding. They’ve always though been lost in the noise of a much wider, lighter, chattier culture with no memory. The mistake was to think that might change. We invented a new technology. We didn’t invent a new humanity.

    Like

  2. August 12, 2015 5:54 pm

    For whatever it’s worth, I haven’t been at all discouraged lately with my own online postings. Yesterday, for instance, 1320 people visited my site, and more than half of them came from outside the U.S. I think the quality of one’s readers is a lot more important than the quantity, and most of the feedback I get is very discerning and helpful, aided and abetted by Facebook and Twitter and including a good many academics as well as mainstream cinephiles. In fact, I believe I’m addressing a specific community more now in some ways than I did during my 20-year stint at the Chicago Reader.

    Like

  3. August 13, 2015 7:35 am

    Hi Jonathan, I’m glad that you are still feeling hopeful :-) Big fan of your work by the way.

    Like

  4. August 13, 2015 7:40 am

    Hi Max :-) Agreed on all counts, but I think it is fair to say that the potential for ‘social mobility’ in blogging terms has decreased massively compared to a decade ago. There are more people out there reading stuff and yet few if them seem willing to read the longer-form, the more complex.

    I think what has happened is that we have moved from a time where online interaction and writing was different to a time when it almost perfectly mirrors the real world. You wouldn’t listen to the cultural opinions of someone you’ve never heard of if they came up to you in the street.. Why would you read their blog?

    Like

  5. August 13, 2015 8:14 am

    Nowadays I actually listen more to podcasts of new (and old) fiction, than I read fiction on paper (I thought I’d use the iPad for reading books, but my son needed it to play Minecraft). The mass of free podcasts is convenient in many ways, so it’s not all bad…

    “Every fandom a bloodbath”, indeed… what I find really nasty about the Internet today, worse than the other problems, is tribalism. Individual identity finds itself overrun by group identity. It’s much easier, of course, to construct a group identity than an individual one — you just start cheering for one team and hating another.
    (I just had a terrible thought: What if a sizable part of the Internet tribes consist of trolls acting as members of all sides… partly for their own personal amusement, and partly as making sure they’re always “winning” every imaginary fight? People trolling themselves, send threats to themselves…)
    But this isn’t really a new thing in human behavior, is it?

    You say let’s not ask for “solutions” that are really about self-promotion and shouting over the general noise. Fine, but I’m still curious about trends. Where is this evolving?

    I see some possibilities:

    1. “Balkanization” — the Internet falls apart into various separate networks that don’t interact at all (one huge web for commercial interests, one tiny for various fandoms and tribes, and naturally one web for organized crime). They will filter out each other and things will be much like now, only a little worse.

    2. Technological breakthroughs change the rules — Don’t underestimate this! The military invented the Internet, and their engineers are required come up with the Next Big Thing. There are rumors of the Chinese developing mind-control technology to manage their population more efficiently. There is already a patent for sending information directly into the brain without physical wiring.

    If (or rather, when) people can connect the Internet directly to their brains — bypassing the ears, hands and eyes — the mental distinction between “self” and “outside” might disappear. And we’d be trapped in the real-life equivalent of The Matrix (only with constant advertising and cat videos inside our heads…)

    3. Disruption — we haven’t seen a Luddite rebellion against the Internet, and I certainly don’t want one. Technology is a fundamental part of what makes us human in the first place, and the Amish seem to lead a very dull life. Even the thugs of the Islamic State refuse to give up their cell phones, their Internet and their other modern technology (which is why I think IS is a Middle Eastern form of LARPing).

    But imagine that it happened anyway. Some fanatic starts to take the conservative motto (“Straddle history yelling Stop”) seriously. The only way to really turn back the clock is to remove the Internet altogether. We haven’t seen this form of “anti-Internet” movement yet, but who knows…

    4. Digital monasticism — just shut yourself off from the big WWW. It is still possible, just difficult. Remember how we used to think people were weird who said “I don’t even own a TV set”? There will be people called “monks” who say “I’m not even connected. I threw away my phone, and now I’m free.”)
    Or set up your own isolated micro-web, designed for no more than a handful of like-minded people. A digital monastery…

    (BTW, my bet is on Option 2.)

    Like

  6. August 13, 2015 1:18 pm

    I think I’m going to be re-reading this regularly for some time to come, Jonathan.

    I’m a little despairing about blogging, about writing, and I don’t know what to do about that. But this is a great effort at drawing together a lot of threads and presenting the big picture, which can only help in understanding and deciding, so thank you.

    Like

  7. August 13, 2015 4:41 pm

    AR —

    I never got into listening to short fiction via podcast but I’ll happily listen to novels when out walking.

    Online tribalism is tribalism is a serious problem as it effectively shreds any attempt to build a community. Where once there was tolerance, now there is ever-increasing fragmentation and people being hurled into the outer darkness for really inconsequential shit most of the time. Even more unpleasant than the act of fragmentation is the attitudes of the groups once the fragmentation has taken place: My current friends must be feted, my old friends should be eaten alive by crows!

    I must admit that I have definitely chosen option number 4: I live in a rural area with limited internet and no online presence. Little surprise that I’m fading into the background! I’m sceptical about solution 2 simply because the net we have seems to suit the corporations rather well.

