Roundtable: Writing on the Web

We have an obvious stake in the state of writing on the web: it’s what we do, what we’re interested in, and something we care about. So when we began asking ourselves, ‘What is writing like on the web, today?’ we decided that rather than answer the question ourselves, it would be a lot more fun to kidnap a bunch of people we like and respect, lock them in a garage with a few folding chairs, and make them answer our questions. THE EDITORS listen.

Question One: Are certain types of writing proving to be more effective when published on the web than others? If so, or not, why?

Dean Allen [ site ]: I hesitate to paraphrase the antichrist, but David Ogilvy said something like ‘Those who read will read long ads.’ You could pretty easily sub in ‘web pages’ there: for all the hand-wringing over purported gnat-like attention spans online, you find on the web oceans of the sort of writing that demands you hang around a bit, such as fiction and poetry, and not all of it is withering away unread.

A measure of effectiveness, I think, needs some context. A poet who has a volume published by Birkenstock Press in Taos—which might be picked up in ones and twos by chain bookstores and libraries—will see a fairly limited audience, no matter the quality of the work. The same poet can pop up a Geocities site and easily see that readership increased tenfold, without a lot of effort. Plainly more effective.

Margaret Berry [ site ]: Every type of content has its audience. The content quality is what ultimately determines readership and a site’s success, especially on personal sites. That said, I suspect that an outstanding humor site will always attract more attention than an outstanding poetry site. This is true of the real world too. More people are familiar with Gary Larson than Donald Hall.

Michael Goldberg [ site ]: I think that news has been a ‘killer app’ for the web since the mid ’90s. At Addicted To Noise our ‘Music News of the World’ area was by far the most popular part of the site, and because it was read by music journalists and DJs all over the world, the impact was tremendous. Stories we broke ricocheted quickly all over the world, and into all kinds of offline and online media. After merging with SonicNet in 1997, we greatly expanded the news staff and the number of stories and quality and traffic and impact just continued to grow. For obvious reasons the web is the best medium for constant news updates. We wanted the most people to get the information and my experience was that the web was a superior communications medium for that.

I think the web is a great place for criticism. Again, building archives of reviews of albums and films and books creates an amazing resource that is available all the time. So much better than reviews that appear in print magazines and newspapers and then are gone.

Matt Haughey [ site ]: Although I hate to mention the obvious things, I think form is important.

Short things like weblog entries work well on the web. It’s not just that we’re living in a post-soundbite era, a few paragraphs are easy to digest on a ever-changing browser screen, and almost pointless on the printed page (they’re too brief and hyperlinked). The web is a ADD sufferer’s dream. You look at something for five seconds, click, and you’re seeing something new. Boom. Boom. Boom. New, new, new. They’re easy to read and they’re easy to share with others (via hyperlinks and perma-links), so they’re a great way to spread ideas to many people both quickly and without a lot of effort.

If the web has a failing, it’s that long, thoughtful pieces are hard to digest and run up against the limits of basic usability (how do you present Moby Dick in HTML, in a way that won’t tire the reader’s eyes immediately?). Given the current browser technology and everyday workstation ergonomics, the great American novel isn’t going to show up on the web anytime soon. I doubt e-books will ever have much to do with changing that either. The act of taking physical copies of words, and retiring to a quiet place to take in ideas differs too much from what most people’s experience using a computer offers.

Joshua Allen [ site ]: The default personal site has always been autobiographical and so the default writing style on the web tends to be conversational nonfiction. I think we’ve come to expect a chatty, casual, down-to-earth sort of voice when reading websites, and we assume that the author is being more or less honest with us. This unaffected style seems to be a good fit for most online stuff, seeing as it’s typically timely and quickly written. Straight-ahead journalistic facts or blunt, from-the-gut diary entries work well on the web, where short and easily digestible content thrives.

Taking a more literary approach to online writing, however, doesn’t seem to be as successful, at least in terms of engaging the reader. Once you start worrying about diction and structure and mood and voice, once you start shaping your writing for a particular effect, the tenor of the work seems to change, and the reader can pick up on the distance between them and the author. It becomes more akin to reading a novel than having a conversation, and the latter is what most people have come to expect online. You hardly ever run into the third-person on the web.

Question Two: Are you more likely to trust a piece of writing that’s published off the web than one that’s published on a website? Are you more likely to trust a piece of writing published on than a personal website?

