Hey Everyone –
I have to say, I am not completely happy with this essay. I started with something specific and it grew to something far too big to tackle properly. I am not sure if I have made the points I wish because there is so much to cover and I have probably strayed. I have edited it a couple of times and this is about as good as it is going to get. So let’s call it something of a rough draft. – Chilly
2018 may well be the year we look back on as the one where we lost the printed word. Perhaps I should add “among other things”, who know what the year may yet bring. In that loss there is far more than meets the eye. In the move to an all-electronic realm, we are slowly losing the freedom to choose what we read. Not to mention the variety of things we read.
The motorcycle magazine is near death. Dirt Rider, Motorcyclist and Cycle World are the latest casualties. All have been moved for the most part to the flickering screen. Sport Rider Magazine went away last year. All are just shadows of their former greatness.
We know that viewing electronic content is not quite the same as the magazine experience. But let me show it to you in a light you may not have considered. As we have worked to gain freedom and connection through the electronic universe, we are giving up something that may prove to be far more valuable, true freedom of thought.
It is funny how easy we can see the realization of the technology first brought to us through science fiction. But somehow the often used dystopian context of a sci-fi movie seems harder for us to realize when the same eases itself into our lives, so slow it is almost imperceptible.
There was sort of an implicit social contract that went along with the printed magazine. It was kind of an “if you write it they will come” concept. Create quality content and people will want to read it. If people want to read, they will buy the magazine. If people buy the magazine, advertisers will pay money to be part of it.
We all had this as a staple of our lives for so many years. Each month the favorite magazine would have a couple of features I went to first, a new bike test or race coverage and so on. Then there were a few other features that were only of secondary interest, but I would get around to reading them also. In doing so, learning and gaining exposure to a wider part of the motorcycle world.
Kevin Cameron would try to explain to me why tapered cylinder studs were stronger than straight ones, even though they had less material. Peter Egan would wax on about drinking a strong beer in a cold garage on a wintery night, dreaming of the next completely impractical purchase he was considering. Alan Cathcart would create incredibly long strings of verbs and adjectives without the use of a single piece of punctuation before finally getting around to letting us know that the latest bike he rode was also the greatest.
In this way, I would end up reading more than just the few things that immediately piqued my interest. Like many readers I would broadened my horizon. Now, multiply that by a few magazines per month, National Geographic and such. You see the point.
Then the internet came along and every so and so could become a journalist, sort of like me. It left the entire business model of publishing a monthly magazine in shambles. The specific interaction between the reader and the content became a measurable thing. Clicks, time on page, page views, SEO and click through, these all became the jargon of the industry. They created ways of gauging audience interest that a printed magazine could not answer.
Now, I am not just talking about your favorite motorcycle magazine. Think of this in the context of our entire world. Every magazine, every website, every television show, and every single thing you interact with. Systems started to get sophisticated enough to track nearly everything. Advertisers started to get savvy and wanted to know more about where their money went. The value of everything became based upon finite statistics of viewership. Read it again – “the value of everything”, this has become the universal yardstick.
Intrinsic value of content is an archaic concept in a modern business model. Before it was sort of a guessing game for editors. Likely, magazines didn’t exactly know what specific things would catch with readers, so they had to work to make it all good. Striving for quality was a given. Feedback was slow as were lead times, so things would take months to play out. Today the shelf life a new posting is measured in days, if not hours.
Search engines started to compile your data habits to sell to everyone. With that came the dreaded term “SEO”. Search engine optimization, a measure of how well online content performs. How easy can Google find it? How much does Google like it? This octopus for the most part determines whose content you see.
A decade ago when I first started working with Motorcycle USA, the idea that quality content sells was still alive. But both are now gone. I say this in business sense, of course quality content still exists, it is just getting harder to find, or harder to convince a search engine that I want to see it. The thing that sells is SEO. This is all so sophisticated, that as a writer, I can now be instructed on the exact words and phrases to use to make a story get more page views.
More so, the algorithms are now so sophisticated that they are tracking you and constantly trying to direct you to content that they already knows you will like. Advertisements are the most obvious manifestation of this. I look up one motorcycle part and it follows me around for the next two days, it pops up on every website I visit. But in a bigger way those algorithms are now determining things they thing you will like based on your online habits and that includes where your phone tells them that you go. Even things like slowing down in a particular aisle of a supermarket can be tracked.
But it also means that even the editorial content that you view is now filtered just for your pleasure. On one end, the creator is using SEO data to write what people will read. On the flip side, every electronic page you visit is trying to figure out how to send what it has predetermined you will like.
This is what the world of publishing has become, an unending chase for immediate numbers. As a result, your world gets smaller. You tend to only see the things that you already like. You are not exposed to much else. It seems ironic, but the ideas of freedom of press and freedom of speech may die away for lack of use. Writing will only be with the goal to sell something; therefore it will no longer be controversial. One source could write for both sides of an argument, but it will be filtered for you to only see the one that favors your views.
Like me, for you this is all kind of a new concept, you spent most of your life reading the hard copy of something. It is easy to look at new technology and the sociological impact with an eye of skepticism. But for younger generations, this isn’t something new, it is the status quo with no idea that things could be different. Heck, even computers are being surpassed by phones as the single device.
Social media is becoming the one stop shop for all information. Countless times as I tried to figure out the business of running a website, readers would comment that they typically only read content if it is put directly in front of them. It becomes more so every day. Social media may be the single largest impact on many people’s lives and beliefs. Something that didn’t’ even exist a decade ago.
It is kind of like the Jack Daniels vs Red bull argument. Which is more destructive to society as a whole? Social media and energy drinks have much in common. Both trigger the brain in ways we typically associate with far more heinous things like drugs and alcohol.
I guess I don’t have a good ending for this article. I am going to leave you with two things. First, go to the used book store. You need the local book repository to survive because one day in the very near future it will be the only place you can find reading material without someone else tracking your choice.
Second, take a look at this video. Out of context it would sound like paranoia, but look at who is doing the talking…