When I began writing, I aspired to be a tech blogger. Windows Phone Daily was modeled after the early days of Engadget, Joystiq, 1UP and others. They all had a formula: a steady stream of reported news, a splash of original content, and a sprinkle of opinionated editorials on top. I had plenty of heroes I followed and mimicked – Joshua Topolsky, Nilay Patel, Paul Miller, Chris Ziegler, Vlad Savov, Myriam Joire, Tom Warren, Paul Thurrott, Daniel Rubino, etc.
I was an amateur teen at the time, but their work was so inspiring. Their writing was sharp with eye-popping pull quotes, eye-candy photos, a gorgeous online layout…
And yet somehow over the years, I’ve realized how writers and publications like those from my past are hard to find now. Plenty of those writers are still active today, but that’s just it — who else is there?
It’s been genuinely difficult for me to find new writers and bloggers who are just as engaging, and I think there’s a few reasons why.
- SEO kind of sucks and it hurts writing
- Online media favors videos / content much more than writing
- Independent sites are having a hard time staying independent
SEO kind of sucks
I remember while operating Windows Phone Daily, headlines were always one of the toughest parts of any article published. I always got a little wordy, too descriptive instead of just cutting to the point. Yet I still wanted to write an entertaining headline, one that would be engaging enough for someone to want to click and read. Social media and SEO didn’t always favor emotional or opinion headlines for the most part – it was always looking for a keyword to emphasize, a subject matter to focus around that was clear and obvious. Twitter was the same, with hashtags being so important at the time to tying into a larger conversation and the limited word count. (The title of this post would barely register a blip on search engines or social media.)
Thinking about it now, there’s a major problem with ‘focus keywords’ in my opinion. The emphasis on a single topic is all built around the assumption that someone is looking for it – an answer to a specific question, a list of the five best vacation spots before they plan their vacation, a guide on which different fruits help heal skin because they’re about to pop a pimple, or whatever the fuck else it is. Apparently all we need from search engines and websites are questions that need to be answered.
“Apparently all we need from search engines and websites are questions that need to be answered.”
But the problem with treating every article as a niche landing page is that it’s ignoring context. It used to be easy and common to find a variety of blogs just by searching up a few topics or navigating around social media. At that time, search engines wouldn’t heavily favor a listicle or clickbait article but instead a mix of websites to provide the best knowledge on an overall topic. They still do in a way, but the first page of results is heavily favoring sites that are borderline media conglomerates. They mass produce content, dominating almost every keyword you could think of. Meanwhile independent sites are getting buried because they just can’t compete, even if they’re a better fit for what someone may be looking for.
Social media is also contributing to this problem for writing. Likes and retweets became crucial measures, and that has quickly evolved into finding formulas. All competing sites rinse and repeat the same format of language, a short link, a sharp image and then boom – they’ve got pageviews, likes and retweets. Rinse and repeat.
It’s easy to build a site as a respectable authority on topics using this formula, and definitely an easy way to earn some money; but the reality is you’re just word vomiting everywhere. There’s very little one really contributes in culture or quality if that’s how they try to operate their site. Fully formed thoughts or constructive arguments or just anything organic is what can really contribute and make a mark — just seems like that’s going extinct now.
Videos > Words?
So naturally after bringing up social media and the prevalent use of formulaic writing, we can turn to the nature of blogging now. It’s all about content with high engagement and sponsorship potential — videos, listicles, podcasts, etc. It’s seeming impossible to be a successful online publication in 2019 without some form of digital media.
One factor is how blog posts and articles have to become ‘portable’ now. The best metaphor I can come up with are soundbites or b-rolls — easily recycled material for a ‘swipe up’ story post on Instagram, a pot-stirring quote to publish on Twitter with #hashtag, a controversial headline on Facebook, etc.
Take a look at ESPN, who can create whole media narratives from the half-baked opinions their First Take hosts shout at each other. They take those purposely divisive blurbs, and create story arcs around them for ESPN viewers, readers and followers to digest. Eventually these narratives make their way into the cultural lexicon. Media then begin to ask the teams or athletes, fishing for details that may tie into said narrative (even if it’s a stretch). I can’t even imagine how bewildering that must feel.
“It’s discouraging that online writing has really become an afterthought now”
Look at this video from a First Take host, responding to NBA player Carmelo Anthony’s partner after she criticized the host for rooting against him. ESPN literally created a whole 6-minute segment from a 21 word tweet — which came after the first segment on Carmelo Anthony. The host got someone to bite, and he just stirred the pot to get more out of it — 1.2 million views on the video to be exact. It is baffling.
