For years, conversation about the changing ways we take in information has been characterized by polemics and a general sense of doom: Is Google making us stupid? Is Facebook making us narcissists? We keep trying to pinpoint what, exactly, is changing, because something surely is. But rather than strategize about how to wage war on distraction, or rebuild dissolved attention spans, Full Stop has decided to jump out of our poorly constructed lifeboat and wallow in the vast and undulating sea of information. With this questionnaire, we would like to explore, yes, how the internet is changing the ways in which we create, curate, and consume information (be it in the form of fiction, non-fiction, or criticism) but with an eye open for the pockets of potential in such changes.
Choire Sicha is the founder of The Awl and the author of A Very Recent History.
Where does the most interesting (innovative in form and content) writing find its home right now?
I would say the most fascinating and challenging writing is happening on GroupMe, Hipchat, IRC, Campfire, maybe Snapchat and Whisper, and then on the more conversational corners of Tumblr and maybe sometimes Twitter, but not that often, because Twitter is for the olds, and it calcifies really fast.
As writing gets more diverse and possibly more insane in daily practice, as more people are engaged publicly in issuing text to each other, writing in traditional forms—which includes Teh Blogz—has calcified. There are, after all, only so many ways of making a point. The rise of published amateurs is a good thing, overall, though it leads to many hiccups. But everyone has to create her juvenilia somewhere! Meanwhile, everyone else has decided that
Today, we’re flooded with stories via the internet — on personal Tumblrs, Facebook and Twitter statuses, the abundance of magazines and newspapers that make their content free online. With so many narratives all around us, why do we still read (and pay for) novels?
Oh I’m fairly certain we… don’t any more. We do a little I guess! We all paid for Beyoncé’s album though didn’t we, how do you like that. People will pay for a book for a few reasons:
* The big books get bought because they’re guaranteed feel-good weepers. (Not a contradiction; see also Upworthy, dogs greeting homecoming veterans, and babies.)
* The littler books get bought for a few reasons, besides the “oh I have heard good things from a trusted purveyor of opinions and I wish to indulge in this book”: aspirational purchasing (related to aspirational sharing), which means “I want to be the kind of person who buys this book,” which is less obnoxious than “I want to be seen reading this book” which is less bad than “I want to tell people I’m reading this book.” I mean not that I haven’t done all those things, so you know. Then there are identity reasons; Tao Lin is bought by a cadre of young smart people who want to be in some sort of Smart Kids scene. And then there’s the good old capitalist market-maker: exclusivity. You can’t get it anyhow anyway? Then you’ll buy it.
What do you think is good about the way we interact with information today? How has your internet consumption changed your brain, and writing, for the better?
Hmm. I sort of thought early on that maybe it would be really boring and that everything would be at your fingers. Now it turns out that there are deeper and deeper levels of information “online” or “nearly online” but there’s lots of goodies still locked up, and because there is so much available online so easily no one ever bothers to go to the pay access journals or the library and you basically end up looking like a magician if you actually bother to do the least bit of effort. What were we talking about? My attention span is so fucked, I can’t even tell you. Do you know how profoundly torturous it is producing a long and/or book-sized piece of writing anymore? I BLAME SOCIETY. All I wanted was a Pepsi, etc. That’s not true at all. Writing was always that torturous, we all just think we’re so fucking special.
How does writing online become significant?
Well I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing being insignificant. My best work is ephemeral, and was published on websites that don’t exist any more. The only good things I’ve written this year were things that I wrote for readings, and I haven’t published any of them. I suppose we could quantify significance online in a lot of ways but it seems like a lot of publishers are publishing not “best ofs” this end of year but are publishing “most-reads” which is sort of ultra-sads, right? How else has writing ever been assessed though? If it makes money it must be important. Or better yet, if it didn’t make money at first, but THEN made money much later, it’s both cool and re-cool.
I guess I think that writing becomes significant through labor. The cherished things online, whether they be profitable or not, clearly spring from a place of great effort, even if in the end that effort is, as it usually should be, invisible.
Information online is both supremely malleable and under unprecedented scrutiny. How has the Internet changed non-fiction writing?
It’s really fucked it because we’re all so lazy. Basically. I mean the process of research is: “What happened?” And now I can type like “What happened” and an answer will spit out. A bunch of answers, but all of them the same, all of them leading back to the same tiny excerpt of a source.
I can say it’s made basic fact-checking a heck of a lot better, for the MOST part. (It’s undermined it in some ways; false facts become canonical really easy now.) But every bit of historical nuance is stepped on by Google. Nonfiction tales all become the same, the same three sources repeated through the Google echochambers. It’s weird! Blatantly barely true facts become the most pronounced facts due to repetition. And then if you go back to the sources, to the letters, to the diaries, to the original newspaper reports, what we know all basically might as well not be true. This is the coming onslaught of One True Truth, brought to you by Google and PageRank.
How is quality writing on the internet facilitated? How is the role of an online editor different than that of an editor for print?
IDK. Well. There’s a funny thing about the Internet where, with a long-term relationship between an editor and a writer where the editor will let the writer have her head more often. “Oh I’ve just tossed off this thing!” she will say. (“Say.”) Well, the editor is trying to fill some space—or, in this case time. (Time is the new space! It’s true. There used to be column inches, and now there is the stretch between 1 and 2 p.m., prime reading hours.) So the editor might be quite pleased that such a thing has just appeared on the event horizon of the publishing process of the day or week and might find the piece not terribly problematic and might do a quick pass—which, if the relationship is very advanced, the writer might not even care to review—and then off it goes to the eyeball factory. This is actually quite wonderful, though it can result in some upturned applecarts, for any parties involved. So this is different than print as we understand it at this time—but not at all different from how print was understood decades ago.
Print is now run by fucking committees of people who are bored and have already gone to all their lunches and dentists’ appointments. I mean big league print here, of course. So those editors exist just to be cowed by their editor in chief and take their committee meetings out on the writer. Those editors exist just to quit their jobs eventually and fail somewhere nearby. It’s actually quite a horrible system.
As far as quality writing, I don’t think much difference exists. There are revisions and then there are revisions, followed by some revisions. There are just fewer face to face meetings now.
The internet makes possible new forms of collaboration and discussion. How has this changed the concept of authorship online?
We’re not there yet, but it’s coming. Although, of course, authorship was weirder historically than it is now. Editor-writer relationships were more complex in the past; of course, in many eras, writer-reporter arrangements were far more complex. (What a dreamy job, to be the writer who waits in the office for the reporters to notebook dump at your desk, and then to make it all purple! I suppose we have a bit of that now, it’s just that the reporters don’t work for the same publication as the writers. You know.) Collaboration is incredibly difficult in writing; there aren’t a great number of successful examples. But it’s coming, because all the new online writing tools are being built by engineers and nerds, who think “transparency” and “collaboration” are worthwhile goals. (They are in life, but not in writing.) So the tools encourage peer review, multiple “suggestions,” a role of advisor rather than editor. This is probably a mistake, though it’ll lead to some good experiments. But. Editing really at its best is probably bullying.
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