Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Raging against Twitter and the dying of the written word

“Does anyone go sit down and read an entire blog post anymore? Most people aren’t going to go read an entire 500 word blog.”

These sentences were posted, unironically, on LinkedIn by a VP of Marketing (B2B, SaaS, and other fancy business acronyms). Just yesterday. He seems to have quite a following too. This post got many “likes.”

As the young kids say, “I’m shook.”

We’re now officially at the point where information must fit into a Tweet, or a 60-second TikTok video, if it is to be read or consumed. No one has longer than that to spend on learning, apparently.

Makes sense, we’re all too “busy” these days to possibly read something 500 words long. Not quite 2 pages in a book.

“Too busy.”

Too busy doing … what?

We’re not too busy. We’ve been hijacked into thinking we are. By our devices, by sensory overload, and the accompanying mental fatigue that comes with consuming a cacophony of shit.

We’ve been trained by the limitations of the platforms on which we’re consuming surface-level content. By Twitter. And when these get old, we switch to the next platform to keep consuming. Gotta get on Mastodon, on Discord, while still juggling Facebook and YouTube. “My project will be a success once I figure out how to optimize Instagram.”

Sure it will man.

Take a look at what you’re actually doing. Scrolling your phone. That’s not busy. That’s an addiction.

You’re not making progress, or creating. You’ve become a consumer of the shallow.

Fuck that.

I’m holding the line, and you should too. On my side of the line is immersion, and an attention span. And comprehension. That’s one of the reasons why I steadfastly keep blogging, even though I’m writing to an audience so small it could comfortably fit in my living room. 

Its principle. And the people who I serve here are the ones I value. By the way, these folks have gone on to buy my book, Flame and Crimson, and I hope they choose to buy my next book too.

Not because I need the money. Because I like producing things of value, that might last, after I shed my mortal coil. You won’t find anything of lasting value on Facebook.

The “content” this VP of Marketing is talking about is not actually meant to inform, or enlighten. Its sole purpose is to grab the attention of the attention-less. It’s the equivalent of shooting colorful fireworks into the sky, a pop, a “wow.” Then … gone. It’s the type of content we consume by scrolling on our phones, skim with the eyeballs, and shed in seconds. No thought rendered, just a few seconds of time stolen from you in this “attention economy.”

But that shit doesn’t last. It's ephemera, like so much of the garbage we’re getting online. You’ve learned nothing by consuming it. In fact, you not only haven’t learned a thing, but your mind has been weakened, atrophied.

If you want to understand anything at more than a surface level, sometimes you have to … read more than a Tweet.

Finally, its not even good for the person producing it, the junior marketer who at heart wants to be a better writer. The only way to do that is to put in the work and write something with some substance and length to it. Every day.

If you want to be a good soccer player, you’ve got to put in long hours on the pitch, improving your footwork, conditioning your body.

If you want to be a good guitar player, you’ve got to learn your chords, learn how to read music, how to hear a note and replicate it with your fingers on the strings. This takes thousands of hours.

And if you want to be a good writer, you’ve got to read and write. A lot. 

There are no substitutes, I’m afraid. But that’s how it should be.

A question for the skeptics: Do you think you will learn more about fantasy fiction reading Wizardry and Wild Romance, or spending the same amount of time scrolling r/fantasy? 

An attention span is a muscle that you must cultivate, practice, and strengthen, or it will atrophy. We’re losing it, thanks to enlightened “VPs of marketing” who spread the kind of nonsense above. Who themselves think they are being “productive” by rapidly skimming their social feed on LinkedIn and liking memed photos. 

Imagine if instead of “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” Ursula LeGuin boiled down her magnificent essay into an infographic. No one would remember the fantastic advice that she herself followed to write the timeless A Wizard of Earthsea and Tombs of Utuan.

Imagine Tolkien trying to fit “On Fairy Stories” into a TikTok video. I’m sure someone has done this; I’m sure no one who has consumed that video remembers it. They certainly have no comprehension of what Tolkien actually wrote. They’re too busy looking at a single bone, instead of enjoying the complex soup.

I’m not immune to this. I dumped Facebook, but I’m a LinkedIn user, heavy, for work. I like some of what I see on the platform but am also dismayed by the inevitable dumbing down going on. I do too much scrolling.

