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Readerly-Writer: What do readers like?

March 31, 2011

As a scholar of the digital age, it is my wont to trawl through articles that have long been emerging in the new platforms such as blogs and other open access sources. While I tend to limit my reading to more academic forms of writing, I occasionally would take time off to look at the writing that emerges in a world outside the scholarly ‘bubble.’ Sometimes, I would also read online publications, news and otherwise, that comes from my home country to keep up. However, the inanity and nerve-gnawing contents that seem to populate much of cyber-publishing has got me reading less of what spews out from both the country I inhabit and the country I used to inhabit. Also, my past emotional ties with the country I used to inhabit means that much of what comes out from there that seems so popular with the reading crowd (which of course led to an increase in their production) makes it a more galling situation for me.  However, instead of twiddling my thumbs and bearing with mounting frustration at what I presume is the decreasing quality in the writing churned out daily (something which many of generations before me had also vented on), I decided to try to understand the chicken-and-egg situation of writer versus reader.:

Who determines what to read, how one reads and what gets read? Who decides on the quality of the content? Why, if one were to even attempt a statistical analysis of all the content that has ever been published in any one tiny country in the world, would one therefore see a constant repetition of the same old, and same old?

One of my jobs is to work on a handout for students at the writing studio and the handout is on digital writing. To understand digital writing, I of course also have to understand the writing and reading habits of the current generation of students. The question of reading and writing are often superimposed with the access that the public has to the content on the internet. While much of the quality content are not quite free, alas, there is a growing number of good quality content that has been rendered open-source by the producers and publishers.  There was a time when the sort of content one would find on the internet is highly predictable in what is available and who the reading audience is. I am old enough to remember how internet was once synonymous with geekery.

Now, anybody and everybody can produce ‘reading’ (note I use ‘reading’ rather than ‘readable’) content for the internet. As I have neither done a qualitative nor quantitative survey of this, and I have not the time at this time of posting to visit all the research articles in this area (though I will certainly look for those articles post-prelims), I am basing my deductions from the sort of article links that seem to get forwarded and posted a lot on social media networks, egroups and emails. Some of the sort of writing I found most popular are, in no particular order, are:

1. Articles that purport to bring new facts to the table and new arguments to support the facts. It doesn’t matter if there has been ‘scientific’ or ‘logical’ examination of the material conducted in this area of ‘new facts.’

2. Polemical articles that occasionally like to utilize historical or the sort of facts that you can probably pull out of the ubiquitous factbooks (that are probably a lot less ubiquitous in the age of Wikipedia) or other books written in the similar polemical vein. May even win you a Pulitzer if you are sufficiently good at balancing between the factual and the polemical analyses.

3. Writings that pontificate on the latest scandals in town. If it’s about sex, all the better. Or weirdo fundamentalist religious mantra. Of course, now that there’s twitter, many with a twitter account has become a 140-character plus long updates writers (or multitweets writers).

4. Articles about your personal life and how that links up to your personal philosophy or outlook (mini memoir). The more personal, the more dirt you can reveal, the more comments you will get. Of course, nowadays Twitter has become also the home for the exhibitionists.

5. Essays that supposedly promotes a cause,  narrates a tragedy or tries to sound tongue-in-cheek clever at the expense of actual content or balanced analyses. In the past, there were Reader-Digest like magazines, broadsheet tabloids and glossies to do all these. Now you get them all on the internet, of course.

6. Articles that teach you how to do things or repair some issues, material, emotional or spiritual, in your lives (these are some of my favorites actually).

Should we blame the writers for the quality of content or should we just acquiesce to the reality that writers are writing to the demand of the readers? Are the readers really that predictable in their demands on the sort of writing they would consume or are writers generally underestimating the readers? Of course, with comment boxes and individual stats found under most online writings these days, one can easily discover that readerly tastes. There is much that I could go on about this topic but I will stop here. Before I do, however, I want to bring everyone ‘s attention to this interesting link I found in the course of my research. Wonderful parody of our common reading habits.

To veer slightly off the track, I would like to draw readers to a piece I did on my bibliophilic past that shapes my current trends of thouhts today. This article could possibly fall under category 4. 🙂

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