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  • Content-free prose: The latest threat to writing or the next big thing?

    There’s a new online threat to writing. Critics of the web like to blame email, texts, and chat for killing prose. Even blogs—present company included—don’t escape their wrath. But in fact the opposite is true: thanks to computers, writing is thriving. More people are writing more than ever, and this new wave of everyone’s-an-author bodes well for the future of writing, even if not all that makes its way online is interesting or high in quality.

    But two new digital developments, ebook spam and content farms, now threaten the survival of writing as we know it. 

    According to the Guardian, growing numbers of “authors” are churning out meaningless ebooks by harvesting sections of text from the web, licensing it for a small fee from online rights aggregators, or copying it for free from an open source like Project Gutenberg. These authors—we could call them text engineers—contribute nothing to the writing process beyond selecting passages to copy and stringing them together, or if that seems too much like work, just cutting out the original author’s name and pasting in their own. The spam ebooks that result are composed entirely of prose designed, not to convey information or send a message, but to churn profits.

    The other new source of empty text is content farms, internet sweatshops where part-timers generate prose whose sole purpose is to use keywords that attract the attention of search engines. The goal of content farms is not to get relevant text in front of you, but to get you to view the paid advertising in which the otherwise meaningless words are nested.

    Ebook spam and content farms may sound like the antitheses of traditional writing, in that they don’t inform, stimulate thought, or comment on the human condition. They’re certainly not the kind of repurposed writing that Wired Magazine’s Kevin Kelly foresaw back in 2006 when he wrote that we’d soon be doing with online prose what we were already doing with music: sampling, copying, remixing, and mashing up other people’s words to create our own personal textual playlists.

    Kelly, who was paid for his essay, also predicted that in the brave new world of digital text the value we once assigned to words would shift to links, tags, and annotations, and that authors, no longer paid for producing content, would once again become amateurs motivated by the burning need to share, as they now do with such abandon on Facebook and Twitter.

    But if we mash up Kelly’s futuristic vision with the harsh reality that strings of keywords may bring in more dollars than connected prose, then it's possible that tomorrow’s writers won’t be bloggers, Tweeters, or even taggers, they’ll be scrapbookers, motivated by the burning need to cut and paste. The web may be making authors of us all, but the growing number of content-free links threatens to put writing as we know it out of business.

    A cynic might argue that far too many writers have already mastered the art of saying absolutely nothing, so we shouldn’t be surprised if our feverish quest to capitalize on the internet, combined with the vast expansion of the author pool that the net makes possible, have created the monster of contentless prose. We get the writing we deserve.

    Plus, things online having the attraction that they do, instead of damning these new genres, soon we may be teaching students how to master them. After all, no writing course is considered complete without a unit on how to write effective email. So it won’t be long before some start-up offers a course in text-mashing instaprose. Or an app. I can just see the copy now:

    Forget about the five-paragraph theme, the inverted pyramid, and write-revise-publish. The Digital Writers School has a foolproof formula for the digital age: cut, paste, upload. It may not get you a Pulitzer or the Mann Booker, but if you give up the search for the right word and learn instead to game the search algorithm, you could find your writing bringing in a lot of cash per click. No experience necessary! Text today for a free online talent test.

    It may seem paradoxical to make money by selling something that is meaningless, but it turns out that today’s most-successful marketing is based on this very paradox. So content-free prose will either be the death of writing, or the next big thing. 

    Famous Writers School magazine ad: I am interested in finding out whether I have writing talent worth developing. Please mail me, without obligation, a copy of the Famous Writers Talent Test

    Above: The Famous Writers School offered aspiring writers a talent test followed by a correspondence course if they could pass—and if they had a pulse and could put a subject before a verb, they passed. There was a Famous Artists School as well, which advertised on matchbooks. But free or inexpensive text downloads now mean that aspiring digital writers can mix, match, and mash up prose to create books or essays without ever writing a word for themselves, and without the burden of having to convey meaning. Below: You haven’t seen the ads for the Famous Writers School’s digital successor yet, but you may soon. 

