For the past six or so years, I have made at least part of my living from writing things primarily for the Internet. And I’d say about 80 percent of that writing was completely unnecessary and contributed nothing new to human knowledge. In fact, at least half of it was a creative restating of something someone else had already written somewhere else, but my employer wanted people to see this already existing information on their website and thus felt the need to pay me to make that happen. The pay, while hardly glamorous, has kept a roof over my head and food (and drink) in my belly, so I can’t exactly complain about that aspect. But the situation itself makes me think: if even half of what freelance writers and journalists such as myself produce is superfluous (and I suspect the real figure is much, much higher), what is the point?
I understand the motivation, because it’s the same reason I do these things: I’d rather get paid to create worthless web content while working an average of four hours a day than the alternative of spending eight hours in an office to do something else that’s probably just as pointless in the end, and far more limiting to my lifestyle. I can also kid myself and say that getting paid to write anything is better than not getting paid to write at all, but I’ve come to believe over the years that this is a falsehood pressed upon countless young writers. In fact, writing for the web for the most part has made me a worse writer, as I now have to consciously undo the harm that accommodating keywords and templates has caused.
Before I go any further, I should make it clear that I’m speaking exclusively about SEO and web content writing, the sole purpose of which is to increase clicks. This category also applies to some journalism as well, particularly the very common practice of editors commissioning stories on hot topics that have already been covered by other sources, just so they don’t miss out on the pageviews that keep the advertisers coming. This kind of writing rarely produces new information or perspectives; it is simply repackaging, or remixing without the creative aspect thrown in.
It seems that a vast majority of the writing that appears online belongs to this category, and the percentage is increasing with time, making original journalism and writing that much harder to find (with notable exceptions being a handful of publications that are now known for their actual reporting in long-form articles).
A large share of the blame, if not all, falls on the advertising-supported model of web writing that has led to a severe decrease in quality publications and journalists and has yet to be replaced by something more sustainable. When it’s much cheaper to hire someone to create derivative work rather than dedicating the resources to carry out original research, the model itself incentivizes laziness.
So what exactly is the point of this kind of writing, other than to earn some amount of money for the websites publishing this content, and a significantly smaller amount of money for the writers slaving away to create it? Is there any actual value being produced, or is this just another aspect of our “information economy”, where we no longer make or buy things that have an actual use? Is web writing up there with financial derivatives?
And is this self-sustaining system so big it has now become permanent? After all, if Google suddenly changed their algorithms to weed out SEO writing, wouldn’t an entire industry collapse? Or would it find another way to game the system for profit? Or will there be a mass protest online, with readers finally punishing the makers of SEO content and only sharing writing that has value?
I’m honestly curious about the answers to these questions, because at this point I’m trying to navigate a world where I get paid ten times as much for fitting keywords into coherent sentences designed to increase pageviews as I am for writing an actual book (or half of one, anyway) that will be printed and sold in shops and may even be of use to its readers. Similarly, at least some of the writing I do on here is somewhat original, even if not entirely novel, but if you count at minimum the cost of this blog’s domain and hosting, not to mention my time, I’m actually losing money whenever I post a single word on this blog.
It’s thoughts like this that make me want to abandon writing for a living altogether and make a living designing apps or web pages instead, and save all of my writing energies for printed books.