    Like

  8. August 13, 2015 4:43 pm

    Thanks Shaun — I wrote this in part because I’m working through my own attitude to writing and publishing stuff online. I hope this helps your thinking but do feel free to be less catastrophist than I am :-)

    Like

  9. August 13, 2015 7:49 pm

    Fascinating stuff, as always :)

    My blog is tiny with almost no audience, so perhaps my experiences aren’t representative, or comprehensive enough to mean anything, but I’ve noticed lots of changes since I started blogging 6 years ago. Notably, where I used to get 20-30 hits a day on my site, I now get about 5, sometimes none; and hardly anybody comments these days. (but maybe I just suck more than I used to?)

    Despite having reviewed hundreds of SFF books, I’ve only been offered review copies once or twice. Perhaps this is because my blog is small and invisible, or maybe publishers who find me see that a large(-ish) portion of my reviews are highly critical/negative, and think “nope, not sending him anything”. The few occasions I have been offered stuff, though, I turn it down: mostly because I’m an anxious sort, and I don’t want any external pressure when it comes to my reviews. But also: I’m far too polite for my own good, and I know I’d feel obliged to give an ARC a good review regardless of my actual opinions.

    What I’m seeing a lot with blogs at the moment, however, is a move away from reviewing and towards sort of industry/culture commentary model. This often covers fascinating material, and like many people I enjoy reading a good rant about industry politics, or awards (not that I really care about awards), or whatever. Hell, the few times I’ve written op-ed, state-of-the-industry articles on my own blog, I’ve noticed I get a lot more hits than on my individual book reviews.

    The problem with this move away from reviewing and towards a broader commentary, though, is that it eventually takes me away from the subject in question. I’ve often spent hours reading article after article about a particular issue in literary SFF: following hyperlinks and reading enormous comments threads etc, only to realise that I’ve read 50,000 words worth of commentary… none of which have mentioned or engaged with a single text. Ideally, of course, “texts” are why we’re all here in the first place, right? But I wonder if, for some people, the politics and events surrounding the industry become of greater interest than the books themselves? (Of course blogs themselves are “texts”, but you know what I mean) I wonder if some SFF bloggers actually even read SFF anymore? Are they becoming exclusively critics of the wider culture, rather than of the texts themselves? This seems to be the direction a lot of blogs are headed, in my experience. This is all kinda impressionistic, but it’s what I seem to be “feeling” from the blogosphere at the moment.

    Again, fascinating article,
    Tom.

    Like

  10. August 13, 2015 8:30 pm

    Thanks Tom :-)

    I think the death of genre reviewing has a lot to do with the emergence of a taboo against negative reviews. This was a result of several different forces including the fact that real-time contact via social media made reviewers a lot closer to authors and the fact that negative reviews are a lot more likely to face serious social consequences. More generally, there’s no upside to writing negative reviews and writing blandly positive reviews is not exactly fulfilling on a creative level and so I think people aren’t writing them and (more importantly) people aren’t sharing them.

    Conversely, fan-writing allows people to be creative, sneaky and passionate. More importantly, it pulls down a fuckload of traffic. For example, a little while ago I was linked by someone whose post showed up at File 770. The link was quoted on that site and I received like 40 or 50 hits despite being two layers deep! This Puppies/SJW thing is a wank engine… A self-perpetuating traffic-driving machine that is actively encouraging people to pick sides and grandstand.

    It’s not about the books… The books are just a means to an end and high-school bullshit is a much better way getting to that end than working your way through a book you might not even like and then wracking your brain for something interesting to say about it.

    You’re right to bring up the Puppies and the return of fan-writing to genre culture and it is an exception of sorts to the pattern I describe :-)

    Like

  11. August 17, 2015 12:41 pm

    Oh Jonathan, people would have had to read it in the first place in order to stop. ;)

    Like

  12. August 17, 2015 4:11 pm

    Ah… but that just proves my point! ;-)

    Like

  13. August 21, 2015 12:11 pm

    And yet – I read this entire article.

    And based on the number of comments, if you take the commenter/reader ratio into account, this article, you may have had more people read this article than you would have if it had been published in a scholarly journal. Because there was no way to determine who actually read the publications they subscribed to, or which articles they read and which they ignored, so we could all be blissfully ignorant of the fact that no one was “reading the stuff you posted in that magazine.”

    The internet is nothing but a series of pipes (this is an old telecoms analogy and has nothing to do with the whole “tubes” nonsense). If you think about the pipes under the streets of a city like New York, some of them carry water, some sewage, some gas, some steam, some pipes are full of wires that carry the internet. The internet has no aesthetic nature – it’s just a way to move data around using electrons. It carries words, it carries telemetry, it carries images, it carries messages for heating systems. It is an aleph.

    The fault lies not with the internet or the web, it lies with human behaviour. 100% literacy does not raise the level of thoughtful readers, it simply broadens the pool of people who can read. Some of them will be thoughtful, and the majority of them won’t. The problem is, we’re confusing the tray with the meal at the moment. It always happens with the introduction of new technology. It will pass, and people will think about the internet about as often as they think about the power grid. The focus will return to ideas and material soon enough.

    Like

  14. August 21, 2015 5:21 pm

    Hi John :-)

    I’m glad your attention held till the end! I agree with you that the internet has no inherent nature but I do think that design decisions change how we experience the net. Blogs feel different to livejournal and Tumblr, Facebook feels different to Twitter and the same will be true of whatever comes next.

    I’m not hopeful about the future of the net… I think the social-first internet is here to stay.

    Like

Trackbacks

  1. We Love the Internet 2015/34: The Youth hostelling edition | Curiously Persistent

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: