A couple of weeks ago, Todd VanDerWerff wrote at Vox that 2015 was the year the old internet died in which he lamented the death of the internet as a writer’s medium. As I wrote in my weekly reading journal at the time, I have been thinking a lot recently about this tension between work that is rewarding for the creator to produce and work that works well as shareable content in the current online social media paradigm. It would be great to work on something that can succeed in this environment that I also would not hate working on. This is a bit of a false dichotomy; even VanDerWerff thinks Vox represents a pretty decent middle ground. I hope we have found one as well.
With The Appendix, we knew that a lot (though certainly not all) of our content would have enough of a whimsical or strange angle that it had the potential to break out of our devoted social media circles. The challenge was to avoid having that knowledge change how we chose material to publish. I’m not sure we always did the best job of that.
I was always sort of disappointed when we failed on that front and would like to focus on projects that simply don’t provide the temptation. At the same time, I am thoroughly convinced by these arguments about the direction that Internet content is headed. How much sense does it make to try to avoid the model that is so clearly in its ascendance?
The problem with worrying too much about which internet to build for is that there will always be a new one to chase. There are those who are interested in publishing as a business, and that can be a very compelling pursuit. My interest, however, has always been in the individual projects or products in which I’ve invested rather than in the larger industries they inhabit. When I managed bands, the problems the music industry at the time presented were interesting puzzles to solve, but I would not have devoted my time to them if I weren’t interested in the bands themselves.
It’s not that the business problems are not interesting, but I am primarily interested in understanding them well enough to make sure they get out of the way of a specific project that feels like it has inherent aesthetic or social merit.
There seems to be a consensus about what categories of content work best in this new context: video; photos; infographics; short-form text, if you must. Unfortunately, none of this stuff appeals to me.
So what are the common traits of these categories of content that can be instructive to someone who is not trying to create a viral juggernaut?
They are atomic: a viewer or reader can at least get the gist of what they’re about immediately upon arrival. A short video or text will cover a single idea, frequently readily apparent from its title, and can be quickly scanned for the gist. An infographic or photo may reward deeper engagement, but by definition presents itself completely on first viewing. This capacity for quick pick-up presumably contributes to shareability; people notoriously share before reading, and the more quickly they can identify the piece to share as something they’d like to be identified with, the more likely they are to share. The trick is to find something that is atomic and digestible, but isn’t cheap.
The other characteristic shared by a lot of readily shareable content is that having found it reflects well on the sharer, whether that speaks to their taste, their good politics, their charity, or their erudition. Of those, engaging people’s interest in self-education, reading, and collecting information appeals the most to me.
So I’m working on a project we’re calling Backlist. I think it solves for the intersection of these two concerns while remaining something I’d be proud to work on. There’s nothing to show publicly yet, but there will be very soon.