Joshua Robin [ site ]: Of course I trust what’s on reputable websites more than personal ones. It’s just like I trust bringing my car for service at the dealer than I do at Jimmy’s Sunset park service. But as I’ve seen errors on the websites of even reputable media outlets, I know that there are mistakes out there. I still trust the paper more than the computer.

The Web Today [ site ]: It’s important to know where your news is coming from, and that’s often easier on the web—if you read someone’s opinion or reportage online, with a little digging you can usually find that person, what their ideological bent is, who their friends are, etc. You can also probably email them personally and get real answers to your questions.

With a large source like the NYT or the Washington Post, you can use the internet to research their biases, friends, and enemies. However there is so much out there that this often becomes difficult. On the other hand, their biases are usually institutional and easier to spot, unlike an internet source which might be all over the map. The internet allows us to read many sources, and perhaps just as importantly, allows us to research who or what is behind those sources.

Margaret Berry: Let’s say Jim comes across Osama Bin Laden camping in his cow pasture. Suddenly, Jim can get us news more accurately and more quickly than any traditional media outlet. But how do we figure out whether Jim is pulling our leg? Well, after he posts about Bin Laden in the pasture, a neighbor who lives five miles away reads it and hops in his car. The neighbor posts, ‘Sure enough, Bin Laden’s out there roasting marshmallows.’ If I read nine or ten posts from other people in the area, I have a pretty good idea that Jim’s not fibbing.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reporter is interviewing, typing things up, having the article edited, fact-checked, proofread and printed. What that reporter prints will be credible, but that’s a lot of downtime when you’re talking about breaking news. Traditional news outlets depend on their credibility in a way that personal sites don’t, and they save their readers a lot of time. In return for a slight delay in reporting, readers get 90 percent of the information they want in a few paragraphs, and they know it’s from a trustworthy source. You have to slog through a lot of crud on personal sites to find out what you want to know, and you certainly need to cross-check with other sites to make sure that what you’re reading isn’t dreck.

Michael Goldberg: Of course it all depends on the site and/or writer. I assume that things I read on Salon or are fact checked and accurate. I trust them. I tend not to trust sites I’m unfamiliar with until they’ve demonstrated that they ‘get it right.’ For me, it doesn’t matter if its online or offline: it depends on the publication. Offline I trust the New Yorker and Rolling Stone (I used to work for them and they had a brutal fact checking dept.) and Wired and the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek and the NY Times. In the area of music news, a lot of inaccurate stories used to be published. Facts weren’t double checked, sites picked up wrong info from other sites—it was a mess. I would assume that there were similar problems at other kinds of news sites.

I have found that some sites don’t have copy editors. I had to explain to the people that run some of these sites what a copy editor does and why every piece of copy needs to be gone over by a copy editor. They didn’t seem to get it. One major, major music site that publishes daily music news currently doesn’t use copy editors. I can’t imagine a print publication doing that. The same standards that hold for offline journalism should hold for online journalism.

Question Three: The World Trade Center attack inspired a lot of web publishing of independent, personal accounts. How valuable are online independent personal accounts as a form of journalism? Do these accounts represent a new kind of journalism?

Wil Forbis [ site ]: I think the personal accounts were great. The magnitude of what happened September 11th didn’t really hit me until I got a mass email sent out by my acquaintance, Mike Daisey, a few hours after the attack. (Also published on his web log) He was right, smack dab in the middle of it, and he described things with anguished, human terms you weren’t seeing in the ‘regular’ press. Bodies, people crying in agony, shell shocked citizens marching out of Manhattan, etc…

That said, I would be far less interested to Mike’s opinions about the political causes of the attack, or what happened to the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. Blogs are great for personal accounts but become dangerously ineffective when their authors start to deliver ‘facts’ on subjects they are unfamiliar with. One of the most disturbing things I saw come out of the blog coverage of the attack was the posts Michael Moore (of Roger and Me fame) made within days of the WTC collapse. He went on a long harangue alleging that Osama could not be behind the attack because, A) Osama was just ‘some guy who slept in a tent’ and could barely afford the down payment on his turban, and B) it would be impossible for Arab terrorists to learn how to fly planes with the accuracy that they did.

Dean Allen: It’s important, I think, to read as much as you can bear, but do so with constant skepticism, and that means being ever dubious of the implied journalistic weight of ad-driven monoliths such as the New York Times or the WSJ as much as it does taking very lightly the daily journal of JoAnne and her cats or Eric and his operating system.

It’s true that much ‘real time’ web publishing wants for credibility and gravitas—mine especially—but the voices are so divergent, and the editors so few, and the energy behind some of the writing is immense.

