In A Web 2.0 World, Quality Is Irrelevant - InformationWeek

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9/21/2008
07:00 PM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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In A Web 2.0 World, Quality Is Irrelevant

Quality sucks! Makes you want to read further, doesn't it? Not so much my original lede, which was: In an online world where the Twitter limit is 140 characters, brevity isn't just the soul of wit, it's the currency through which quality is transacted. So does this dichotomy between the inflammatory new and longwinded old spotlight exactly what's going on here? Yes; the definition of what constitutes successful Web 2.0 work has changed. Here's how and why.

Quality sucks! Makes you want to read further, doesn't it? Not so much my original lede, which was: In an online world where the Twitter limit is 140 characters, brevity isn't just the soul of wit, it's the currency through which quality is transacted. So does this dichotomy between the inflammatory new and longwinded old spotlight exactly what's going on here? Yes; the definition of what constitutes successful Web 2.0 work has changed. Here's how and why.I got onto this meme via "Recapping Web 2.0: What's Your Take?," by Tom Smith, who reports that BuzzFeed's Jonah Peretti says quality isn't an online growth strategy and that the keys to success are histrionic and narcissistic personality traits.

Hotter minds than mine have already tackled some of this stuff. Two cases in point are these great posts by new-age career blogger Penelope Trunk: Writing without typos is totally outdated, and You sent your resume with a typo? Get over it. I totally agree with her, but the thing that gets me is that 99% of my journalism colleagues are aghast at her observations, notwithstanding that fact that the typo horse left the ink-stained barn long ago, for normal (non-writers) people.

Which is why I suspect Peretti's dicta will fall on deaf ears among traditional journalists. Which is sad, because it's not as if the new crop of bloggers hasn't made most of them (us?) irrelevant already.

Now, one must point out that it's easy for people like Peretti to shoot darts at the notion of quality, because they've never been in the "quality journalism" business, and have never had to produce serious nonbiased content.

The fact that many successful bloggers have never had any skin in the old-style writing game only adds to the angst of traditional media types, and makes it harder for them to accept the validity of the quality-agnostic (kinder to put it this way than to say "anti-quality") argument. Traditional journalists have universally internalized as a kind of Star Trekian prime directive that they're not supposed to say anything in their own voice, and if they do it had better not offend their economic betters.

A-list bloggers don't have this conundrum, both because they have no clue about the rules of good journalism -- they don't need to, and it'd only be an impediment to their success, but it offends the heck out of the journalists they're making irrelevant -- and because they're close enough to economic independence to identify with those self-same betters. (Or else they're just-out-of-schoolers living on ramen noodles and don't much care about money yet, which they assume will soon grow on trees for them, anyway.)

Still, I'm not in full rosy concurrence with the idea that we should kick quality completely to the curb. For one, it's not that quality doesn't matter -- it's that the definition of what constitutes quality is changing. The old idea that quality is defined by editing an article six ways from Sunday so that it's denatured of all passion and advocacy, and so that that it has every freakin' semicolon and middle initial in the correct place -- that's what's dead.

So what's the new definition of quality? It's a bit early to say definitively, but I believe what's gelling is consistent with the post-literate society I believe we're now amidst. (At this point I should probably send a friendly text message to my teenage daughter. To which she'll respond: KK LOL ROFFL TTYL.) Namely, quality is now measured out more in engagement -- videos, pictures, short and pithy commentary -- than in llooooooonng, boring blocks of dense text. Which nobody reads anyway!

I think what's also happening isn't just a quality shift, but a humungous compression of the time scale within which we all operate. Put it this way: In the old days, media success went to the talented but cautious. Those people who never offended, never complained (they certainly never wrote that company X "sucks"), and worked their way slowly up the chain. Now that the chain has been broken and the rungs have hit many once-employed print people upside the head, it's clear that strategy no longer works.

If there's anything the Web demands, it's speed. And speed militates against quality. Face it: Any time you spend thinking is time you're not posting. And posting is what it's all about.

This presents an imponderable Zen koan to the journalism oldies, who can't get their brains around the idea that to do a good job nowadays, you have to stop trying to do a good job. Now, please note that I'm NOT saying you shouldn't do a good job. I'm just pointing out that you have to stop obsessing over bullshit institutional paradigms that are deader than a dinosaur after a meteor hit.

Or, as I sum it all up: Type faster. Be provocative but not stupid. Pithy but not pointless. But most of all, be "hot," in a McLuhanesque sense, in a medium which demands it.

What's your take? Please leave a comment below, or shoot me an e-mail directly at [email protected].

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