    Ad for Digital Writers School, on a matchbook cover: Can you write this? It was the best of times/all unhappy families/mixing memory with desire/riverrun past eve

    Student? Reporter? Novelist? New digital writing process, invented by a programmer for his own dissertation and now available to the public for the first time through the DIGITAL WRITERS SCHOOL. You don’t have to write to be a writer: just mix, match, and mashup other people’s prose and put your name on it. It’s as easy as using clip art, and it’s all perfectly legal. The possibilities are endless.©


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david.schwalm@asu.edu Jun 25, 2011 11:51 pm
I don't know that this will be the end of writing as we know it--except in the sense that it will expand the scope of purposes we can pursue through what we call writing. Each new thing doesn't displace the whole thing. Let's think of it as a kind of enrichment of the possibilities of writing. The people who do it should also be very good at writing essays to be scored by machines.
marc1940@verizon.net Jun 26, 2011 10:01 am
The process reminds me of a lot of modern poetry. T.S. Eliot comes to mind.
debaron@illinois.edu Jun 26, 2011 2:00 pm
I'm posting this comment sent in by "name withheld": It just occurred to me that I'm part of this! For a couple of months now, in the total absence of any other work and the pesky insistence of our landlord that we pay our rent, I've been writing some owner reviews' for a consumer website startup (which will remain nameless). I've been instructed just to aggregate other genuine owner reviews from other sites, into more substantial, more readable reviews. The whole thing is just designed to drive up the visitor traffic for this website. I justify this to myself (!) on the basis that ultimately the information is based on real people's experiences, and nobody is paying to access what I write. Meanwhile, however, I've registered for a few freelancing websites where I have seen a lot of recruiting for exactly the kind of really shady work mentioned in your article. I don't go in for any of that stuff myself, thankfully I've been able to exercise some kinds of moral standards, but there is a lot of it out there. I've also managed to steer clear of writing people's undergraduate essays/presentations for them, but there's a whole load of that being recruited for too. Two of my friends are doing these owner reviews too, and one is in the essay mill. Both of them, like me, are looking to work from home due to ill health, while also failing to find any other appropriate work 'in the current climate', argh... hate that phrase. Not really sure where I'm going with any of this... I'm certainly not spoiling for an argument! Your article makes a lot of good points. I'm just musing on a theme, with some personal experience. Another thing: I can say that there certainly are a lot of 'courses' out there, of varying levels of genuineness, teaching how to write for the internet in that way. The high-end, professionalised form of this is 'search engine optimisation', basically writing web copy (and also coding the back end of websites that search engines also sniff around) to maximise the likelihood of your page getting high up the search results. That is a big industry in itself. Here's a great article by one of my favourite satirists on the subject: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/21/charliebrooker.pressandpublishing
ryanjknightak@gmail.com Aug 6, 2011 7:14 pm
As someone who tutors and studies the English language, I have noticed a disturbing trend amongst modern writers, whether they're lay or students, and that is plagirism and poor grammar/spelling. This problem has been developing for sometime, and I feel it is a direct reflection of our growing dependence on software to tell us how to spell, how to write, and even how to generate documents without taking the time to actually learn how to do it on our own. I can't begin to tell you how many students have balked at the idea of using a dictionary or thesaurus, even though both are online, because "the computer does it anyway". Not to mention the use of text language, and advertisement spelling such as "lite", "tonite", and others that they are referencing from pop culture in order to build their vocabulary. Therefore, in my mind, this degredation of prose is a symptom, the cause is the increasing reliance upon computers to do our writing, and thinking, for us. If we want people to learn how to spell or write, at a competent level, then we need to curtail the use of software that frees a person from taking the time to figure out if the correct spelling for a phrase is "c u" or "see you", and whether or not they need to use a pronoun, adjective, verb,or adverb in order to properly convey their train of thought. Just my two cents. RJK

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