A blog by an historian, Pagan and fanfiction writer, with left-wing leaning politics. In short, I could be waffling on about anything.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Freelance Writers: Are We Dumbing Down the Internet?

The pressure is immense. Forget about the human rights, the history and the literature, concentrate on Justin Bieber. It's what the people want.

Naturally it's not what the feedback is in comments. Ask the readership of any site what they think they want and a variety of topics end up on the list. The scope of curiosity is as expansive as the human mind itself. I can go whole weeks without any one of my friends mentioning Kate Middleton, Beyonce or Lady Gaga. (Ok, maybe not weeks with the latter. She is pretty ubiquitous.) But if I want hits, then they are the subjects to focus upon.

I didn't believe those experienced veterans of internet prose at first. When I joined sites like Suite101, I was prepared to fill volumes of binary text with descriptions of historical events. It was my passion and my raison d'ĂȘtre. I knew that I could make the past live again, if I was only given the chance. I was going to save lives with reporting human rights abuses, waving my Amnesty International membership in the air. All of that education would never go to waste.

Instead I'm writing about Beyonce and Jay-Z having a baby.

Giving the Public What They Want

In my early days at Suite101, I had a wise soul tell me that it's all about the hits. It doesn't matter where you're writing on the internet, you'll never get rich without those likes, retweets, favourites and links. People come; people read; people alert all of their friends. That's the bread and butter of on-line freelance writing.

My first article to approach any measure of success was about Justin Bieber. His fans picked it up and, for a glorious few days, the link was being reposted all over the internet. It's still being read. Months after the news became old, I get a dozen or so Beliebers a week looking in on the article.

You cannot believe how tempting it is to do nothing but write about Justin Bieber all day. The only thing stopping me is, well, I'd have to write about Justin Bieber all day.

The pattern was continued with other articles. Prince William and Kate Middleton visited Birmingham. I wrote about it basically because I had photographs of the riot damage that they'd come to inspect. The hits on that story dwarfed even those for Mr Bieber. They have continued to do so, whenever I've written about royalty.

But only the right royalty. I didn't get very far pointing out, for example, that Britain's prime minister, David Cameron, is related to Queen Elizabeth II. Perhaps Britons have always secretly regretted that whole unpleasantness with Charles I and would love to return to a proper governmental monarchy.

As I gaze down my statistics on every site, the same story presents itself. Write about celebrity and the hits pour in. Write about anything vaguely cerebral and they dry up again. Though I have managed to get away with it with a Wizzley article.

When it was called Studying History as a Timeline, the article was my only real failure on the site. As everything else that I've written slowly rose though the ranks, this one bucked the trend by falling. (On Wizzley, each article is graded according to hits, comments and likes etc.) I changed nothing but the title. Suddenly it's up at 86% and rising. Then again, Anne Boleyn's breasts have always had huge implications for the rest of the world.

Are We Dumbing Down the Internet?

I don't believe that my writing becomes worse or the whole page loses something, when I'm talking about the things I love. Do I really describe television programmes better than I can a pivotal historical battle? I received an Editor's Choice for my article about Torchwood. I barely got any hits on my series about what happened at the Battle of Shrewsbury.

The thing is that it's not just me. Every freelance on-line writer out there is facing the same dilemma. I know because I'm privy to them talking about it on writing forums, where the general public can't see. Experts in so many fields are just giving up, so they can concentrate on the stories that bring the hits.

I worry that we're dumbing down the internet. I worry that our readers are going to let us.

So just to give this blog entry some kind of meaning, let me add an important fact: Jay-Z has already got a track out about his daughter, Blue Ivy Carter. Glory even features her cry. You can hear it right here! Awww!


  1. Maybe I should respond or like or something when I read. I don't however wish to read about celebrities. I don't feel that need to worship them as it seems some others do. I do like hearing about some television programs though. ;-)

  2. I find it refreshing to find one who doesn't focus so much on the celebrity machine. Trying to teach my pre-teen daughter to avoid these trappings is like trying to...well...suffice to say, not bloody likely! She's a pre-teen as is her circle of friends and their obsessions are very much the Belebers or whatever the heck he is and the Gagas and the Perry/Brands of the world. I'm still hoping it will pass, though, and in the meantime do show her other places to read - like yours - where there are things of interest (history happening for one) - Shine on. Not everyone is a Belieber...may not seem like it, but it's true!

  3. Shonna - I can't be all that dismissive. After all, I currently have a very big obsession with Blue October. I've certainly done my time as a fangirl of various celebrities.

    But the very fact that you've found this refreshing shows just how much pressure there is on writers to focus on the celebrity machine. Every site you go on, you'll find people doing it. It's because their stats have shown them the difference.

    Thanks for your comment!

    Georgia - I'm right there with you. Celebrities are human beings, just like the rest of us. Sometimes their stories are interesting, as any human story can be interesting, but often it's just picking over hairs for the sake of writing an article which includes their names.

    Yes, responding or liking will encourage any writer (not just me) to carry on with the deeper stuff. In this heavily competitive market, we need all of the encouragement we can get!

    Thanks for commenting. <3

  4. You can't dumb down the internet much more than it already is...
    I don't know what to say. Celebrities are celebrities for, well, beingpopular, of course. It means people like to read about them, know every gossip, etc. It's not bloggers doing this. television magazines, people on the street and pubs, everywhere.

    I never pay attention to this kind of things and I plan on being like this forever. But sometimes your heart and your money can't be placed on the same place.

  5. Silvia - It's true that there's always been the light-weight elements on the internet, but that's fine. What I love about cyberspace is that every aspect of the human condition is here. That ranges from the infantile through to the high-brow.

    The problem that I see is that the former will outweigh the latter, if people feel pressured into only producing lighter things.

    I wish I didn't have to pay attention to it too! <3 But yes, I think you might be right.