Last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an editorial titled, “Weed: Been There. Done That.” And just like that, the Internet basically caught fire with all the jokes and blog posts (some of them hoaxes believed by the more gullible among us who had no idea who Gary Greenberg is, i.e. me) made at Brooks’s expense. And because this particular Brooks editorial was so easy to parody, and coming as it was at the end of a long string of Brooks pieces that have led many people to wonder what the hell Brooks is ever talking about and because Brooks followed up his weed piece with a bizarre editorial about boutique hotels and edamame and lima beans (what?), the natural conclusion is that Brooks is a poor writer with shitty ideas who shouldn’t be given the vaunted platform of a regular columnist for the most powerful paper in the country. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a totally valid conclusion in the case of Brooks or, to name another miraculously still-employed Times columnist, Tom Friedman, but is also an indication of the larger problem with writing for the Internet (which, even though Brooks and Friedman don’t specifically “write for the Internet,” let’s face it, everyone is writing for the Internet), namely, that it’s hard to do it intelligently all, or even most, of the time.
Talk to anyone who writes online and you’ll hear all about the trials and tribulations of generating content. Content. Content. Content. It’s one of those words that you come to hate pretty quickly if you have any relationship whatsoever with online media. The problem, of course, lies in the relentlessness of it all. The Internet never sleeps. The Internet never goes on vacation. If a writer isn’t constantly producing content, he or she must be thinking of what to come up with next, which frequently happens by reading other writers on the Internet and responding to the content that they’ve generated. And if a writer finds something to which he or she wants to respond? Well then, that writer better act fast because there are doubtlessly dozens of other writers making all the same jokes on Twitter and having all the same outraged responses already, leading to the kind of confirmation bias writing that further makes it seem like all Internet writing is terrible and that the media world is going to hell and why can’t things be the way they used to be? Ugh. Everything is just the worst.
But so, this should maybe be the part where I—as a writer for the Internet!—should explain that writing a regular column as Brooks does, or generating several blog posts a week (or even a day!) is really hard and, you know, you try coming up with original and conversation-starting ideas that you know will be read and debated by thousands (or, in the case of a Times columnist, millions) of people. That’s a lot of pressure, right? Ta-Nahesi Coates once argued in The Atlantic that “writing a column in the Times is much harder than it looks” and that he is “actually left with a grudging respect for the job of columnists.” And Coates should know! He’s written for the Times. Coates also knows that even the most established and respected media outlets put a lot of pressure on their writers to come up with viral content, no matter what the level of quality is. At least, this is literally the only way that I can rationalize the crap that gets published by some of the writers in the Times Styles section (ahem, Alex Williams). And so, because of the external and internal pressures to produce popular things that will be spread around and debated, of course it’s bound to seem like the majority of writing on the Internet sucks. If a BuzzFeed listicle that explains the revolution in Egypt using GIFs from Jurassic Park is one of the more successful things on the Internet, than why wouldn’t most writers start pandering to the lowest common denominator? I mean, maybe we should just be grateful that David Brooks probably doesn’t even know what a GIF is yet? And if he does, he probably pronounces it with a soft “g,” because he’s just that kind of person, i.e. the worst kind.
Except, I don’t really feel that way. I don’t really feel that in the rush to generate content, a writer should sacrifice quality for, well, the mere fact of existence. Finding good GIFs and writing click-bait headlines are skills, sure, but there has to be something more there or people will stop reading. Even BuzzFeed is investing more (and finding a lot of popularity with) its long form articles. Even BuzzFeed! And as much as people inexplicably loved reading about the made-up land of “hipsturbia,” the Times had huge success with thoughtful, well-written articles like “Invisible Child.” So, yeah, I can recognize (and have experienced) that writing for the Internet is hard, but I still feel very, VERY strongly that Brooks and Friedman and ohmygod don’t even get me started on Ross Douthat or Frank Bruni should be replaced in favor of just about anyone else in the world. Most of the writing on the Internet does suck most of the time. And it would be naive to think that sites like Upworthy or Bustle will change to a model that doesn’t rely on viral traffic. So it’s hard to think it will change all that much anytime soon. But that’s why it’s all the more important to recognize the good work that’s done here, because it isn’t easy, but it is possible. Basically, just ask yourself “What Would David Brooks Do?” And then don’t do it. Don’t ever, ever do it.
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