Our reaction when platforms like Facebook change is similar to how we handle the other ways in which the Internet changes our lives. There are striking similarities to the Five Stages of Grief, first introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. We scream, we deal, we forget. Repeat.
As a writer, I enjoy reading other writers bemoan the Internet and social media’s effect on fiction, our attention spans, and our very souls. Writers are the slow-moving train wrecks of Internet contrarians. We write within it and against it and about it by using it.
Last week, a Great American Novelist famously said that Twitter is “unspeakably irritating.” Franzen’s aversion to social media is clear, but other writers often admit to both admiration and fear. Gary Shteyngart—who has led me to believe that the future of the Internet is largely based on how closely we read his novel Super Sad Love Story—wrote a haunting piece about how his mobile device merged his online and offline lives.
The best article I’ve read about technology and literature in recent times is an in-depth review by Zadie Smith, of The Social Network and the book You Are Not a Gadget. There, she writes,
When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears.
Surely, this must have some effect on the way we understand the stories we read, as well our own life narratives. The common thread with both is news. News about our friends. News about the world. With respect to the latter, what effect has the web had on traditional journalism?
Enter John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine and altogether upset with Team Internet and its ideological underpinnings and its effects on writing at large. He likes his offline life exactly where it is.
Devotees of the Internet like to say that the Web is a bottom-up phenomenon that wondrously bypasses the traditional gatekeepers in publishing and politics who allegedly snuff out true debate. But much of what I see is unedited, incoherent babble indicative of a herd mentality, not a true desire for self-government or fairness.
Partly due to MacArthur’s guidance, Harper’s is notorious for its mostly gated content, as in you have to pay for it (though I do miss Wyatt Mason’s free, excellent, and now extinct blog). MacArthur argues that this is necessary for a very simple reason: money. Online advertising can’t support a magazine, magazines can’t afford to pay their writers, writing is instead grown on dystopic-sounding content farms, the quality of Thought diminishes. Good content, he argues, does not wish to be free.
In a cutting reply in The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal writes that MacArthur doesn’t understand the finances of a web-based magazine because MacArthur doesn’t publish a web-based magazine, and therefore doesn’t understand how online advertising works.
Why do advertisers buy across platforms? Because that’s how people read now. More visibility for a website means more visibility for a magazine and vice versa. People flip back and forth between Vulture and NY Mag, from Mother Jones’ infographics to Mother Jones’ great speedup package, from Jeff Goldberg’s interview on TheAtlantic.com with President Obama to Jim Fallows’ Atlantic cover story dissecting the same man. Ideas don’t exist because of print magazines. (Though they often find a beautiful, comfortable home inside them.)
He then offers to slap him with a white glove.
Why them fighting words? Putting aside Madrigal’s penchant for Tweetable sentences (times are tough), the two writers disagree on two fundamental points. The first is that the quality of writing is enhanced by compensation. The second is our reading comprehension is affected by the tool we use to read it.
As far as getting paid, Madrigal claims he’s in it for the glory, for the story, for the power of the written word—though he admits an admiration for the value MacArthur places on writers and writing. This kind of value is specific to the 20th century. The kind we typically reserve for Didion and Fitzgerald.
MacArthur’s insistence on paper as the best transport for intellectual thought is also a 20th century idea. To his credit, I do a majority of my serious reading on paper and will reach for my white glove you if you ever call a novel a #longreads. But I’m also totally game to read vitriolic articles about the death of print on my phone or tablet.
With the advent of new media storytelling, we use multiple platforms not only to consume, but also to create stories. Madrigal echoes this sentiment, asserting that stories and narrative will be told through words but also through charts, infographics, and endless data sets. This data comes from progressive governments, from private companies, and—somewhat alarmingly—from Facebook and Twitter. People will read these narratives however they can, however they choose.
Both writers touch upon the question I’m most interested in: What is our generation’s dominant narrative? Is it told by prose writers, or by the bulk of online content we spew through our social networks every day?
Paul Ford wrote about the modern-day narratives spawned by the Internet and about why we’re all so upset.
These disparate threads of human existence alternately fascinate and horrify that part of the media world that grew up on topic sentences and strong conclusions.
According to Ford, the Internet needs no coherent beginning and end. We are multifaceted, we trend, we don’t change our minds so much as reserve the right to be as many different people as we’d like. And we never die. Our Facebook profiles live on as digital gravestones—our stories never end. Our grandchildren will understand our lives in a way we’ll never understand our grandparents.
Do we even need writers?
Well, yes. Of course we need writers, and we will until we stop telling stories. Though it might be hard to believe, publishing houses and newspapers are still conduits for writers to earn a living. Yes, the same institutions are simultaneously tasked with collecting “Likes” and followers and fans and comments and chasing the latest algorithmically-derived definitions of “engagement.” But we’ll be okay. As Paul Ford wrote: “No one joined Facebook in the hope of destroying the publishing industry.”
Actually, just last week, Facebook’s 29-year-old co-founder just bought a century-old magazine in order to reinvent it.