It’s discouraging that online writing has really become an afterthought now, and I think it’s partly why “fake news” is actually something real and recurring. For instance, I’m mostly active on Reddit following subreddits, reading self posts or link posts. On Reddit, I cannot count how many times there are misguided comments from people who clearly never read a linked article. All they look at is the title, which can leave way too much for interpretation (as its sole purpose is usually to stir up controversy or emotion).
The most heinous ones are tweets posted to Reddit, which are obviously not meant to be fully formed thoughts or journalistic reports. For example, a post on the r/NFL subreddit was a tweet describing how the Bengals locker room reacted to their first win of this season:
The wording used on the tweet was vague and some redditors interpreted it as a passive aggressive move by Dalton assuming he was ‘getting revenge’ by sticking it to his coach after being benched. So redditors were commenting away, making jokes or having a ‘First Take’ moment themselves to stir shit up. This annoyed the crap out of me, so I googled ‘Bengals postgame’ and found a video on the Bengals website of the exact moment this tweet was describing. It only took about a minute to find, and it immediately cleared up any possibility of being negative or contentious. Here’s my comment and another comment from someone else I now love. Also doesn’t help that many overlooked that the tweet was from Andrew Hawkins, Andy Dalton’s former NFL teammate and close friend.
Again people, context matters.
Yet I know there are people who saw the tweet or Reddit post, interpreted it as controversial, spit out an immediate response, and moved on believing their interpretation as the truth. Honestly I’ve been guilty of it too, only to have egg on my face once I gain context. For some reason, the internet is relying on short blurbs to have the same thorough details and analysis as a journalist’s full formed report. Quickly typing out 40 words isn’t the same as hundreds of words published by a journalist citing multiple sources. It is scary people treat those two things equally.
Independent not so dependable
Finally, I see there’s an overall movement away from independent sites. It’s reasonably safe to say blogs and independent sites peaked at one point. There were just too many sites and it became difficult keeping up with all that you liked.
Once social media evolved into a content sharing platform, everyone suddenly had a super-powered feed reader of articles, photos, videos and more being pushed to you instead of you having to go type in a random address. On top of that, you could easily share this content with friends and create your own new content.
With how easy it has become for Instagram pages or Twitter handles to serve as your custom ‘hubs’ of news and content you care about, it makes sense why independent sites would suddenly dip. If they’re not in the top 20 or 30 follows of an average social media user and aren’t seeing traffic for not being SEO-driven, they were screwed. Hell, social media doesn’t even make you know the URL for a website anymore — all you have to do is remember the brand. That alone is a significant barrier to entry for brands that social media immediately chops down compared to remembering a specific URL.
So with people having a natural limit on brands to follow on social media and search engines heavily rewarding direct answers instead of general expertise, it makes sense why the best independent sites have to hope they are bought by a Vox or BuzzFeed and join the mass production effort, just to stay alive.
So, where the hell can you find independent blogs or writers?
Honestly, I don’t know the answer. The best hope you can have is probably Medium, but while it is an excellent platform restoring the value and visibility of writers, it’s also just… boring. You’re still playing within walls and in a system that still rewards specific behavior. [Edit: After this post, I wrote up how Medium has even bigger problems than I realized.]
The most memorable of websites are ones that visually stand out. I’ve never liked reading books, because it’s just a wall of black and white text. There’s nothing that pops, no complimentary media to enhance your message, no hyperlinks to help you explore further. In other words, easily my favorite part of any existing blog is actually the website itself.
“In other words, easily my favorite part of any existing blog is actually the website itself.”
I like interesting page layouts. I like pullquotes. I like cool effects. I like curated videos or pictures or tweets or screenshots or whatever else. I like a clean page that isn’t littered with pop-ups and video ads. I like to read a fully-formed piece of writing that is flexible enough to reward readers who skim for the basics OR read every word for word. (I hope anyone reading this believes my writing lives up to this pedigree.)
I want to savor writing, let it sit in my head and inspire a response. I especially miss the comments sections of blogs… Engadget, Joystiq, The Verge, AV Club and several more were all known for their hyper active comments sections. That’s certainly why I’ve gravitated towards Reddit, as the best part of any online content is engaging with an equally smart audience with valid thoughts to share. Comments enhance everything and suddenly users are part of a discussion they wouldn’t have been able to join otherwise.
How do we recreate this in 2019? How can online media as a whole find a way to add some substance back into what they share with followers? Do online readers even care anymore, or are they satisfied with half-assed blurbs to sorta trust on a mass scale?
Some online publications have exciting ideas. The ‘news’ videos from Genius are a great example of an article in watchable format. Things get cool when they pull from the artist’s past music videos, referenced music lyrics, personal histories and more. It’s educational, insightful and definitely plants in my mind to check out Genius.com
I think there’s a solution out there to building substantial content again that people find appealing, and I’m really curious to find it. Going to take a while…