Writing for dystopian robots?

Posted by

Writing for the web gives prose the character of a machine. Shouldn’t we give the machine character?

Digital content often feels like a challenge. Even the term ‘digital content’ sounds robotic and abstracted; a bit like referring to Marmite as ‘yeast-extract sustenance’ rather than just ‘Marmite’. I wonder if this is because things often start from innovative technology and find ‘content’ dawdling along with its head in the clouds somewhere far behind? The language that gets used (notice the passive voice) often just follows the initiative of the technology.

Not long after the web first appeared a few lively minded experts started to study the way people read in this environment. They discovered – a finding that remains true to this day – that because people find it much harder, they skim and scan to mitigate the strain. A famous piece of research by the Nielsen Norman Group shows that people often read online in an ‘F-pattern’: they begin by reading the first few lines of text, lose patience and start scanning down the left-hand side of the page. If something catches their eye, they then start scanning across again. The natural conclusion to draw from this research is that key pieces of content must be positioned where the eye is looking. Content must be ‘F-patterned’.

The ‘rules’ of writing for the web stem from this sort of insight. Language is so pared down and economical, and the layout of text so accommodating to the visual habits and impatience of readers, that it is often reduced to little more than carefully chosen waymarks. The process of editing content for the web is so mechanical that it is not too hard to envisage a computer programme (or logically speaking, a ‘sausage machine’) that recalibrates text for an online environment. Does this not begin to suggest an archetype for many dystopian sci-fi stories? Are we not willingly submitting to the influence of robots at the expense of a more rounded life?

Notice the history: first came the difficulties, to which a style of writing adapted. But isn’t it skewed to say that the internet is a problem to which we have adapted? If it were only a problem, what reason would there be to adapt? The change in behaviour and the ready acceptance of frustrated online reading, only demonstrates its power and persuasion. If digital technology can put us in touch with untouched archives of information, new perspectives, alternative ideas, offer greater choice as consumers, make it easier to manage personal finances, and pander to and over-inflate our egos (the list could go on … ), then most people will happily skim over a few words, and not lose any sleep over the failure to appreciate the ambiguities, nuances and subtleties of close reading.

This means the true power of the web lies in what it does for content, not in its instrumental labelling. The web gives us access to a wider range of ‘stuff’ in its fullest and most substantial, life-enhancing sense. The way of writing mandated by digital copywriters is just the unremarkable signage that helps us get to it. Form and content are separated by a hard rule.

Except that all sorts of things about the web suggest that form and content are not so indifferent to each other. They appear to flirt.

Two surveys of US teachers in 2012 (one conducted by the Pew Internet Project, the other by a Californian non-profit organisation, Common Sense Media) suggested that teachers believe digital technology has impaired the attention span of children. This finding begins to chime anecdotally. Many people who use the internet on a daily basis will, if pushed, openly admit that the butterfly mind web browsing fosters means they now struggle to concentrate on reading anything for more than a few minutes. If this contains a hint of truth, then surely it is wrong to separate form from content quite so categorically? The form the content takes appears to engender a habit of mind that is as short-lived and protean as ‘digital content’ itself.

Still, it remains true that internet users are not simply dancing superficially over the surface of life. The combined computing power of the web and its daunting universe of data make it possible, even comparatively easy, to scrutinise different issues with unprecedented rigour and depth. So is the internet one thing or the other? Is it substantial or not? Or is it one thing and the other? And does this hybrid state simply reflect that it is screwdriver shared between the hands of human beings who are variously skilled and inept when it comes to DIY?

Perhaps. But the more disconcerting implication of the research mentioned above is not that some people have – and perhaps always have had – more substantial interests than others. The implication is that human psychology is not as fixed and unmoved as two hard objects colliding with each other. The implication is that the form has the power to change not just ‘content’ but the appetites and habits of mind that consume it. And not only change it, but change it into a creature with the focus and deliberation of a puppy.

So perhaps digital technology has tapped into stores of content in new and ground-breaking ways. But perhaps the technology is also damaging our ability to scrutinise and harness the value it contains. If this is the case, then surely the onus is on anyone who has anything to do with the curating and custody of ‘digital content’ to put it firmly front and centre and make the technology work harder. Technology should be striving to serve the richness of things, and the richness of things should not idly contort itself to fit the inherent limitations of the technology.

Over the last few years, the term ‘content strategy’ has mushroomed into common use among digital communications specialists. Broadly it appears to institutionalise Bill Gates’ recognition that ‘content is king’ and steals shamelessly from more established professions (journalism, advertising, publishing, film) a bit of rigour and discipline over the way organisations and individuals plan, develop and create their content. In no uncertain terms, this must be a good thing, and among the more strident champions of content strategy, it is now even argued that content should be the overriding impetus behind any ‘digital strategy’.

But even in the company of this new man about town, form can extend its influence. Content strategy is, expressed at its weakest, sometimes redolent of the mechanical, stage-by-stage processes of software development. If only you audit, plan, govern, create, evaluate, you will – inevitably – produce ‘great’, ‘awesome’, ‘quality’ content. Even the term ‘content strategy’ begins to sound like a mechanical arm spray-painting the chassis.

Most people working in this area are, of course, not that naïve and the point this raises is not, by any stretch, new. When Irving Thalberg joined MGM in the 1920s and pioneered techniques like screen-testing and supervisory production control he was looking for an industrial approach to ‘content’. He, and his army of producers, certainly produced some great films, but they also produced a predictable output of mediocrity. Later the nouvelle vague rejected this idea entirely preferring the author-like sensibilities of the director as the condition for a valuable cinematic experience. Arguably they produced an equally predictable balance of interest and mediocrity.

What does this prove? Maybe it proves that proof is a scarce resource. Maybe it proves that creating ‘good content’ is a mysterious business. Maybe it suggests that creating good content is a mysterious business because the richness of things are mysterious and, considered in their proper light, evoke curiosity as much as anything else.

Philosophy, they say, begins in wonder. I wonder if technology should start out in the same way?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s