You can find advice about anything anywhere, from health tips to exercise routines to lifehacks to the basics of entrepreneurship. In a certain way, the internet is an endless source of inspiration. But the internet is also an endless source of distraction, slowly removing your capability to live life fully by wasting your time with worthless content. This paradox exists because of the complicated creator /receiver relationship.
The receiver is someone who is looking for information about a certain subject. Since this is Medium, let’s say that subject is starting their own business or pitching a VC. They have limited knowledge of the subject and so they have to search for different resources available. Google’s magic helps people find what they are looking for. There is an exciting headline that promises that the content will unlock the magic of the world. The receiver sees visions of yachts and Zuckerbergs, quickly reads the article, but is left scratching their head…
The creator is someone who has a story to tell, or information to share, and also wants to get something out of it. Attention, money, and notoriety are all examples of motivation. Most of these creators are experts or at least semi-knowledgeable people in their domains. If you sat down to have a conversation with any of these people you would probably gain access to a wealth of information. Many of these people are so experienced that they charge high sums of money for their services.
In the online world, and particularly on platforms like blogs and Medium, the experts are trying to conform to best practices of regularly publishing information to build up an audience, from which they hope to attract new clients. I should know because I do it too.
In order to keep people interested, they have to provide some points of value, a couple of tweetable insights. But in order to get clients to come to them, they can’t give away the whole cow. After a few months of writing, most content marketers run out of stuff to say, so they resort to using contrived formats like listicles in order to attract clicks.
The result is a noticeable decline in the quality of online written content. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of wonderful publications out there, likeWaitButWhy (please feel free to tweet me your favorite, valuable publications after you read this, accompanied by an “and you’re an asshole to trash Medium”), but have you noticed the decline in quality yourself? Have you visited Forbes recently? Have you ever clicked on a listicle that promised “How to Raise Your Series A Round?” You click the link only to find that someone scribbled out 450 words built around arbitrary bullet points designed only to capture a click and not to convey any sort of actionable knowledge? Oh, and that person also happens to offer start-up coaching and pitching services?
Of course this ignores the bigger issue: how the fuck can you tell someone how to raise a Series A round — one of the most complex maneuvers of courtship, confidence building, networking, and salesmanship — in 450 words?
This is happening all too often now for a number of reasons. One reason is that people run out of stuff to say. Most blogs go dormant after six months (all of mine included). The problem is that a blogger has an idea, writes out their first few posts which are actually innovative and insightful. But those posts go out to the smallest possible audience. Then the creator has to dig deeper into unformulated ideas in order to find content. Those unformulated ideas lead to the next problem: frequency.
In a rush to deliver content to their audience, creators push out content that is not fully formed. Perhaps the content contained some notions of a good idea, but the argument is a hollow shell, the writing style is rough, and the logic is unclear. The demand of regularly producing content (one of the fundamentals of content marketing) creates the unfertile grounds that lead to wispy 450-word posts that are clearly written for SEO and not for any sort of real receiver with an actual need.
The problem of fleshing out an argument — making the writing cohesive, and the logic understandable — point to what might possibly be the biggest issue with written content on the internet today: there is no editor. It is important to note that this is also one of the best things about the internet, that anyone can write whatever they want and someone out there can read it. There are no gatekeepers. But there are no groundskeepers either.
There is no one to read your post first and point out the errors in syntax and grammar, let alone give you feedback about an argument and if it even makes sense. Most importantly, there is no one to say, “that’s not very good, I don’t think you should publish that,” before hanging up the phone to leave you — the digital expert who was on Facebook before all of your friends — fuming alone at home with nothing to console you but your prickly cactus which is the only plant you could keep alive. How dare anyone tell you that your writing isn’t good enough to be published right now after you spent a whole 45 minutes on it!?
Editors do that. They take content and make it better. They challenge the creator to rise to another level. They check sources and verify accuracy. They serve as a sounding board for ideas and a filter to keep out the bad ones. Just by the virtue of having a delay in communication, their presence forces reflection. We, as a digital society, are starting to feel their absence more acutely.
The worst part about all of this is how detrimental this type of content will be to our society. Simply the thought that reading 6 lifehacks to make you more productive will solve all of our problems is nefarious, these thoughts lead to beliefs that every answer is just a click away. Arguments are tweets and emojis are how we respond. People won’t read something if they don’t know how long it is. Scroll down, “OK, it’s not that long, I guess I’ll give it a go.”
Our lazy desire for brevity is actively killing how we develop complex thoughts and ideas.
Enough complaining, what’s there to do about it?
Books. It’s as simple as that. Books. Like, physical books. Kindles are fine. You know what? So is the Kindle app on your smartphone. No matter how you consume them, books are the antidote for all of the reasons listed above for why short content is declining in quality.
First, books are long. Books require a continuity of thought from the receiver that spans days or weeks. The creator probably spent upwards of a year or more researching, conducting interviews, and learning before writing. That span of time enables our brains to process information and draw our own conclusions and opinions. It gives us context for how to react, for both creator and receiver.
Second, books don’t fade at the end. Books are the length they are because they contain all that they have to say. Books don’t deteriorate in quality over time. Statistics might become outdated, and theories might be proven wrong, but a least a book exists beyond the time it was created, and can serve different purposes as the ages pass by.
Finally, the key point: books are edited. Bad books are not selected for publication. Good books are taken, molded, and improved before any receiver gets to see them. Time is spent combing, discussing sentences, structure, arguing about punctuation. Books go through a maturation process that produces a result which is so valuable that people will pay money for them.
What do I do about it?
I read a ton of books, between fiction, science, and business. The books I read about business range from old classics like Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations to modern inspirational books like Jay Samit’s Disrupt You. I review these books in my Books for Entrepreneurs series where I attempt to point out how reading a particular book can be beneficial to entrepreneurs.
So if you are interested in learning about entrepreneurship, I strongly recommend picking up a book in addition to surfing between blogs and the like. You just might find your own ideas starting to coalesce a little more clearly between the pages of a book.