socrates plato

I feel that those of us into the new media game spend so much time defending it against the “Google-Makes-Us-Stupid” arguments, that we don’t have much time to really critique new media in a constructive way. And so, I was glad to read Robert Cottrell’s piece in the Financial Times, about his experiences reading online.

Cottrell runs the site, The Browser, which links to a handful of the best pieces of online writing every day. So it is fair to say that Cottrell does a lot of reading online, and this is a medium for reading and writing that he has bought into, wholeheartedly. And yet he says:

I don’t pretend that everything online is great writing. Let me go further: only 1 per cent is of value to the intelligent general reader, by which I mean the demographic that, in the mainstream media world, might look to the Economist, the Financial Times, Foreign Affairs or the Atlantic for information. Another 4 per cent of the internet counts as entertaining rubbish. The remaining 95 per cent has no redeeming features. But even the 1 per cent of writing by and for the elite is an embarrassment of riches, a horn of plenty, a garden of delights.

As I write this online, I can say it is no small matter to think of one’s own words as facing these odds against their own quality. Of course, this is a poverty in the face of the death of scarcity—there being so much worthwhile writing out there online, what are the chances that someone relatively new to the game like myself could compete to be in that top one percent? I would consider myself skilled to bring my writing up to the level of “entertaining rubbish,” amid the company of all the other online writers in the world. This makes the entire effort seem rather futile. Why, in a world in which one can start a blog as easily as an email account, would I spend my time and effort crafting one more blog post?

I don’t believe that Cottrell’s evaluation of the curve of quality in online writing is necessarily wrong–but I do think there is another metric which he is perhaps ignoring. Not all writing is meant to be “of the upmost.” That is not what all writing is for. Quality, as Cottrell himself defines it, is a function of potentially wide readership, longevity, and entertainment:

Each day I seek my six pieces with these criteria in mind: would I go out of my way to recommend this piece to one of my own friends? Will it inform and delight the intelligent general reader? Will it still be worth reading a month or a year from now?

But other writing serves other purposes. These can be solipsistic pieces, written for the writer, like a journal which just so happens to be public. They could be fiercely topical–reviews of cultural products, deep analysis of particular subjects to the point of academic specialty, or other sub-cultural feedback loops of such specificity that to bemoan their lack of wide readership is to miss the point of the piece entirely. There are any number of functions that a piece of writing could have that would lead it away from a wide, generally intelligent readership.

But there is a certain sort of writing online attracting my attention, which is vast speculative and discursive experimental. I don’t mean speculative from a literary standpoint–like Oulipo or beat poetry. This is regular writing, but the subject is not discursively transparent or available. The text is a musing, a proposition, a thought procedure, or a gamble. For example:

  • By Tim Maly, an exploration of the signifier that is Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodie
  • By Deb Chachra, a meditation on the concept of “peak plastic”
  • A line by line ranking by Bruce Sterling of Adam Greenfield’s techno-architectural aphorisms
  • A rant, by Rebecca McCray, against a particular style of writing about young people in the New York Times
  • None of these are necessarily “quality writing.” I would not recommend them to people who typically read “the Economist, the Financial Times, Foreign Affairs or the Atlantic.” I would, however, recommend them to everyone I know, because almost everyone I know does not particularly scan these publications of record. The people I know look for the Weird Media: the stuff under rocks, collected on odd wikis, in the abstracts of obscure academic papers, and the underlying spirit of otherwise boring press releases. These are excellent pieces of online writing. They are excellent not because they are finished, polished paradigms of literacy, but because they are explorations, speculations, and transmissions of thoughtful work. The essays themselves are experiments, and as such, they can only be useful if they are repeated, considered, shared, and adapted.

    The ability to publish online for all-intents-and-purposes free, has given us an amazing literary tool we have never possessed before. We have the ability to find and connect a group of people who have interests overlapping very closely with ours, and create a shared canon of literature that appeals to mostly only this precise group. This canon is not a finished library, but a drawing board and a laboratory. We can explore ideas here at will, without worrying about selling the idea to the vast majority of society.

    Consider the pieces above as I would. Tim Maly acts as cultural commentator from a perspective I closely share, interpreting current events through a very particular lens that I would not find elsewhere. Deb Chachra takes her detailed knowledge, and applies it speculatively to a subject without having to satisfy the formal necessities of academic writing. Bruce Sterling and Adam Greenfield interact in an asymmetric and one-way dialog, bringing new observations on a set of abstract musings to my attention, in such a new form that I can only summarize its process as “reblog, with parentheticals.” And Rebecca McCray writes the angry manifesto, not against a government or something so dignified as art, but against something relatively mundane, and yet so outstandingly frustrating to a certain number of people such as myself. None of these sorts of writing could have existed before online writing, at least outside of the narrow audience of correspondence or a salon. And yet here they are. Do they fall into the 1% of quality? The 4% of entertaining? Or the rest? I’m not sure where Cottrell would place them, but to me, these pieces are the reasons that I read and write online.

    But writing online is a sort of progressive work. Unlike essay classics that stand the test of time, these sorts of pieces require feedback and responses from their audience, otherwise they live and die at the pace of the timeline. This gets to another of Cottrell’s points, one so wise, that it seems obvious: “we overvalue new writing, almost absurdly so, and we undervalue older writing.”

    There is a temporality to online writing, which we are still grappling with understanding. Cottrell thinks of this temporality in terms of pieces which are not quite current, but still have remarkable value. And he is not wrong about this, considering his functions of quality. But for the sorts of pieces I am describing, there is different sort of temporality. These pieces do not function as one-off bon mots, fire-and-forget pieces of literary witticism. They are part of an unfolding writing process, akin to a dialog, an ever-building architecture of literary space in the online dimension. They require their audience to surround them, to inhabit them, to promote them and to share them. Their readership may not consider these texts as classics, but as they continue to engage with them by responding and sharing them, they constitute them into a very real literature. Not that the essays don’t necessarily stand up on their own under the power of their own words. But their true life comes from their investing culture, as they are more social performances over time than they are flat texts that can be recalled.

    Online writing is very good for writing, as we have come to know it in the past. But there are new forms of writing coming into existence, that we are only now discovering and disassembling. As these instances of collective intelligence stand up, we’ll need to step forward to greet them. Not every new social organism is going to be fully developed, but we’ll certainly be there, to find which ones suit our circle and invite them in. Or at least, this is where I hope my writing can fit.