Jonah Lehrer laments a big problem with the social web:
“The one shared feature that I’m most interested in is also a little disturbing: the tendency of the social software to quantify our social life. Facebook doesn’t just let us connect with our friends: it counts our friends. Twitter doesn’t just allow us to aggregate a stream of chatter: it measures our social reach. LinkedIn has too many damn hierarchies to count. Even the staid blog is all about the metrics, from page views to unique visitors…We’ve taken the natural nebulousness of social interactions – I might know you’re important, but I don’t know how important – and made them explicit. The end result is that our online relationships are shadowed by power relations.”
The Internet, says Lehrer, is about numbers. It’s about ranking. It’s all about who is dominant in the room, except that the “room” is now everyone with an Internet connection, and that dominance is quantified by metrics and the number of friends and links you have.
And this got me to thinking: This is one of the only remaining reasons why writers are being hired to write. The rich are paying us, and poorly, to help those who can pay us to secure their social dominance.
A freelance writing friend of mine named Kevin told me the other day that he’d been paid a few bucks to write an article that contained the words “ruby red.” Another series of articles asked him to combine the phrase “fire pits” and “salads,” “economics,” “climbing,” “nonprofit organizations,” and “desserts.”
The goal of these articles were clearly to increase Google search rankings, or outwit computers filters, in order to appear “respectable” enough to get the attention of real breathing humans. This can be fun, but it’s not exactly rewarding. I don’t know many freelance writers who haven’t done something like it, whether it’s this sort of search engine optimization or getting paid to update Twitter or Facebook accounts.
I told Kevin that this work felt like digging a hole and filling it up again, but then he said something genius: he called this type of cheap SEO and social networking for money the “the pulp of 2010.”
And I think that’s really quite a brilliant analogy. Pulp was an income source for 20th century writers, like Anais Nin or Henry Miller and a ton oflesser-known authors. SEO, blogging, and social networking outreach is now how many 21st century writers pay bills. You can have some fun with both (anyone who’s played Madlibs knows trying to write an essay about two random nouns isn’t all bad), but what’s sad about it is that this is where the similarities end.
We live in a very different world now, because while writing pulp might not have been how these authors wanted to spend their time, at least they weren’t as actively involved in trying to increase the power of those with the money to pay them.
And I don’t know what this shift will do to writers, or how it will shape us. But man do I have a lot of questions:
For example: Does taking the money make us complicit in this new quantified hierarchy, which is really quite creepy (seriously, Twitter. Stop using “follower”), or are we just taking advantage of wealthy people who have bought into a ridiculous system that will soon be exposed as ridiculous? Does this make us writers even worse sycophants than we already were? And finally, what will this do to our literary writing? Is this why so many books don’t connect with people, because we’ve been trained how to write to a computer and not to people?
I can’t claim to know the answers to any of these questions. But I do know I’d much, much rather write terrible sex scenes than sit on Twitter all day.