Today I’m going to discuss the ethics of my new job. I’m a Hero at HustleCo, and it has been an interesting two weeks because I’ve done things that I would have never thought people got paid for, which is really interesting to me. As a Hero, I am learning how to market, which means creating new websites, landing pages, writing blogs for websites so that the website shows up higher on google results, creating cool designs, all of this really interesting stuff. But since the novelty’s worn off, I’m noticing a few things.
One thing that really bugs me with the marketing world right now, along with the journalistic world as well, is that it’s aimed at the lowest common denominator. When you write ads, you write them so that the stupidest person in the world can understand them. When you write journal articles, you write them so that the stupidest person in the world can understand them as well. I think this is a terrible subversion of what we think of as quality, and here’s why.
Let’s say you write a newspaper article on, oh I don’t know, the epistemology of Thomism. Now hopefully, you, reader, don’t know what that is (roughly speaking, it means “How the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas thinks about what knowledge is good, and what is bad”). My point is that it’s a very esoteric title that mere mortals do not understand. The question is: are you a bad writer if nobody understands what you’re writing?
The answer to this is almost certainly yes, because if nobody understands your writing, you’re either a genius or an undisciplined whelp, and NOBODY’s a genius, so it’s the case that if nobody understands your writing, you’re an undisciplined whelp. I most certainly fall into that most unfortunate category of being an undisciplined whelp when it comes to writing, and so if someone doesn’t understand what I’m writing, that means that there’s something wrong with me and my writing, rather than with the other person. Okay, so the point is that more people than just the writer should be able to understand a text.
So now what? What’s wrong with writing for the lowest common denominator? Well, in marketing, and especially when I was writing for KelownaNow, we would not write so that another genius would understand, we would write so that normal people off the street would understand what we were saying in our articles. But there’s a price! You pay for this with a loss of quality! The quality of the writing goes down because you cannot say as much. The stuff that you write needs to be digestible in order for the street person to understand it. And in order to make it digestible, it cannot be dense, which means that you cannot have a meaning/word ration that’s very large. It has to be small.
I think that this is a gross under estimation of what people want. The popularity of YouTube and Podcasts as methods of long form communication and education is really appeling to people, and I think in part it’s because you don’t have to compress your message that would usually take an hour to speak about into a five minute clip. There are no limitations on what you can and cannot say on youtube and podcasts, safe for the interest of your audience, but people are really interested in long form discussions that are intellectually dense yet stimulating.
For proof, I give you the example of Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, and Douglas Murray’s recent event in Dublin, Ireland. They filled an auditorium with EIGHT THOUSAND people, and these people were there to see these intellectuals talk about difficult issues in person. That’s really rare, and that goes against the lowest common denominator hypothesis that’s held to be the standard at newspaper-like blogs.
The point that I’m making is that it’s really tiresome when you do have to write for the stupidest person because you can’t express yourself fully and completely in a way that the average person in on the street would understand or appreciate. What makes up for this loss of quality of course is the sensationalism and click bate titles that come with marketers and journalists losing more and more of the battle for the attention of people. And it’s this that really bugs me.
I think that when you’re writing something, you should be writing it so that it’s strong; so that it can last. Ideally, you’d like to have people reading it 20, 50 , 100 years from now and thinking that they know the cultural context in which it was written (because this means that you’ve identified the assumptions of your culture in your arguments), the problem you’re grappling with, and the arguments on both sides of the coin for said problem. The point is that there’s a big chasm between the two types of writing: one’s meant to last and to stand the test of time and attacks and criticism and rebuttals. The other is meant to grab people’s attention for only 5 seconds before they move on to the next article.
The company where I work, HustleCo, surprised me when I found out that they actually select for the type of person they would like to become members in their coworking space, and they do this through marketing a certain way. I think that there shouldn’t be a reason why writing is any different. When you write, you write for and to a certain audience; you don’t want everyone to read your article, you want only the people who respect your arguments or whatever qualitative hierarchy you’ve set up for your article to read your article. Otherwise you’re not really writing anything of use, because if you fail to discriminate, then you end up writing for nobody, and so nobody will read your article.
I understand the simplicity that comes from writing to the lost common denominator, and I respect and value as the ideal articles which are able to convey complex ideas with simple, eloquent language. There’s definitely an aesthetic with such writing, and I think the Economist is a good example of such writing that just nails it. But I don’t think that I want to write things that nobody will read; I don’t want to write general information articles. You could even say that I have contempt for simple writing. I don’t I just have contempt for writing written for no one that won’t be read by anyone which will also never impact anyone’s life. That’s good for practice, or for an exercise, but for a career? nope.
It’s not good for a career because general writing is boring writing. It conveys general information, and the real stuff that’s interesting happens on the frontiers of our knowledge; the stuff that’s taboo and risky to talk about. Things like consent and whether there’s rape culture or whether women actually like it if guys ask for consent or whether we should allow free speech on campus or whether your opinion offends me, etc, etc. These are the topics that jolt everyone awake, and these are therefore the topics that people are alert and paying attention for, and thus there’s a demand for such articles, so I should fill that demand because that’s where I should be, I enjoy writing articles on things on the fringe that are a risky.
So in conclusion, don’t write for the common denominator because you’re writing for nobody, and so nobody will read you. Pick your audience with care and write about subjects that they haven’t thought about, but that need serious thinking done about them, and make sure that you’re not damaging and deadening your soul in a job by creating things that you’re not proud, or that doesn’t come from deep within you, with your spirit. Write things for eternity as opposed for a short shelf life of 5 seconds, and you will live for eternity, instead of for 5 pathetic seconds.
Didn’t even get to the ethics of marketing, but that’s okay. I know what I’m writing about tomorrow then haha. 🙂