The Quantified Writer
"I've written for page views," Michele Catalano blogged in May of last year. "I’ve written for hearts and reblogs. And while they are two very different things – the page views were for money, for being published as a music writer and the hearts and reblogs were for personal content – they were really very much the same thing. They were all a form of validation that kept me from enjoying the craft of writing to its fullest."
Previously, she'd been a blogger at Forbes, and she writes of how she checked her stats obsessively while she blogged there -- in part because that's how you're paid at Forbes: by how much traffic you get. Then, after what looks like about five months, according to her archive, she quit. She explains: "I left Forbes for several reasons but one of the main reasons was that it was killing the spirit of my writing, if not my love for the craft."
Of course, as she writes, this modern writerly quest for external validation and/or real payment is not limited to Forbes. Today, if you're writing online, professionally or socially, you're keenly aware of how many views, readers, likes, retweets, hearts, and the like you succeed in getting or fail to generate every time you imprint yourself in the digital space. To reclaim her writing, Catalano ended up moving her blog back to its original domain, "away from the instant validation."
I saw Catalano's post earlier today because my friend Clayton Cubitt retweeted a tweet by Austin Kleon in which he linked to a post he'd written about Catalano's post. And it stuck in my head for the rest of the day.
In a few months, I will have been blogging on Forbes for three years. Generally, I do not keep jobs long. And, in a way, that's what blogging on Forbes is. A job. At least for me. A part-time job, surely, but a job nevertheless. As a contributor, I have a blog on Forbes and am required to fulfill certain requirements every month for which I am paid a certain amount. As Catalano points out, that amount is based on the number of people who read your blog during a given month and how many of those readers return to your blog during that given month. I'm a freelance writer, and this is one of the ways in which I generate income in the gig economy.
That means numbers matter. For someone like me, they have for a long, long time. My first blog was hosted on Salon. It was called The Reverse Cowgirl, and it was often the second most-read blog among the collection of blogs Salon hosted at that time. Back then, in 2002, we talked about "hits," not uniques, and I remember the glee I experienced the first time my blog had 5,000 hits, whatever that meant, in one day. Screw the man! one could believe one was doing at that time. Blogging seemed like something a vigilante did. Not everyone was doing it. Not everyone had bought into it. Now, everything has changed.
Several years after that, I ended up taking a job for a then-Time Warner-owned blog, and part of my job was driving traffic to that Time Warner-owned site. I did so in two ways: by generating content that would bring readers to the site and by sending links to the content on the site to other sites in hopes they might link to the Time Warner-owned blog. I called this "chasing traffic." Readers were like a swarm of wayward ambulances, and I was a rabid dog trying to herd them to our URL. We had aggressive traffic goals to meet every month, and if we were in danger of not meeting them, the GM at the time would get on the phone and let the team know that if those traffic goals weren't met ... No one wanted to be out of a paycheck.
Today, everyone who writes online is a quantified writer. Catalano may have retreated to WordPress and the land of no stats, but she remains on Twitter, where, I would have to imagine that she is aware, she has nearly 900,000 followers. Online, the instant validation or lack thereof cannot be escaped. The quantified self movement has not spared the creative, and who needs quantification more desperately than those who trade in arts that cannot be quantified? The photographer, the painter, the novelist are driven by the maddening reality that no one can tell them definitively if their work is any good. The quantified web has solved all that. 1M uniques = success. 0 Likes = failure. It's all so very clear. Fuck art. This is math.
But the fact of the matter is that this seemingly new system is only an externalized version of the problem that resides within. We all want to be read, we all want to be seen. Why else would be on this stage? To create, one must tolerate the anxiety of the work's reception. To hit publish is to upload a newborn baby for public consumption. You're never sure if your precious, still-wet offspring will be coddled and cooed over, if a cannibal will show up to eat its brains, or, god forbid, it will be left to starve to death in some forgotten dumpster. Without the terror of the unknown (what will they think?), we will be compelled to fall silent. Except for those brave souls willing to write with invisible ink on the wind. And those are few and far between. It's just too hard to create in an empty space. The loneliness is far too staggering.
So quantify me, like me, hit me, click me, view me, pay me. The act of creation is no religion, and there's nothing in this that's worth worshiping. This is an offering from me to you. It's a question, really. "If I give you a piece of myself, will you give me a piece of yourself in return?" Don't leave me hanging. Through this, I can almost let myself believe that we made some kind of connection in the midst of this swirling, incomprehensible, pulsing chaos that's everything around us, here and then gone.