I woke up this morning with a dream lingering in my mind. It was a dream in which I was on my phone or computer (my fuzzy post-dream brain couldn’t quite recall which) reading about the recent death of a well-known actress. One of those actresses that was in every movie you watched in the early to mid 2000s but who has since married, divorced, remarried, had kids and fallen off the map a bit. An actress who’s name I won’t share because I don’t want to start one of those nasty online rumours of celebrity death you see going around all the time. Suffice to say she’s a top-5 Jennifer on IMDB. She was once one half (or, I guess, more accurately, at least two-thirds) of ‘Bennifer’. And her surname isn’t Lopez.
Now, I should state that the celebrity rumour mill is in no way my thing. I can only attribute my dream to the fact I’d visited the grocery store the evening prior and, as I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, the grocery store line-up is my primary source of Hollywood gossip. I wait to pay for my snacks and I browse the covers of the glossy mags to see who’s with who, who’s no longer with who, who’s new, who’s old, and all that.
Anyway, in my dream, I was questioning the validity of the information I was reading. I hopped right on the dreamworld Google Machine to quantify the data. The woolgathered webtrawler presented me with much useful information about, um, we’ll call her ‘Ms. Garter’, such as the fake fact that she was a former ‘Hotlips’ winner (because, you know, her lips were nice), that she was 43 (my subconscious was 2 years off here – she’s actually 45) and that she was very much alive, now living in Kansas with her sensible movie producer husband, having moved on from all that Hollywood tomfoolery.
Phew. Bennifer Garter was alive and well in my subconscious and living a perfectly lovely fake dream life. Thank goodness for that.
This whole strange dream got me thinking about the trend for nasty rumours of celebrity death that sometimes do the rounds on the internet. We’ve all fallen foul of one or two of these at some point. Maybe you have shared a post about the untimely passing of a Hollywood star, only to experience the ignominy of being corrected by a friend you only met once in real life. Of course, most of us know better at this point than to take anything we read online at face value, and will typically embark on a Google detective mission to confirm or debunk such a claim.
Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. – Mark Twain
The point, of course, is that with great power comes great responsibility. We all have access to so much more information than any previous generation could have dreamed about. We can learn and verify at the push of a few buttons, or a few taps and swipes, even with a simple voice command. But, now more than ever, we have to be painstakingly scrupulous of anything and everything we read online. We must question the validity of the information we are being provided with. We must identify reliable sources and mute untrustworthy channels with dubious agendas.
The sad reality is that we now live in a world where, at an individual level, we can finely tune our information feeds to agree with our core beliefs. We follow and like channels that affirm our personal positions. We mute channels presenting the counter argument. We’re all doing this to some extent and at best it gives us a slightly skewed view of the world. Potentially, it can take a simmering under-informed half-belief and deepen it, causing us to feel more passionately about a subject that we may not have all the facts on. At its worst it can take a confused young mind and radicalize it.
Sadly, those with the power – and the greatest responsibility – often provide the worst example. When the President of the United States is using his Twitter feed to braggadociously announce firings at the highest levels of government, bait the leaders of nuclear-equipped nations, and generally be a giant arse, you know you have a problem.
I fondly recall the Obama administration launching the POTUS (President of the United States) Twitter handle and using it to put messages of change and hope out into the world. Then, of course, Trump happened and presidential Tweeting took on a much more sinister guise. I have, however, taken some solace in the fact that potus was a word my Mum used to use a lot when we were kids, to express someone making a mess of things. “He made a right potus of that,” she could often be heard saying, when somebody cocked something up completely. (I’ve always assumed it was a real word, but a quick Google search suggests it may have been a Mumism.)
Oh ‘eck. He’s made a right potus of that. - My Mum, circa the nineties.
I’ve been getting more serious about my fiction work lately and yesterday I attended a Publishing Panel, where local publishers came together to talk about what they’re looking for and how to submit. They were also asked to comment on the advantages of traditional publishing over self-publishing. One of the panellists took the opportunity to say he thought that self-publishing would ultimately obliterate smaller publishing houses, and that publishing would become a ‘giant Twitter feed’, full of unsolicited, unvetted content of wildly variable quality.
Some of the other panellists leapt to the defence of publishing houses, and I personally feel there will always be a place for them (as another speaker pointed out, ‘everyone needs an editor’), but it’s undeniable that this is already starting to happen. I spoke with other writers at the event. Some of the self-publishers talked about the creative license of self-publishing. They talked up benefits of not having to please a middleman and compromise your art before sharing it with the world. Yeah, I can see that. But I’m also not so ego-laden as to believe getting the opinions of qualified, experienced and trustworthy people won’t improve the quality of my art so it can become its best before I share it with the world.
