What’s More Dangerous on the Web — Hackers or Hacks?

The Web is full of bad content and its dull cousin, mediocrity. What makes content “bad” is subjective, of course, but you know it when you see it. Someone’s idea of a blog might be blocks upon blocks of text ads, with the words of the so-called blog entry colored oddly and double-underlined. Beware clicking or even so much as hovering over these words because you might be transported to a site where images of things unsafe for work flash and gyrate, some nice-sounding man tells you, “Congratulations, you’ve won,” and your e-mail address is kidnapped and sold off to untold numbers of spammers.

All or some combination of these events is probably your worst Internet nightmare, and yet every day, things just as insidious as this happen, mostly to the casual Internet user just innocently looking for some analysis of the latest episode of So You Think You Can Dance or the meaning of the word “roan”. Queries like the above are often shared by a great number of Internet users, and collectively they become something my fellow content providers might know as Google Trends, which is a public page. So public, in fact, that content producers ranging from journalists and bloggers to “direct marketers” and link farmers use it to find out what they should put up on their site on a particular day.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using Google Trends. But what tends to be wrong, on an Internet as vast as it is lawless, is the content that comes out of content producers’ desire to feed their regular readers, their potential readers, and their page views.

As it turns out, it’s very easy to create bad content, disseminate it via quite reputable means such as Google News, and get readers who either don’t notice the bad elements or don’t care. They just want information, and many of them want to get on and get off, hence Bing’s advertising campaign. If something has a whiff of being informative, it will often suffice. If it’s cloaked, coated, or even lacquered in something that resembles reputability, knowledge, or answers, it will do.

Of course, this is of biggest concern for young people — students — as Bob Batchelor deftly pointed out in “Google and the End of Wisdom” on this site. But bad content can affect anyone at any time in their life.

In a recent post on his blog, the social media professional Justin Kownacki argued a case for bad content for both obvious and refreshing reasons, the obvious being that “All experiences—especially artistic ones—are subjective” (“In Praise of Bad Content,” JustinKownacki.com, 2 September 2009). “Because everyone brings their own frame of reference into an experience, it’s that context coupled with one’s openness to change that dictates his or her ability to process and appreciate anything new.”

To this point, the commenting system that so many content publishers have welcomed onto their sites is brilliant because it is a (strange, surreal, painful and occasionally accurate) survey of all the “frames of reference” that people bring to the online content they devour. There are lurkers, of course. Lurkers are most likely the get-on-and-get-off variety of Internet user. But there are other types of Internet users who do comment, and while they might just be regular readers of a blog taking part in the blog’s community aspect, they can also be thought of as a kind of ombudsman keeping a blog in check.

Take the Idolator example. Maura Johnston had been at the site since its inception in 2006 until last Monday, and was for a long time its chief writer—pop’s voice of wit and discerning criticism in a sea of music blogs. When two writers named Robbie and Becky took over, the Idolator community—and, for that matter, the Twitter community—attacked without hesitation. That these comments, and much of the other commentary about “Idolator 2.0”, were public not only meant that the writers were getting a horrifying live stream of how they were doing, but the surrounding Web was, as well.

Thus, after a few days, the stubborn doubt and jeers heard round the Web softened some, as people realized that the whole thing might be getting out of hand, or just boring. The mockery will continue at Idolator because the site is centered on mockery, but as on countless other sites, checks and balances will also continue. Robbie and Becky will likely toughen up as commenters soften.

At Stylus Magazine, the editorial team toyed with the idea of not having comments, briefly disallowing them in 2006 before resurrecting the function and all the comments that came before the hiatus, the reason apparently being that it might be useful to know if we’d done something great, something wrong, something sloppy, or something boring, never mind the fact that locking yourself in an ivory tower that transmits out, but not in, is risky. Knowing the difference between a troll and a commenter is difficult, of course, but it gets easier the better a content creator you become.

The latest in a long line of laments about the loss of quality content on the Web is Ben Macintyre’s piece in The London Times, “The Internet is killing storytelling” (8 November 2009), though Macintyre is also mourning the loss of an attention span long enough to devote to a “story”, echoing Nick Carr’s concerns in last year’s Atlantic piece, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” But as Macintyre points out, narratives do still exist online, and there are people who read them. He cites “the tragic mystery of Madeleine McCann; the enraging saga of parliamentary scandal; the strange decay of Gordon Brown’s premiership.”

These peculiarly UK narratives are but a handful of the thousands of ongoing sagas that occupy people’s minds around the world, where “saga” could be defined as “life of Lady Gaga” or “things Megan Fox says”, and where “occupying people’s minds” often means “reading about on the Internet”. Indeed, Macintyre points out that even “[r]eality television, The X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing” are “driven by personal narratives as much as individual talent.” Susan Boyle, anyone? This passion for narratives still exists, therefore, but is it the same if the narrative is a series of well-SEO’d, short, repetitive blog posts that are just published because the demand is allegedly there (I saw it on Google Trends)?

The narratives Macintyre lists are sensational stories, or stories of gossip and scandal, or stories with lurid twists of the CSI variety. The subject matter chosen for Idolator is similar, but the posts are not constructed for news value so much as for the twist they give to news, scandals, and gossip. This twist takes infinite forms, but was always impressively handled by Johnston. She told a story, alright, and it hinged, again, not on the skeletal events but in the way she crafted those events into a unique piece of content. The frustrated commenters who visited Idolator in the days after Johnston’s departure were simply reacting to the change. Their “frame of reference,” to quote Kownacki again, is Maura. All the commenters really want is for Idolator to be good.

As Lara Killian discussed in “Scratching the Surface: Your Brain on the Internet” on this site, reading online is becoming fractured; studies have proven so (and so has Nick Carr, by studying himself). This certainly seems like it would discourage narratives, partly because writers are suffering the same fractured attention spans as readers, and are assuming (some are told as much by their employers) that no one will read something over 500 words. Time is money, and to many content producers, from link farmers to popular bloggers, it’s more lucrative to post quickly about two Google trends than it is to post lengthily about something that might only start a trend.

Blogs like Idolator stand out because of the way they “mix” pop music news. But too often, search engines are flooded with articles posted at exactly the same time with exactly the same headline and exactly the same information. In the game of “telephone” that is online research, before you know it, 200 bloggers have disseminated the wrong information, or simply the same information, to two million people.

Every time this happens, the bar is being lowered on our intelligence and our attention spans are becoming more fractured. Either we got what we wanted quickly, or we didn’t get we want, so we flit about from blog to blog in search of it. Content producers have the power to be whomever they want, but if they let themselves be dictated too much by factors like Google, page views, and ad revenue, they end up simply joining a droning, mundane chorus of mediocrity.

Someone who spends a lot of time on the Internet knows where to go to find the best information, and can often skip search engines altogether. Often, these turn out to be the best content producers, and that’s no accident. The challenge is for the casual Internet user. Bad content—repetitive content, content that steals information from others without sourcing, erroneous content, content without any value-add, or content that is a clear play for traffic—can be had with the click of a mouse.

It rests on the shoulders of more frequent Internet users—not “experts”, that hateful word, and not just writers and bloggers, either, but rather “enthusiasts”—to show others the way, even tell them how to get there. Do it with a blog post. Do it with a video. Or do it with a Twitter list. But do it originally, and if that means doing it more slowly, so be it. Google can wait.