A Lebanese friend who happens to be a writer was telling me recently that he didn’t appreciate the comments posted in response to some of his articles on the internet. He happens to work at a well-known journalistic institution whose website has been suspended in a 1990s internet vortex due to some bureaucratic complications. Although his colleagues often complain about the woeful obscurity of their writing on this website compared to other less serious yet more influential media outlets, he secretly relished the anonymity imposed by a somewhat slow-moving and antiquated form of delivery.
It was not long ago that my friend told me this, but we are living in fast-paced times. In this state of temporal compression, a worrying trend has emerged in which a writer’s success has come to be measured by the number of views and comments elicited by his or her writing. Those same writers have, in a matter of a few years, adopted a new publishing ethos in which they post their thoughts, opinions, and writings on the plethora of blogging sites currently available. The generation of bloggers, many of whom started out as newspaper writers and later moved to electronic publishing, didn’t stop there—they expanded their commenting activity to their personal Facebook pages.
In pure numbers, the results have been astonishing. Journalists who used to write long-form, in-depth articles—quality notwithstanding—in the traditional newspaper format started to cut their articles shorter with every piece published online, until they reduced their output to short anecdotes approaching the 140 character limit of a tweet. This produces a structure that is not so different from a snapshot of a celebrity; it doesn’t communicate much more than a hint at something unquantifiable. And since “hinting” is all the readers have to go by, a whole industry of entertainment reporting has sprung to life, spawning writers with authoritative voices who have the final say in what the change in Brad Pitt’s hairstyle means for his relationship with Angelina Jolie. Needless to say, such “factual” interpretations are nothing more than wild rumors.
There is a plague afflicting writing and writers these days, one that makes them Google themselves to check the number of articles mentioning them by name. They have no time to read every single piece of written material that mentions them, so they focus on the statistics. As a result, they managed to venture into the same forest that they were, as writers and artists, trying to discern from the trees: “Avatar broke box office records,” “Aristotle was mentioned millions of times on the internet,” “Lady Gaga has more Likes on her Facebook page than Barack Obama”—translated into a declaration of what a great film Avatar is, how Aristotle is the most important thinker, how Lady Gaga is far more important then Frank Sinatra and Barack Obama combined.
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