I read a hundred weblogs of people who live in New York on Sept 11th, and the value of that news, that reporting, leaves me in awe.

Joshua Robin: The online personal accouts of what happened on Sept. 11 are very helpful. They are also especially useful when written by people who live down by Ground Zero. (The area continues to be cordoned off by police, and after the attacks, I was threatened with arrest if I stayed there. I just moved away from that cop.) What was written and is written is journalism, and helpful for this mainstream media writer. But it strikes me as specialized towards reactions and feelings and observations. I haven’t seen much that’s particularly investigative.

Joshua Allen: Maybe it’s a technology-fueled form of gonzo journalism, where the writer is less a reporter than a participant in the event, transmitting the experience as quickly and viscerally as possible to the reader. That was the thing about these accounts on the 11th: These people were in the midst of it and the words and images were hitting the screen without planning, without an angle, just pure data twisted up with pure emotion—something you rarely get from TV or newspapers.

Could this sort of journalism be co-opted by old-school media? I suppose that CNN could get a guy with a laptop and digital camera and send him out to hot spots and have him update his weblog every five minutes (I nominate William Vollmann), but I dunno. What they’d really need is a thousand people with laptops because it’s not about one person’s point of view. You need a thousand different accounts, and some may be florid or inaccurate or insane but you need them all if you really want to get at the whole story. The web has speed and a multitude of voices and other forms of media have one or the other but never both.

Matt Haughey: [Online personal accounts] are certainly valuable as alternative viewpoints, or first-person, ‘man on the street’ reports of one person’s experiences. But I hesitate to call it ‘journalism.’ It doesn’t offer objectivity, it’s all opinions.

Margaret Berry: Agreed. Calling bloggers ‘journalists’ devalues journalism. Most of the journalists I know are extremely concerned with integrity. There’s training involved, and (believe it or not) a code of ethics. ‘Personal journalism’ is an easy catch phrase, but we don’t call people who check their oil and fill their gas tanks ‘personal mechanics.’

Matt Haughey: The reader has to determine if what someone is saying is true, because there’s no reason that it should or shouldn’t be true (yes, big journalism should be questioned as well, but there is definitely a bigger reason to be critical about one person’s thoughts over those of a large organization in the business of writing news). When I think ‘journalism’ I think of things like integrity, fact-checking, investigative reporting, support staffs, and more. When I think of one person writing a blog or a zine, I don’t think much of those concepts spill over. There are serious problems with personal writing being equated with rumor, and the accountability of personal opinion that you don’t have nearly as badly with traditional journalism.

Traditional media could possibly benefit from seeing real, honest accounts. People wrote about their 9/11 experiences because they wanted to share their stories. They weren’t looking to sell copies of papers, drive up traffic to their site or any such nonsense. Traditional media has veered pretty far off their original course of objective information sharing. They’re now an arm of entertainment companies, and they’re in the business of making and selling news. If big media can learn anything from first person accounts on personal sites it’s that they should look to them as a model of the way things used to be. No bullshit, no gloss and glamor, but people sharing information.

Question Four: How important is a site’s design—including layout, functionality, typography, etc.—to your reading experience? Have you found your interpretation of a writer’s voice to be affected by the site’s presentation?

Joshua Allen: I’d like to think that it’s just the content that matters, but the web is so dense with sites that if something doesn’t twist my kilt within the first few seconds, I’m off someplace else. And what can you really garner in a few seconds? So it’s arbitrary and unfair, I’ll admit, but I mean come on, if someone is presenting their heartfelt writing in Comic Sans, can they really have anything all that valuable to say?

Actually, Comic Sans on the Miami Vice fan fiction site or whatever is fine—all I care about is the appropriateness of the design. Does it fit the content? Can you get a feel for what the content will be like just by looking at how it’s presented? That’s hard to do, and most people these days are opting for a super-clean, super-simple approach, which is easy on the eyes and easy to build, but doesn’t have much personality. Some folks have managed to come up with something distinctive and fitting, however: Claire Robertson, Andy Pressman, Asian Bastard.

Wil Forbis: There was a fad a few years back to use fonts so tiny their height was best measured in sub-atomic particles, but that seems to have passed. There’s no denying that a slick presentation can do a lot for that initial reaction, but if that’s not followed up with engaging content, I think the effect is quickly lost. It seems like I’m constantly coming across brilliantly designed sites that end up boring me to tears—Despite their artistic value, they offer no long-term stickiness and slide off the very brain cells they should be attaching themselves to. I think it’s far more difficult to succeed with an attractive site that offers dull content than with an interesting site that has a meager design. For instance, I love, though it’s one of the worst designed sites on the planet.

