Writers thrive on a dangerous concoction of narcissism and feedback.
We like seeing our name in print, and love the feedback loop of comments (both positive and negative). For me, writing is a cathartic process that helps to crystallize my thinking. Having it further refined by all the great comments that come from the readers is icing on the cake.
Writing online is a really unique beast, because the feedback is as prominent as the article itself. It also comes in real time, leveling the playing field between writer and reader. No longer are writers broadcasting their message from a pedestal, but rather scrappily mixing it up with fans and foes alike. I have been called both brilliant and an idiot in response to the same article. It's a beautiful thing.
The instantaneous nature of online feedback has a bizarre and perverse consequence, though. It makes writers crave comments. It is exceedingly easy to start crafting your stories with a goal of maximizing comment count, and publishers will nod in approval. The dark secret that online writers share is the knowledge that there are only two easy ways to drive significant feedback: controversy or pandering.
I trade in controversy. For the last three years since I started writing for MediaPost, I seem to have been the leader in driving comments. Not the most experienced (that prize goes to Dave Morgan), not the nicest (Ari Rosenberg by a mile), and certainly not the most data-driven (Jack Loechner owns this title).
The problem, is that I'm the leader in a metric that doesn't matter. Like measuring clickt-throughs in display advertising, I'm measuring something that tells only part of the story. It doesn't measure the quality of the article, nor how interesting or useful it is for my audience. That bothers me deeply. I want to become a better writer, not just a more offensive one.
My struggle to become a better writer unfortunately led me down a path that forces me to eat my words.
A Twit and a Tweet
While our generation rarely creates brilliant poetry or long-form journalism that rivals Proust or Kafka, we have forever changed the very nature of writing.
Social writing not only fixes mistakes, but drives column ideas, crystallizes the thinking of both writer and readers, and leads to better journalism. With social writing, quality floats to the top and junk is quickly labeled as junk.
My realization about the power of social writing, has forced me (after years of maligning it publicly) to embrace Twitter. As a backdrop, I have been a huge skeptic of Twitter. I have privately to my friends (and in the occasional MediaPost column), made fun of Twitter as being useless and narcissistic. I still believe it is powered by narcissism, but it turns out that narcissism has a very useful side indeed.
As an example, my column last month about publishing on the iPad was the most-read column on all of MediaPost for several days. It also had more than 37 Facebook likes, and more than 60 tweets and re-tweets. Yet it only had three comments. The social conversation has clearly shifted away from site-specific comments.
Therein lies a major challenge for publishers and writers alike. How do you manage content in an age where you control neither the conversation nor the property where that conversation takes place?
To steal a strategy from Microsoft, you need to embrace and extend. You need to start by structuring your content so it oozes through the Twitterverse: bake in link shorteners, highlight quotes, and have one-click Twitter integration. Ultimately though, you need to enable social conversations on your own site. How can you leverage the Facebook and Twitter APIs to create a compelling social experience within your own walls?
The second challenge created by social writing is trickier. Is there a place for thoughtful journalism in an age where readers all seem to suffer from ADHD? More importantly, can you do it profitably?
I'm not convinced you can. I believe that we have gone down a cultural road that is tough to backtrack. The overwhelming majority of readers want the punch line, not the analysis. This forces publishers and writers to make a tough choice: optimize for great content or optimize for page views (comments/social). The former may win awards, but the latter will make you rich. Just ask Arianna.
As for me, I have made my choice. I am going to write the most thought provoking content I can. I'm done checking my word count, and through with counting comments.
I even (gasp) joined Twitter (@dkoretz) so I can more easily interact with readers. I look forward to the banter, the criticism, and the occasional compliment. Thank you in advance for helping to make me a better writer.
You already have.