Writing a post the other day, I did a series of searches that netted me quotations that would have taken me hours to search for and find in the stacks of my University library a mere four or five years ago.
I wanted to find a series of half-remembered phrases from a relatively obscure critical theorist. I wasn’t even sure that he said all of the things I was half-sure he’d said something about. I typed in a series of queries by inserting an alphabet soup of the words that I could remember from the long quotes I was wanting to pull, with author’s name attached to the end of the query; I brought up several of the theorist’s books and found all of the quotes that I was hoping to find. It turned out that they were spread out across his entire body of work.
The whole “research process”—finding the obscure quotes I wanted, citing them—took me about seven or eight minutes. As recently as three years ago it would have taken me hours, and it could only have been performed at a major university library. The great likelihood is that I would have given up before getting started.
I remember discovering Wikipedia when I was in college. I literally remember the night that I first discovered it. The online encyclopedia was fairly new at the time, but it already had an incredible wealth of information on the particular subject that I was researching on that occasion: German World War II uniforms. I stayed up until 6 am that morning pacing back and forth from entry to entry, clicking through, deeper and deeper into my subject matter, and by the time the sun rose, I’d started a novella about the Battle of Stalingrad which swelled to nearly a hundred pages in the next two weeks.
That would have been an absurdly—almost megalomaniacally—ambitious project for a 21-year-old undergrad ten years earlier. The research to do a half-decent evocation of even a single day in the three-month-long battle—one of the most complicated, and still the bloodiest, battle in the history of the world—might have taken months or even years of trekking through libraries, sifting through histories, making notes of little details, sampling the voices of real generals and soldiers quoted online in various places to make the characters and dialogue more realistic. With the help of Wikipedia and just a few source-books, I managed to throw something together in just a few weeks that I can still read today without feeling queasy about it either. The piece wasn’t exactly Life and Fate, but it wasn’t an embarrassingly bad freshman effort either.
But then again, many would argue that the phenomena enabling undergrads to do lightning-quick research like this is identical with the phenomena that prevent anyone from reading books like Life and Fate. Who has time to wade through hundreds of pages of densely evocative prose when we’re all trying to keep up with the schizophrenic pace of breaking news on Facebook and Twitter?
The easiest way for an out-of-work writer to find a job today is to get connected to a search engine optimization company of some kind. In this field, content is produced in order to win rankings. Increasingly the content also has to be readable and useful for people searching for the keywords that these texts are targeting.
Websites want traffic in order to produce conversions (re: money). In order to capture traffic they need good content (re: words, images, infographics, videos etc.—but primarily words). Put more simply, in this environment, “Words ARE money.”
Take Gawker, for example: Gawker basically generates content based on trending topics on Google, rather than producing copy and hoping it becomes popular; some criticize the strategy, but it’s one that ensures they always have plenty of traffic.
In other words, readers do not come to Gawker, Gawker goes out and finds its readers—by identifying high-traffic topics and writing about them in a highly visible, ideally optimized way.
This type of writing—let’s call it “optimized content”—is evolving into its own compound. In the same way that the novel rose out of a changing demographic landscape catalyzed by a technological shift (rising literacy and the falling price of printing), “optimized content”—on blogs, news sites, and various other media—is rising out of an increased dependence on search engines to filter information, catalyzed by the increasing ubiquity of search engine access (smartphones, iPads etc.). The cultural turn is leveraged and accelerated by the amount of money involved in capturing internet traffic for businesses which are shifting away from traditional marketing towards internet marketing (virtually everyone).
It may be ancient history in Internet time, but in early 2011 when Google made a major update to their search algorithm, cryptically titled “Panda,” they changed the entire geography of the internet.
Obviously—as Google is the leading search engine by a wide margin—the update changed the way that rankings were organized. But all the sites that were still trying to earn rankings actually transformed. The internet is a different terrain than it was ten months ago. It is becoming increasingly saturated with “thoughtful content.”
Google announced that the aim of Panda was to “lower the rank of low-quality sites in search results and return high-quality sites to Google’s users.”
The effect of the change was felt across the web in a real way. Content farms and low-quality sites built around placing hundreds of links sank from top search results pages into the murky oblivion of the Internet. Some high-profile sites were dragged down with them—partly due to the growing pains of applying a massive update to an organic equation that affects billions of sites, and partly due to participation in shady dealings with the aforementioned junky sites.
When the dust settled, one thing was clear: content held court over the Internet now. Higher rankings were largely dependent upon high-quality content that was extremely relevant to users. There is one group of people that this affected more than any other: writers.
Seemingly overnight, writers were in extreme demand and being snatched up by companies by the fistful. Online marketplaces that pair writers with projects flourished and continue to grow in popularity. While Google has commoditized most of the Internet and makes valuable, high-quality content (i.e. a New York Times article series) available for free, the Panda update gave once-destitute writers a new purpose. However, the new boon does come with a catch. Let’s look at the example of email marketing.
Email marketing software allows you to send thousands of deeply personalized messages by riding on an algorithm. You enter marketing segmentation data and snippets of copy at one end, and a voluminous profusion of letters comes out the other end.
For better or worse, much of the writing that is being produced today is subordinate to algorithms and marketing segmentation data. The alchemy that turns words into dollars is not the literary critic—or at least the “critic” has been transmogrified into a diffuse anarchically democratic admixture of social signals (tweets, shares etc.).
Google has singlehandedly borne an entire writing industry with the wave of their search wand, so writers have a lot for which to be thankful. Ask any writer: Getting paid for your words isn’t easy, but being in high demand is akin to the English nerd getting asked to the prom by everyone in school. It’s hardly a glamorous life, but it is one where skills are sharpened and rent is paid, as long as you aren’t trying to be the next Erasmus.
We need to rid ourselves of the myth of the solitary auteur and embrace the author as one point in a circuit, a valuable technician who is part of a much larger production process—a supply chain that’s more responsive to demand than ever before.