In the last almost-year of attempts at freelance writing, more than anything I’ve seen the word content. Content marketing. Content generation. Content creation. Content calendar. Social content. Content strategy. Writing today is about churning out consumable content.
Not only that. There must be prolific consumable content. Push out new material every day, twice a day, even more. Make sure your content is SEO optimized (an ironically redundant phrase). Share your content with all of your followers, fans, and friends. Share it repeatedly. Force your consumable content upon the world until they’re programmed to consume more.
I sat at a bar last night and noticed just in my general vicinity no less than a dozen people staring into the screens of their smartphones. With the exception of text messages (which are a kind of consumable content on their own), all of these people were consuming content. When I tried not to do it, I was at a loss. My eyes skimmed at the ceiling, the walls, and the floors. I attempted to notice all the details and nuances of the decor, but instead, I just felt self-conscious, like I should be doing something else. Like it’s no longer okay to just sit, stare at the wall, and be in the moment. I lasted maybe fifteen seconds before I turned to my own smartphone, not because I had anything to do there, but because it would make me look like I had something to do.
We scroll through Facebook as though it will update once more with something more than fake headlines and your aunt’s chain posting. We peruse Instagram for pictures of food, holidays, celebrities, bodies, and enviable pastimes, all filtered to look better than they (usually) are. We flip through Twitter as though we have time to read all of those articles, posts, and commentaries. We swipe through Tinder, judging whether or not we want to date or sleep with people in a matter of seconds, every swipe a manner of consuming. With all things content, we keep wanting more, social media keeps giving it to us, and writers are at the forefront of creating that content.
The result is that writing as a vocation is no longer about profundity, connection, or the human experience, but about superficiality and speculation. Consumable content acts very much like pornography (which is also consumable content) in the sense that it triggers the rewards mechanism in the brain (like cocaine, incidentally), which makes us want more of it. Look at one sex video, and if you enjoy it, you want to see more. Take one line of cocaine, and see if you don’t do another before an hour has passed. Look at one captivating picture on Instagram or one provocative post on Twitter, and tell me what happens. The worst part is, these things all have diminishing returns. If you want your reward pathway to keep firing off that dopamine, you’re going to need more porn, more coke—and more content.
(It’s interesting to note that seeing a social media notification of a like or share, or receiving a text message, and other similar things also have the same effect on the rewards pathway as cocaine and porn. You’ll post more content just in anticipation of the response, even if the content is crap.)
Alas, I digress. I believe I was at superficiality and speculation. The majority of the consumable content we create is garbage. On a social level, it rewires our brains to believe that people’s lives are a certain way, and therefore, ours should be, too. When our lives aren’t that way, we’re increasingly dissatisfied. We’ve lost a sense of real life because we’ve been spending so much energy creating fake life.
In the context of writing, content has cheapened it from a literary standpoint. There are few writers, if any, who can create as much content as needs to be created to keep up with the alleged demand and still maintain literary integrity throughout. Editors miss errors they should catch. Writers ignore rules they should adhere to, sacrifice word choice and voice for brevity and accessibility. Readers don’t tend to pay attention to anything longer than 800 words, and you’re lucky if you get them that far.
All that is the superficial part. The speculation part is the fake news. (Which, incidentally, is most news, these days.) Fake news gets spread around because people are obsessed with digesting consumable content that makes them feel justified in their thoughts, opinions, actions, or beliefs. Fake news is cheap validation, usually based on a thread of truth that’s woven together with threads of untruths to make a rope of confusion that can be tied into a noose for any argument. And that somehow makes us feel better about ourselves.
We’ve been living in this superficial and speculative world for a while now, but tomorrow, we’ll begin to understand the extent of the effects of consumable content when it actually begins to govern our country. Donald Trump, a man who inherited his wealth and compounded it through a lifetime of untruths; a man who profited from misogyny and the objectification of young women; a man who’s willing to build a wall between countries so Americans can supposedly have more stuff; a man who hosted a television show that thrived on hurting people’s feelings, encouraging them to do the same to each other, and crushing them in front of a national audience (and shame on them for watching); a man who regularly tweets in real-time of this thoughts, regardless the consequences—this man is about to run the United States of America. A man whose entire life is built on appearances (superficiality) and maintaining control through instilling fear (speculation) is going to take charge and lead us into the very world we’ve created for ourselves.
Today, I not only lament the nail in the coffin of literature that consumable content represents. I not only lament the ongoing devaluation of an art form that dies a little each day because it has no immediate reward to most, even though its longterm returns are immeasurable. Today, I also lament the loss of America to the ideals we’ve raised up as the most important, ideals that center on individual reward, personal validation, and the constant need to feed our desire for more.
What is more, anyway? Doesn’t it all become nothing in the end?