As for ideal presentation, I think Salon has really set the standard on that one. It’s got all the stuff the other sites have: banner ads, promo blurbs, in-house links up the wazoo… but it presents it all in a very clean, uncluttered way. I think their secret is that they really understand the power of subdued colors. The desaturation of their color scheme gives the site some essential breathing room.

The Web Today: Most of the time there is a strong correlation between readable, clear design and strong content. The dream is when a web designer can write, or when a writer/journalist can design, but this is not common. The reality is that many fine writers/bloggers use a simple, text-oriented design that lets the content speak for itself but also manage to communicate something about themselves through their layout, graphics, CSS, or font choices. The internet allows us to communicate not just through text, but through images, layout, navigation, code… overall weblogs have been moving slowly towards understanding more effective ways to communicate using design, content, and code.

Question Five: Have you found any writers on the web, people that publish exclusively on the Internet, that you really love? Have you found that reading their work online creates a different type of author-reader relationship than what you have experienced in print? Would you like to see their work in print? Would their work lose significance in the transition?

Wil Forbis: I’m the first to admit that I’m not so much a connoisseur of good writing as I am good humor. I like a like a lot of Julie Stimmler and Sean McBride’s stuff over at The Electric Big Bang Swing Machine. I like Max Burbank’s stuff at For indie rock criticism, I like Marceline Smith’s stuff on Not to toot my own horn, but honestly, I love reading my site, especially Pete Moss and John Saleeby. And, of course, I’m a giant fan of everyone who writes for The Morning News. Absolutely brilliant stuff!

I think you could argue that the web has achieved what punk rock set out to do by breaking down the barrier between artist and audience. Most writers on the web have an email link off their work, so you can send them your thoughts and death threats. Obviously that would never translate to the print medium. But I do think print bestows a certain nobility on writing that you won’t find on the web, since anyone can write on the web. Print is Monarchy, the web is Marxism.

Matt Haughey: I think the answer to this question is a huge yes. I’ve found several great writers working online only, among them Greg Knauss, Lance Arthur, and Alexis Massie.

I love the work these and many other online writers do, and I’d love to see more of their work in any form, including print. They write amazing stories that don’t require audience participation or offer much in the way of interactivity. If Greg Knauss wrote a book about raising his children, or went back to updating, it would be just as significant in either venue. Though, I suppose moving to print and producing an honest-to-goodness book would make it feel more ‘real’ and expose their work to great numbers of readers.

Margaret Berry: I really love Gregg Knauss. I used to read him religiously when he was blogging at An Entirely Other Day, and he has such a knack for bust-a-gut humor. He’s never malicious and the jokes are often poignant too. I’ve seen him on McSweeney’s, and I think he’s written some pieces for technical publications, but I’d like to see more of him in print. Actually, the McSweeny’s site has a glut of good writers who you don’t see on paper. Sarah Manguso is another intelligent, observant writer. I believe she’s a poet (if my Google searches haven’t mislead me), so she does have work published offline. However, I haven’t seen much prose except the occasional book review. There’s much more of an outlet for personal prose online.

The amazing thing about the web for writers is that the bar to entry is often lower. That means you can try on genres—build a fiction voice when you’re a professional journalist, or try humor when you’ve been known for poetry in the print world. The web gives you a much more complete view of authors’ personalities.

Joshua Allen: Paul Ford. I once decided to put my cards on the table and said something about him not only being one of the best writers on the web, but one of the best writers, period. He wrote back about fifteen minutes later and we had a little email fistfight about something and he posted the whole exchange on his site and, I dunno, maybe having that wall between author and reader being so wimpy and porous is a good thing, something new and potent.

His stuff would easily translate to the printed page and probably do quite well, although I admire his devotion to exploring the possibilities of online writing, from stylistic, structural, and technical angles. He straddles the two worlds with a kind of grace I haven’t seen anywhere else.

Question Six: Is the future of online publishing subscription-based? Can banner-advertising, in all its forms, be relied on to sustain commercial sites? Do you have greater interest in reading commercial or non-commercial sites?

Wil Forbis: I think where Salon may have blown it with subscription content is that they gave it away for free for so long we’re now thinking ‘why should we have to pay for it?’ (I could make some crude comparisons of this process to human sexual relations here, but will refrain from doing so.) My view is that Salon could actually benefit with a relaunch, perhaps even a new name, so they could clean the slate and offer their subscription model without the baggage of years of free content. Salon also doesn’t seem to be particularly clever about the content they limit to subscribers. If they tease me with the first few paragraphs of a David Horowitz piece, and then demand that I pay for the rest, I usually just go over to Horowitz’s and read the remainder. Salon needs a subscription model for exclusive content.

