Editor's Note: Is there a point to written-form websites like this one?
Have you ever reacted or commented on an article shared on Facebook without reading the article? I literally did this today:
I co-founded Isolated Nation at the same time that Facebook started to really establish itself as a multi-media platform, spreading videos, images, advertising and internet articles amongst that selfie of Jessica from high school with her dog, and that status Jono posted about selling his two origin tickets for $50 each. I can actually guarantee that I have really good friends who’ve never read more than a paragraph on this website. Hell, I can probably guarantee that there’s people who’ve written for us that will barely have read anything else on here but their own.
In 2017, written content is losing the war to videos, images and clickbait for our ever-valuable attention (thank you to the advertising world for funding this war). There’s a few core reasons that this is happening:
- A lack of exposure of written content compared to alternatives.
- Inconsistent quality of content turning people away.
- A saturation of the poor quality and irrelevant content.
I’m using Isolated Nation as a case study really, and our specific issue is this:
How do you reach a significant number of people when you’re targeting such a small audience (Perth, 16-30 years old)? Then within that demographic, there’s only going to be a small subset of them that are interested in, say, the film Moonlight. Within that subset of people who are interested, an even smaller subset of those people will actually want to read someone else’s review – and then all of a sudden you realise your available audience is so much smaller than your original audience.
This problem, in and of itself, leads to a host of further issues – the primary one being that this consistently affects your ability to get your content to reach a wide audience. I, like most millennials (I’m actually Generation X but using the word millennials is really “in” right now), find and discover a lot of written content (and memes) on Facebook. It’s an unfortunate portrait of the times, but I rely on the few Facebook friends and pages that I haven’t unfollowed to find cool shit for me and share it, but the reality is that Facebook holds all the power through the use of its news feed sorting algorithm, EdgeRank. This got plenty of coverage during the recent outrage over how fake news dominated the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, and can be pretty succinctly explained. In short, the more people who are commenting, liking and sharing your shit, the more likely that it will reach more people. The consequence of this is that clickbait and memes will also reach more people because everyone will tag their mates to be like "hey, I laughed at this!" (The laughter was all internal). While the principle behind EdgeRank is fine, I do believe that at the end of the day, it ends up catering to the lowest common denominator, forcing generic memes and clickbait-esque content to the top of your news feed, in lieu of content that might be relevant and interesting to you. In the worst case it can become an echo chamber or as John Oliver put it, a ‘cesspool of nonsense’.
Of course, Facebook has no real motivation to change this – they make an astounding amount of money from the sale of advertising. You can literally pay money to force your content to show in people's news feeds, despite EdgeRank, or better yet, force it into that pesky ad sidebar. While I don’t want to delve too deep in to all of the reasons I simultaneously hate but can’t live without Facebook – this is a massive reason that online written content just can’t reach the audience that it could be interesting to. I’m certain that we’re not alone in this.
While this doesn’t show reach the thing I’m whinging about right now, you can see that engagement for similarly sized, and sometimes larger pages, is low across the board, save for The Guide and Pilerats. All of the top posts for The Guide were ticket giveaways and videos. Apparently there’s still massive interest in Suzie Quatro!
Pilerats seem to have managed to win social media somewhat, sharing stuff that is very tag-able amongst the written stuff from their website and their original media content. But the written stuff still doesn’t SEEM to be reaching a huge amount of people (compared to the size of their social media page), and I think that’s why Pilerats (and other startups like theirs) made the decision a long time ago to move their focus far from written content and into content creation and ventures like Pilerats Records.
I think it’s safe to assume that the average volume of written content doesn’t reach people, even the ones who like your social media page to get it. Save for the larger corporate-owned companies Daily Mail, Vox, The Guardian, NY Times etc. and the likes of the government-funded ABC here in Australia. You could argue (and you would probably be right) that it doesn’t show up in people’s Facebook feeds because no one is reacting to it. I’ll be the first to admit that videos far are easier to absorb, and we don’t always want a deep discussion about every facet of life (or events and music and film).
MySpace marked the start of something, and before that there were things like Yahoo! GeoCities (and before that there was probably something on Usenet I really don’t know), and this was a real glimpse into what Web 2.0 was going to bring to the world. Everyone had a profile or website that they could customise to their liking and express themselves and post things (oh man, MySpace bulletins…). And around the same time there was the rise of blogging websites like blogger, tumblr and WordPress. All of these cost us nothing but gave the wider, less tech-savvy population a means to share their written content with the world – or at least their friends and family (or in some cases just as a personal journal).
