The Internet's Snacking Problem

Right from the beginning of my professional life, one value has decided my path for me. I have always chosen jobs on the basis of whether they were:

  1. Fun and creative;

  2. Built something that wasn’t there before, and;

  3. Contributed to society’s knowledge base.

This tendency has remained with me all these years and continues to decide my career path to this day. I cannot, in all honesty, say that I have been fortunate enough to have only jobs of this kind come my way, but by and large, I have stuck to this checklist.

Admittedly, this checklist is somewhat Utopian. We can’t all have occupations like this all the time. And often, when we do find ourselves blessed with jobs like this, they don’t last because… well… generally speaking, Utopias are fleeting.

I want to tell you about one great wall that will always get between you and your dream of creating quality cultural objects of lasting value. It is a hurdle that is as old as mass media, but is particularly pronounced in the age of the social web. You come across it every day, in your news feeds, your timelines, and your reading lists.

In every one of these places, quality meals are struggling against roadside snacks. Food metaphors FTW!

A snack, in content terms, is a listicle, a meme, a throwaway piece of eminently forgettable junk that will have little or no relevance in a couple of days. A quality meal is a creative cultural object that is effectively time proof. It addresses a need that retains relevance for long periods of time — sometimes centuries.

Snacks are nice. They are tasty and they keep your appetite alive. But you can’t survive on snacks. Trying to do so is unhealthy. Good, wholesome meals — long form, in-depth, research-based articles, documentaries, and videos, are nourishment for the mind. They help you become a better person by expanding the horizons of your mind and making you think deeper and stronger. These are things you spend time on and spend time with. They stay with you. They become part of you.

But you will get told that the masses don’t want this. They want what is easy to make and easy to digest. You will be told that you are fighting a war for who can get the most number of eyeballs, that it is eyeballs that translate into cash and cash that powers the machinery that sustains your utopia. In resisting this truth, you will inevitably bring down the utopia that you have come to love so much.

I have been part of this war between meals and snacks in the news business and the creative business. And this letter by me is by no means the first ever rant of this kind. Aaron Sorkin’s series The Newsroom was pretty much about this same struggle. Jonathan Harris, the founder of Cowbird, gave a talk about this back in 2012. Popular culture is full of such calls to sanity. Unfortunately, popular culture is also extremely prone to becoming infatuated with every new fad that comes along.

It is these fads that power the monstrous snack vending machine that whirs constantly and fills our line of sight with endlessly recycled garbage. We talk about the same TV shows and make the same jokes and binge watch the same things everyone else is watching because… well… it is what everyone else is doing. In doing so, we create what have come to be known as “trends” — topics that the collective online community is obsessing over presently. These trends are passed on to creative people as gospel and creative work is then sought to be made on the basis of them. Since trends are such an overpowering presence for the duration of time that they last, brands and companies try to ride them for all they are worth with the intention of maximising exposure and profit.

This cycle is a seductive one. In recent times, especially after the advent of the world wide web, there have been few models that have succeeded as much as the one that involves putting content in the service of the masses. Content that gives people what they want and fills their everyday moments of boredom with flashes of excitement.

What has been trampled under this relentlessly trending content machine? Many things.

For one thing, the primary promise of the web — the one about freedom from formats — has been compromised. Despite no one really dictating word limits, the race to grab and retain attention is squeezing messages into ungodly shapes. Brevity may very well be the soul of wit, but being brief for the right reasons is also a goal worth pursuing. If something you have to say needs to take 500 words, you shouldn’t have to fit it into 140 characters.

Second, with writing being seen as something anyone can do, the general quality of content that we see around us — even on reputed publications — seems to be headed downhill. Grammar and rules of usage get thrown out of the window on a routine basis. Along with them goes any pretense of caring about quality. It is not uncommon for senior editors at web portals to shrug their shoulders and accept typographical errors as a part of life. This is not because they don’t care for quality. It is because they understand the futility of trying to cope with the intensity of the social web’s news cycle while simultaneously maintaining high editorial standards.

The conflict between the frivolous and the thoughtful vying for your attention is unlikely to end any time soon. Solving it once and for all is not something that can actually be done. But the line dividing snacks from meals must remain clear, for all our sakes and for the sake of the web.