We are lucky to live in a time where we can all have a voice. In a few clicks, we can have our own presence on an internet inhabited by over 3 billion people. This is great, but it also places an onus on us to put something out there worth putting out.
This has been a great source of frustration for me. For years, I saw people writing and blogging, sharing their thoughts and words online. I wanted in on that. I know I can write. I know I have thoughts. But something within me has held me back. Because I get really frustrated by all the crap that’s out there, the last thing I want to do is add to the pile. So, while my desire to have some of myself out on the interwebs that I can stand next to and say, ‘This is mine. These are my words and my thoughts. Here’s my contribution, if you care to listen’, the last thing I want to do is just create more noise. I don’t want to write a bunch of meaningless crap just to say I did it.
When I started my career as a writer fifteen years ago, the word ‘content’ wasn’t quite so common in the early-internet vernacular. You heard it if you were a writer. Magazines and newspapers talked about it. Websites were starting to. But now, we hear statements like ‘content is king’. Big brands talk about ‘content generation’. Articles aren’t necessarily written out of a genuine passion for a subject, nor are they always written by experts using reliable research. Much of what is put out online is hastily compiled ‘content’ created to serve a specific, often economically driven purpose. To fill a low-hanging desire. To piggyback the latest trend.
Today’s writers have to learn about things like outreach marketing and link building. If we want to get paid for our words, we often find ourselves having to write commercially driven ‘content’. So much of what you read online has been put there by a corporation looking to engage an audience interested in the things they sell, so they can guide you to their products, get you loyal to their brand. These are consumer breadcrumbs and we eat them up all the way to the online transaction.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At least, it doesn’t have to be. We live in a capitalist society. If consumerism gives writers jobs, hey, great. If the article about proper running shoe insoles generated by the sneaker company that wants you to buy its latest product is well researched and legitimately useful to the running enthusiast, where’s the harm in that? If my blog post about the nefarious nature of blog posts gets you reading and maybe purchasing more of my stuff, I won’t be complaining. But if a desperate desire for clicks leads to a glut of under-informed drivel for us to blunt our brains with, then, yeah, that’s a problem.
We all have a responsibility to choose our information wisely. As writers, we also have a responsibility to put decent stuff out into the webosphere – agenda or no agenda. It’s probably why I haven’t written a blog post in almost two months. As someone who despairs at the bombardment of dubious content, I really don’t want to be reaching. I want to write when I feel passionately about something, when I genuinely feel like I have something worth saying and worth your time to read.
Today, I woke up with the remnants of a dream about the fake-news non-death of a Hollywood actress, and this blog post writing itself in my head. I felt very motivated to Google ‘Bennifer Garter death’ (or something similar) just to be sure I had only dreamt it, and to get my speeding thoughts down on paper. Invariably, my best stuff happens when it comes naturally and genuinely. When I don’t have to force it. When that compulsion to write is just too great to ignore.
Maybe that can be my new rule for blog writing: Only do it when it wells up inside and refuses to remain confined. Never force it.
When I started blogging, I was aiming for one post a week. I had a half dozen decent topics swimming around in my head, so for the first little while that was fine. But then I could feel myself reaching and forcing. Now, I think I’ll self-edit by only writing when something really gets my blood pumping. Only when the words are coming and are gonna end up out in the world somehow, whether I like it or not.
It can be ‘the blog that writes itself’. It just may not get written on a weekly basis. Hopefully, this approach will create quality over quantity.
‘Content is king’, they are fond of saying in this internet world where people, organizations and brands are all fighting for attention. Unfortunately, it’s not always the right content, and it’s not always there for the right reasons. When navigating an internet awash with filler written to please your specific likes, be diligent and selective with the content you choose to give your time to. There is excellence out there, so why settle for drivel? There is balanced reporting, so why support someone else’s agenda?
*Sorry, but there is no list of 5 things in this blog post. I called it that because statistics show that blogs with titles starting with the words ‘5 reasons…’ are very successful in getting read. People like lists, apparently, so it’s not that I didn’t want you to read this – quite the opposite. Yes, I misled you, but I think the ends justify the means. And yes, I am basking a little in the delicious irony of my deceptive gambit.