But what I love about the web is that a non-commercial site can exist and even thrive. I’ve never seen the Internet as a level playing field, but it is one where someone who loves publishing but has little expectation of sustaining themselves through it (e.g. me and a lot of people in this interview) can really compete with bigger companies that have to justify against a bottom line. It radically opens up the possibilities of what you can do with writing and the things that you can write about. I see a ‘web style of writing’ that’s emerging that’s more personal and more explosive and is starting to bleed over into the print. And it’s not just writing, it’s radio, it’s streaming video, it’s new forms of interactive media that haven’t been defined. I think this is a very encouraging time.

Michael Goldberg: I hope that within the next decade subscription sites can work. I think that it is unfortunate that people have gotten used to nearly everything on the web being free. I do believe that, eventually, people will pay for online editorial. I hope I’m not just being overly optimistic. I know from the emails that I’ve gotten over the years how much the sites I’ve been involved with have meant to some people. I think that, ultimately, the only hope for truly independent online media will be subscription sites or micro-payments for editorial. Certainly it is the only hope for offbeat, idiosyncratic sites.

I greatly dislike advertising on sites. I don’t mind ads in magazines, if the ads are well done—certain fashion ads or ads for albums or films or cameras. But so far I’ve mostly found online advertising to be irritating. I think that at some point there will be a way to do online advertising that ‘works,’ and if that happens, great. But it seems that online advertising will only work for sites with huge amounts of traffic, and the most interesting sites will likely continue to be more offbeat, less trafficked sites.

I have more interest in reading sites with great editorial to read. Commercial, non-commerical—it gets down to the writing.

The Web Today: Subscription is just one of the ways online content will be able to compete in the market place. It can be successful, but the primary problem is not user acceptance (that comes in time) but cutting costs on the production side. There is no reason why any online publication should have more than 1/10th the permanent staff of an offline venture. The fact is that web publishing is ridiculously easy—a rather large site like Salon could be managed by just a handful of people, rely on free-lancers from all over the world, and still produce top-flight content. If the content is compelling enough and the production costs are low enough, the subscription model (for premium content) mixed with a creative ad strategy (one that uses email, banners, text ads, etc.) might work.

Banner advertising will work only when the banner knows who you are and what you want. This is its primary failing, not its size or use or position. How many times have you seen an ad banner that actually applied directly to you? The simple fact is that the internet is a great place to reach consumers, and this is the basis of any advertising buy. It will just take time to fine-tune the system…let’s just hope that privacy advocates force marketing firms to not take a shortcut and actually come up with a non-invasive system to recognize your buying patterns.

Question Seven: Have you felt compelled to contact an author of something you read on the web? On a sidenote, have you ever slept with a blogger? Also, would you buy a bumper sticker that said ‘Bloggers Do It Remotely?’

Wil Forbis: I routinely email obscenities at people who write material I disagree with. A comparable event relative to print authors would be the time I broke into Molly Ivan’s house and attacked her with a butter knife.

The fact that my blog is called ‘My So-called Penis’ and has a big phallic symbol across the top seems to be a big turn off for women, so I’d have to say no. I’m thinking of creating a secondary ‘sensitive guy’ blog for the sole purpose of luring women into my lair.

That’s a good idea for a bumper sticker, but I have an aversion to bumper stickers in general. I’m also not sure ‘doing it remotely’ is something I want to be bragging about.

Margaret Berry: I always scan emails from readers for stalker undertones. It starts with a note, and ends up with someone living in the crawlspace under your house, you know? My sensitivity to that makes me less likely to email a stranger. I usually communicate through my blog by posting a link to their site and commenting on their site. They email if they want to chat and ignore it if they don’t.

I’ve certainly found some good friends through the blogging community. Sometimes they email me, mostly I run into them while I’m out. When I follow someone’s blog, it’s a little disconcerting to meet them in person. If you can write well, the web makes it easy to frame yourself exactly how you’d like to be perceived. When I meet people, I often feel like they don’t have a lot in common with their 2-D personality.

On a sidenote, have you ever slept with a Blogger?

A lady never tells.

Also, would you buy a bumper sticker that said ‘Bloggers Do It Remotely?’

Oh, goodness no.