The dumb idea of dumbing down
And the piece where I rail against 'Digital Writing'
As I write this, I’m sat at my computer. I’m typing it through a mechanical keyboard, but despite that fact, the words I’m writing were never physical. They’ve never been created in the ‘real world’. They don’t exist as anything other than ones and zeroes. They’ll never appear in physical form, unless I finally get around to writing that book about creation, which I probably won’t.
Once I’m done writing, I’ll upload it to Substack and hit ‘Publish’. When I hit publish, Substack will send out hundredsof copies of this text, sending emails to the people who have rather bizarrely chosen to subscribe to my random writing. That writing, in this instance, will be about how they’ll receive an email after they’ve hit subscribe.
Despite this, I don’t—and I steadfastly won’t—change the way I write. I’ll write long run-on sentences, making points that are too long, too hard to comprehend and should have been split into a single thought, but then I decided not to, you know, for stylistic reasons. I’ve just finished reading Dracula, and that gothic tome is full of them. So much so, that I wrote this tweet:
“I shall henceforth write in the long-form, by the fire, in my journal, saying things the long way around and sloshing adverbs around precariously. A smattering, or indeed a scattering, or at least a smidgen of the words I will use in tweets from this day in the present”
You could get away with writing Dracula in Bram Stoker’s day. In fact, it was the only way people wrote. People had attention spans. People didn’t have TV, or YouTube, or TikTok, or any other attention-destroying medium at their finger tips for when they got vaguely bored. They didn’t have 24-hour news channels. They went for walks and they read long books. The long-form medium of the book didn’t have to compete with the short-form medium of social media.
Nowadays though, received wisdom will have you believe that nobody reads books any longer. At least, nobody will be willing to read Bram Stoker’s Dracula. To some extent, they’re right. A lot of people don’t read books any longer because they can’t concentrate on it. But—for today at least—I’m not here to argue about that. I’m here to take issue with this pesky word ‘Digital’, and its implied meaning.
To imply my meaning and the implied meaning of the meaning, I will now shit on ‘Digital Writer’ for several paragraphs. I insincerely apologise. The term ‘Digital Writer’ is a scourge on our modern understanding of the writing medium. ‘Digital Writer’ puts categorisation, ‘niching down’, data analysis, analytics, clickbait titles and short pithy sentences above the act of writing.
‘Digital Writer’ demands you write the level that a six year old will understand. ‘Digital Writer’ demands you write Atomic Essays no longer than 250-words to keep your audience warmed up for your next listicle article. ‘Digital Writer’ demands you spend the majority of your writing practice writing tweets, a practice so far removed from writing you might as well be throwing banana skins on the floor and seeing who trips up on them.
The label of ‘Digital Writer’ asumes no skill in the actual art of writing to become a good writer. It regresses writing back to high school writing tips, where it’s important to have a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. And anyway, nobody becomes good at being a ‘Digital Writer’. They just get more efficient at reacting to the analytics of which dross they wrote ranks better. It’s definitely rank.
‘Digital Writer’ is just one of the labels that pervades the web these days, but most others who write on the web are following the same tried and tired ideas. Write your 7 Steps to XXXX type articles. Gain 50 new email subscribers. Ask your audience what they want to read next. Gain 50 new email subscribers. It’s probably a review of Atomic Habits. You write a review of Atomic Habits. Gain 50 new email subscribers. Ask your audience what’s next again.
Somewhere along the line, and I don’t quite know it happened, ‘digital’ became a pseudonym, maybe even a pejorative, for ‘simple’. Basic. Easy to scan. Easy to read. Quick. Dumb. And I hate it. And I think you should hate it too, because if you don’t learn to hate it, you’ll have any form of nuanced discussion removed from the web within the next couple of years. In an attempt to pander to their online audiences, everyone began going ‘digital’ in their thinking to make sure their audience understood every last syllable of what they say.
Most writers on the web became prisoners to their own audience. In an attempt to create a way out from their existing bosses, they grew a successful writing activity online that has now generated another couple of thousand bosses. And these bosses are more rabid and demanding than the old one.
And this is where it all goes wrong, because the audience doesn’t know what they want to see. Read this, from here:
“The Stranger Things crew clearly pays much, much too much attention to the internet. This is a widespread plague in our present culture, this obsession with catering to the “hardcore fans.” The best art you’ve ever enjoyed was made with a studied indifference to its audience.”
It bears repeating. “The best art you’ve ever enjoyed was made with a studied indifference to its audience”. The fact that the writing or the art appears on the web doesn’t affect the way it should be produced. It doesn’t need to be ‘digital’. Because it’s appearing in a digital medium where people are perpetually distracted, it doesn’t mean we have to write like somebody is perpetually distracted. We don’t need to lower ourselves to that level.
We can choose to raise the boats instead of putting up with floating around in a tiny ‘digital’ canoe, just because that’s the only thing that people are familiar with online. We can choose to make a multi-tiered pirate battleship battalion. We don’t have to do what others are doing: dumbing ourselves down to the lowest common dominator just because some dude (and it usually is a dude) on the web with 200,000 followers said we should make things easier to understand.
In many ways, the whole platter of ‘digital’ content available to us reminds me of the dull culinary delights of England that Thomas discusses here. In this article, Tom fights for standards. He argues life doesn’t need to be this way. We don’t have to accept beige food, and English food is actually pretty good when you get away from the pies. At some point online we stopped fighting for standards. We just all started eating microwavable digital pies.
The Wednesday Audio, my podcast, adds another layer of complexity and in-joke each week. For 62 weeks I’ve added another joke on top of the last. If you were to go and listen to the latest episode right now, you’d be stepping into a mess of vines and shrubbery you’d likely not understand at all. Why does he say ‘hello, welcome’ every time he says The Wednesday Audio? Why does he bleep out things? Why does he say ‘rumble upon’ and say dates incorrectly? You know what people do? They go back to the beginning to understand.
People aren’t stupid. Let’s stop treating them like they are. Make what you want, in what format you want. Let’s stop using the idea of ‘digital’ as an opportunity, as an excuse, to make things rudimentary and rubbish.
t’s true. I probably won’t.
Oooo, look at Craig, flashing his hundreds of subscribers in people’s faces.
Imagine that. Wait, what was I saying?