The latter platform and similarly based content management systems (I’m sorry for doing this), very quickly became the place for magazine-style content, with many print magazines taking the opportunity to spread their content across both print and web platforms. Eventually, and who knows at what point, print publication became the underdog to the online media behemoth. In doing so, the often money-backed advances of magazine and news-style corporations establishing themselves online were able to dominate the online reach. You're force-fed 100 ads and all of a sudden you’re a regular on Cracked or FasterLouder. You can’t remember how you used find those smaller blogs, where someone was writing because they liked writing – not because someone was paying them to churn something out with the purpose of selling ad space. When these corporate-owned online Giants started to dominate was at about this same time that Facebook became the primary way that we find new stuff to read – whether that’s someone linking it to you in messenger or it showing up in your news feed.
Ahh, but wait, EdgeRank is flawed – you try and click something that sounds interesting only to find that you’ve been clickbaited and the article is a complete and utter waste of your time. You read some really shitty article that wasn’t edited (we've been guilty of this...) and that also wastes your time. You open an article and are interested in the thesis but find that it’s really fucking long and in reality you don’t give a shit – think of all the memes you could’ve seen in the time it’s taken you to read this far. You start to form an association with a random article on Facebook as mostly a waste of your time. The content producers react by making their content more clickbaity, and only act to reinforce your increasingly negative perception of online written content.
I’ve established that I think Facebook is shit, no one will see anything you try and share and no one will click it if they do see it. SO WHAT’S THE POINT?
The Oscar-hopeful (and likely best picture winner), La La Land, had already won a whole bunch of Golden Globes, and the sporadic reviews I’d glanced over and the numbers I’d seen associated with it (Rotten Tomatoes / Metacritic etc.) said that it was going to be great – but throughout its standard release in Australia, I was really apathetic towards seeing it. If you saw everything that someone said was “good” on the internet, you’d have negative time (the scientist in me is obligated to tell you that this conceptually makes no sense). But then Angelique Tuffnell wrote an incredibly succinct and inspirational review for Isolated Nation – which I’m obviously obligated to read; I mean if I don’t read my own website’s content, how can I expect anyone else to?! Writing is in and of itself an art, and through her art, Angelique was able to change my entire view towards something that was already so present in the public sphere, and I rushed to make plans to see La La Land (oh my, I was not disappointed). And I’m not alone – there was further evidence of this in the Isolated Nation Slack just today:
James' perception of, and desire to see Moonlight was significantly affected and coloured by the written word of another person. To me, that's nothing short of inspirational.
Also please note the tacos: The taco system is very important to our hierarchy and ensures only the best stay on top of the taco leaderboard.
I’d like to take a brief detour from my own discussion to also say, that starting a people-driven effort like this website has allowed me to meet and collaborate with some incredible like-minded people I’d have not have otherwise met. Writing this article, and the examples that just came to me at a whim has shown me the that social aspect of writing is so vital. They regularly introduce me to new music and movies and events, and are all just all-round amazing people to interact with. The social aspect of writing, putting yourself and your thoughts out there can’t be diminished. If no one ever read a thing that was written on this website, I’d still be grateful for the people that I’ve met in the process.
When someone writes well, or writes about something you’re interested in, or even just writes in a style you find entertaining, it’s no different to having a really compelling conversation with someone. Our film editor, Howie Ng, recently had a conversation with me about his experience at RTR’s Distant Murmurs event, and the conversation was so entertaining that I had all of a sudden spent five minutes reading about bands I’d never heard of (or give a shit about, really – sorry!). Not to mention, the potential audience size for a this kind written live event review is very small, and a very hard market to crack (we specialise in these), but we actively encourage people to write them, for the exact moment where someone else feels like you're having a conversation with them.
By reading a live event review, or any kind of writing that someone's taken time to form, you’re giving the writer a chance to have a conversation with you about their experience. If one person reads this rather long and niche online article about online articles (I wish I had one more layer of abstraction), I’ll feel satisfied. I don’t view it as any different to having a conversation with one person – and if two people read it, that’s twice as good!
I’ll keep reading online content in the hope that I'll read something that will change me, or make me look at something in a completely new light. Maybe I’ll listen to that album I wouldn’t have otherwise listened to because someone took the time to express how good they thought it was. Maybe next time I’m having a shit time at a gig, I’ll think about how Howie used his shit experience to turn it into something artistic and creative and fun!
People play amateur sport when they were never that good at them, people play instruments forever while having never played a gig, and your grandma keeps knitting you really awful scarfs, beanies and blankets despite the fact we live in Australia. The process, the art and social gains keep them doing it – and writing is no different. It’s an accessible form of expression that allows you to connect with people, no matter how many.
To answer my own question, there is a point to websites like this one. The harsh reality is that written content is a saturated media with a very low market value – and I welcome this – it becomes more about community, quality content, and good conversations. I hope that this extended stream of consciousness inspires at least one person to consider writing something about anything, even if they don’t think anyone will read it, but just to enjoy the process. And hell, visit our contribute page (cheeky wink emoji or something).