Writing in the Digital Age
By Cole Kennedy
Just about everyone in the literary community has joined in the conversation about how technology is changing literature. From the effect of reading on screens, to dwindling revenue for publishers as Amazon takes a bigger and bigger share of the pie, technology is shaking up the entire industry, top to bottom. A lot of the discussion has been full of doomsday predictions, concerns about the death of high lit, and authors pandering for mass appeal with skin-deep e-books that’ll help pay the bills, even if they don’t particularly satisfy the highest aspirations of prose. But there are also ways that technology is changing the writer’s world for the better, with better tools to services that expand their audience.
Longform journalism and creative nonfiction are nothing new to the literary scene, but they’re gaining traction with the public at large, and that’s due in part to some new services that promote the style. Longreads began as a a hashtag to help track quality stories with a 1,500 word count minimum. Now, the small group of people behind it have built a platform for promoting these longform pieces, both fiction and nonfiction, from many different sources. They’ve built an app, and their Twitter account has close to 150,000 followers – all subscribing to a feed full of links to the best pieces of writing the internet has to offer. With the help of WordPress, the small company has launched an app to further promote their content, and are expanding their budget to finance their own original work. Of course, this writing already existed. Magazines have been doing “longform journalism” since their inception. But by wrapping it all up under a neat hashtag, and building an enthusiastic community around these pieces, Longreads has both capitalized on a market and helped change the landscape to open opportunities for longer, deeper pieces of prose. Even websites like BuzzFeed, known for listicles and cat .gifs, have dedicated longform sections to satisfy the demand and promote the form.
Mark Armstrong, who began the Longreads hashtag, intended it to organize the never-ending stream of content for users of Instapaper, a well-regarded read-it-later app. These services popped up around Twitter, when developers realized it was hard to interrupt the constant stream of Tweets to read articles that were being shared. Now, there are multiple options: Instapaper is seen as the premium choice, while Pocket is popular because of it’s platform agnosticism, and even Apple has built their Reading List feature into their Safari browser on both mobile and desktop. Readers formerly inundated by the barrage of information on the internet finally have a method to cull the field and read the stories they want, when they want. That’s a boon for the readers, of course, but also the writers whose work might have been cast aside if the audience didn’t have time.
The writers also have access to new tools. Writing has sustained all sorts of disruptions throughout history. Most recently, the word processor changed the workflow of writers everywhere. Sure, a pen and a notebook is great, but the final manuscript is always going to need to be typed and digitized (how else will it get to the Kindle Store?). But as Microsoft Word starts to show its age, there are new options, ones that aren’t strictly about typing and editing. My favorite new writing and reading venue is Medium, the sort of undefined blog-platform-thing developed by Twitter and Blogger co-founder Evan Williams. Medium has two sides: the reading front-end, and the writing back-end, and they’re very similar. The service uses a WYSIWYG editor, or: what you see is what you get. There’s no gap between the writing and editing, and the page design. It’s a more intuitive way to write than putting together a text document and then uploading it to a blog. The other element of Medium is the reading presence. I’m inclined to liken it to a social network for writers. There’s paid content on there, and professional writers, but the bulk of the stories are done by amateurs with something to say. Medium does an excellent job of connecting writers to readers and vice-versa, and instead of having to rely on literary journals to publish their work, writers have a reputable, free service where they can self-publish, and promote their work themselves. By building a community of writers and readers, and a platform to host a wide variety of prose, Medium is drawing attention to writing in a novel way, and that’s a very good thing for people who care about the written word.
So, technology changes everything. Sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better, and in a lot of cases, the consequences are uncertain. Kindle and iBooks (and nascent companies like Oyster) have the potential to pump up the volume of readers, but maybe the slashed prices will cause writers to seek alternative careers. That wouldn’t be good. But there’s also benevolent services like Longreads, Pocket, and Medium, that are actively promoting good writing and doing everything in their power to connect readers to good work. The future shows promise, and I’m able to stave off some cynicism with hope that these tools and services will propel writers into a new golden age of prose.