To play nice for a moment, there is a place for infographics, short videos, and chopped up Twitter-esque posting. But this blanket “does anyone even read 500 word blogs” is not a sign of enlightened sophistication by a marketing pro. It’s a sign of rot. It’s the words of the athlete who no longer thinks he has to practice. Who thinks he can just show up on Sunday and win football games.

I know that guy. His name is Ryan Leaf.

Innovation is real, but you have to learn how to block and tackle. Master your craft, before you can tell others how to do it better.

A truth about writing: It’s hard. The blank page is a fearsome opponent. It challenges us with its blank stare: Better blankness than your drivel, it seems to say.

But when you beat the resistance and really get rolling the process of writing is generative. It activates parts of your brain that are numbed by scrolling, snow-blinded from the flash of images and video and sound.

We’ve got to hold the line, each in our own way, against the decline of writing and reading, and comprehension over consumption. I’m holding the line on this one. In the voice of Aragorn at the Black Gate: 

For Long Form Content! 

(Or at least, 500 words. Max).

If you want to fight this battle yourself here are some practical tips.

  1. Write every morning. A good word count to aim for is 500 (yeah, that same mark no one has time to read). I'm a morning person and my mind is freshest then; write at night if you are a night-owl and/or have no other options.
  2. Read every night. Opt for paper if you can get your hands on it. If not, make sure your tablet is disconnected from easy internet access. Place your phone out of reach.
  3. Limit your phone usage. Instead, observe the world with your eyes. Take a walk and think. Listen to people, and see how they behave.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. You’ve read more than 1,000 words in a sitting and proved that VP of marketing wrong. 

9 comments:

Paul R. McNamee said...

Great post.

And speaking of LinkedIn, it bugs me to no end *that* has become a social media site, too. It started out as a job search and it did that pretty well. It's like any damn company that keeps thinking they need more. And then you end up with MTV, MTV 2, MTV Live (which, isn't live any more last time I bothered) ....

Matthew said...

I made a decision to stay off social media awhile ago, and I do not regret it. (Well, there was one bulletin board group that moved to facebook that I regret not following, but you have to make sacrifices.) I think twitter is particularly bad, because it's form simplifies things in the extreme. A lot of right-wingers are excited that Elon Musk is planning to turn twitter into a free speech platform. (As opposed, to the left leaning one it has blatantly been.) But I think the best thing Musk could do was SHUT IT DOWN. That said if we have to have it, it should be open to anyone and I mean anyone.

Technology is a tool and a tool is in how you use it, but humanity doesn't have the best track record in terms of prudence.

Jason Campbell said...

"For Long Form Content!" Here here my friend.

Keep raging and keep writing. Not all of us will fall for the Trickle that Drowns the World.

John said...

Well articulated, and I couldn't agree with you more. I have managed to avoid the seduction of social media and I believe I'm all the better for it. If I include a longer article from another source on my blog, I try to keep my comments short. Years ago, I conducted a survey and the larger percentage of respondents said they liked the longer pieces. I'm sure that's changed by now.

Andy said...

Well, of course some douchebag marketing VP would say a thing like that...

Anonymous said...

Reader from South America Here: A marketing pro saying that the audience has a short attention span is admitting failure, as he won't leave a lasting impression and change attitudes. That's why long form content is needed. People said the Internet would destroy books, but books are one of the things that sell better in the Internet. Publishers are lazy, people still read very long books by old authors like James Clavell, Ane Rand or Frank Herbert. Youtubers can find success with hour long videos of very niche subjects. A blog might have a small audience, but it will have a lasting impact on it's readers. Please keep blogging, I'm trying to write more myself. Cheers, George Seal

Brian Murphy said...

Paul: Yeah it's like an infection, the way social media platforms inevitably drift towards conformity (which means, drama and memes). The common factor across all is that people use them.

Matthew: Smart move on your part. I don't see Musk paying $44B for the site and then shutting it down, though.

George: I will keep blogging/raging, and hopefully enlightening with longer form content.

Craig S. Shoemake said...

Wonderful post, Brian! Absolutely wonderful. The "smart" phone is perhaps the most destructive useful (because it really is useful) technology every invented and we have no idea where we will end up with it. As for me, I am presently on the tail end of Malory's LE MORTE D'ARTHUR, all 900+ pages of it in antique English, with lots of jousting and questing. I hope you are doing well--writing well, reading well, drinking long and deeply of life.

Brian Murphy said...

Holy cow Craig, 900 pages of Ye Olde English? I hope its been worth the crusade/quest-thing. I'm sure it has.