Writing With Purpose is Different From Content Writing

How to tell noise and signal apart. And produce copy that means something.

Photo by Leon Seibert on Unsplash

There are writers and there are, well, content writers whose stock-in-trade isn’t always contentment. And when social media marketing becomes part of the mix, it can be difficult to tell noise from signal when you have no editorial training.

While journalism experience definitely isn’t a prerequisite to write well as anyone with the ability to think can do it, it does come in handy when reading. Because journalism pioneered the kind of filler content that was already clogging up the internet before blogging came along.

As a rule, genuine personal essays do not feature empty buzzwords nor are they trying to commodify human misery by selling you a sob story. They do not try to convince the reader of how honest and authentic and brave they are; they relate a human experience, they don’t sell it.

However, some publications with a very loose interpretation of journalism ethics have been banking on human disempowerment for years. They’re identifiable by their sensationalistic headlines and can often be found at the grocery store check out. Not only do they pay interviewees for stories but there are agents who shop those around to secure the highest bidder. They focus on all that is lurid and horrifying about being human, catering to our basest voyeuristic instincts. Vice UK went behind the headlines and their piece makes for compelling reading: The more bizarre, the better.

If you had sex with a public figure, you could realistically secure a good deal in proportion with how famous the person is. And the more supporting evidence you can provide, the bigger your paycheck; if you’re lucky, the famous person might even have their people reach out and offer to pay you for your silence. In Britain, those kiss and tell stories can also get you exposure in the so-called “red tops”. For example, anyone into European soccer may remember the Rebecca Loos and David Beckham controversy.

All the above is a far cry from journalism’s mission as a service to the public. But this kind of content boosts online traffic and gets the clicks; the more far-fetched and outrageous, the better.

No wonder then that greedy bloggers looking for fame and fortune have adapted and adopted this approach as it can be quite lucrative.

Unlike journalism, blogging isn’t subject to any code of conduct; some social media platforms have rules, others do not. Sometimes, they are self-regulated with users acting as moderators. So long as you don’t directly threaten anyone’s life nor intrude upon anyone’s intimacy, you’re free to post whatever takes your fancy.

Alas, accountability isn’t always at the forefront of many bloggers’ minds; some narratives seem to exist solely to garner pity clicks. Because ours is a culture where being famous no matter what for is the goal for many, victimhood has become a niche of its own. In the same vein, content that polarizes people and caters to echo chambers is guaranteed to do well while critical thinking falls flat because it challenges biases and assumptions.

Instead of having conversations and using the internet to incubate a more tolerant society, many bloggers use it to point the finger. And few are those conscientious enough to dare question those practices for fear of being ostracized. In some cases, this results in “dogpiling” as mob mentality seeks to get a user banned and occasionally succeeds.

While controversy may be the bread and butter of some unscrupulous individuals, it’s bad for online communities; feuding bloggers aren’t exactly good publicity for any platform. As a result, bad practice often flies under the radar and woe befall anyone daring to seek clarification on ethical grounds.

The ability to shout louder than anyone else for longer than anyone else determines success, much to the detriment of quality writing. It has also given rise to formulaic filler content with bloggers all writing the same things and presented in a similar way. From listicles with more blank space than words to heavily formatted copy designed for skimming, the online garbage patch is growing.

In short, making as much noise as possible works but it also drowns out signal, something engineers keep trying to fix with algorithms. Society, meanwhile, is none the wiser about how to fix what ails it even though we’re all getting a crash course in how to monetize misery and get away with plagiarism.

To anyone committed to advancing our understanding of what it means to be a human in the world, this is an utterly terrifying state of affairs.

When categories of people are getting dismissed and demonized for clicks and bucks, we lose the ability to listen to those who aren’t us. Writers who put their life experience at the service of advocacy end up being silenced by clickbait content. Again, bad journalism has a lot to answer for when editors dismiss your narrative on the ground that it isn’t original enough.

It’s no longer enough to write about sexual assault and undergo the kind of emotional labor it takes to write such a piece; you have to sex it up, too. And this is what content writers do, to the point that there is no way of actually knowing what is fact and what is pure fabulation.

And yet, it is precisely the people who engage in such shady practices who then wonder out loud why no one believes women. That their greed is leaving an entire gender in the lurch doesn’t even register because who cares as long as your bottom line grows? Who cares as long as your business expands? Individualism combined with capitalism is a heady mix and conscience certainly isn’t one of the ingredients.

The personal is unfailingly political. It is up to each of us to take a long, hard look into the digital mirror that is the internet and ask ourselves whether we like what we see.

If we don’t, we can deprive noise of oxygen by withdrawing our eyeballs and fingers and directing them toward issues that actually matter to us. We can rally around and support those who put their hearts and minds on the line every single day to eradicate inequalities and combat stigma.

And we can end the battle of vanities the internet currently is by writing up a better world, together.

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