Weekend reads: Terminally online
On writing for humans, not the Internet
Early in my career, when I was a music critic, an acquaintance offered me some of the most useful feedback anyone has ever given me. This family friend, an elderly woman, had picked up a newspaper while in Canada visiting and had been delighted to spot one of my record reviews. “The thing is,” she told me over dinner, “I hadn’t the slightest clue what you were talking about.”
This stung at the time, but when I thought about it I could see that she had a point.
Back then, I was writing with obsessive hip-hop fans in mind. My commentary was packed with rap terminology, references to lyrics, insider jokes I shared with music bloggers, and nods to convoluted rap rivalries and obscure artists that few without an encyclopedic knowledge of the music would have heard of.
In other words, my work was indecipherable to outsiders. And yet I wrote for an arts and news weekly read by a hundred thousand or so of my fellow citizens.
When I paused to consider this, I realized it was an approach I couldn’t really defend. And didn’t want to. The truth was that I preferred writing for everybody, not just the select few in the know about a topic. (Otherwise I would have just stayed in academia.)
And anyway, how hard could it be to make my music articles accessible to casual readers? Wasn’t speaking to the public why I started writing professionally in the first place? Wasn’t it the job of a writer to speak to as broad a swath of people as possible?
Wasn’t it, in fact, my job to write for anyone reading?
Add to that, the dominant voice in the media at the time — one I had been emulating, until then — was unappealing.
It was clever, but in an emotionally limiting kind of way. It was carelessly critical. Casually scathing. It was cynical, sarcastic, spiteful. It was a wrecking ball, plowing through our culture.
I still have a link to the piece that I wrote, “Build or Destroy?” in December of 2006, when I decided to reject all that. In that essay, I asked myself a question: Am I writing for my own amusement or am I writing to contribute something?
I have thought about that question many times since, as the mainstream media has become more and more like my younger self. And as I’ve done my best to resist that trend.
In the days that I worked in current affairs radio, I kept a list of words and phrases to avoid in my on-air scripts, including jargon, corporate and PR speak, and Big Tech vocabulary, as well as academic terms like “intersectional,” Internet buzzwords, and phrases like “lived experience” that signalled allegiance to a particular ideology.
“Holding space” was on the list. So was “emotional labour,” and “weaponize” and “platform” and “othering” and “centering” and “disrupt” and “amplify.”
I was striving to avoid cliches, of course, but I was also trying to avoid the infiltration of Internetspeak into my writing. And by extension, my thinking.
I was trying to write for the masses who did not spend every waking moment online.
If we in the media could not explain what was happening in our world in straightforward language, to anyone interested in hearing it — what were we even doing?
I thought of all of this again recently, reading Substacker Ross Barkan’s excellent essay, “Against Gawkerspeak.”
Barkan describes the rise of this insular mode of writing, inspired by the gossipy pop culture site Gawker:
In the early 2000s, with the internet still somewhat embryonic and the gilded age of media in its very last days, Gawker was there to punch up, to satirize and mock a culture of lavish magazine parties and publisher expense accounts that was fast disappearing. It was there to be sardonic, acidic, occasionally witty, always chatty, and usually in the first person. Curse words were tossed in the mix. The tone was inviting — I am here, talking to you …
As that voice has evolved in the years since, it has become more rote, more conformist — and more fundamentally unserious.
It is, as writer Freddie deBoer has pointed out, all cheap jokes and “lols,” and a blasé, too-cool pose that precludes even the smallest demonstrations of effort or care, to the point of even avoiding punctuation.
It’s all throwaway lines and endless dunking, and the repetition of insider language over and over and over again.
Yet it perseveres, as Barkan notes:
While I am ultimately optimistic that the rise of Substack has given birth, once more, to an era that favors individuality of voice and creative work that is difficult and even disturbing … we are still living under the weight of two decades of monoculture.
If this mediocre writing culture preservers, it is, in part, because there’s little downside to communicating like this:
In left-liberal online spaces, there is nothing at all to lose by writing this way. It hardly gets noticed because it is so dominant. Writing like speech, or the idea of speech, is the default, as if the discourse must resemble a college graduate’s conception of shit-talking. When Gawker did it two decades ago, there was an air of revolution to it, even if much of what they produced was frivolous and overheated. The practitioners of Gawkerspeak are like the poets who still think they are challenging the power elite by writing in free verse. For shock value today, declare you’ll only create sestinas and villanelles on rolling hills and love affairs. If you’re a blogger or whatever we call internet writers now — in my view, writer suffices — it’s best to break free from the strictures of the first internet age and roam elsewhere. Feel that puritanical pressure to do better.
I do believe that Barkan is right that Substack provides a crucial counterpoint. (And we should note that Gawker 2.0 just folded this past week.) Many leading Substacks, including Barkan’s, including deBoer’s, are the exact opposite of everything Internetspeak stands for — they are long, considered, carefully crafted, thoughtful. They dare to be sincere. Serious, even.
What’s more, these Substacks assume that their audience is made up of living, breathing human beings, and not just Twitter avatars.
Here’s hoping we in the media can all get back to this.
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