Net losses (Mistake #65)

I read a tweet last week, on the day of the Wikipedia blackout, by a writer pointing out that journalists might have to actually spend the day doing some proper in-depth research – for a change! – rather than click into the collaborative online people’s encyclopedia and trusting the information they found there.

It was partly tongue-in-cheek but there was a valid point underneath it all: it is very easy to become reliant on the net, or certain parts of it, for your work. As far as research goes, there are still alternative and effective means of conducting it, internet-free: calling organisations and professional bodies, speaking to experts, using the local library (and its librarians), for instance. And ditto getting ideas: yes, web chat rooms are terrific for generating them, but so too eavesdropping in a supermarket queue and reading old copies of magazines, for instance. It’s not all about the web.

I can’t help feeling that this must be impacting the content of what gets written, by established and new writers alike, even when that material is written for print, not web – perhaps not necessarily for the worse, but still. I often see decent enough articles by students which fall just slightly short of the mark, and which would possibly be saleable were they not so blatantly researched exclusively via the web. Sometimes, they’re just short of life.

Some of the poorer giveaway signs include a sudden throwaway internet reference – “if you don’t believe me, go Google it!” – or strings of lengthy URLs provided in the article’s body. I see this a lot. Why, when you are writing for a print reader, would you send him off to the internet before you’ve finished your article? Your goal is to inform the reader there and then, wherever he may be – quite possibly on an underground train with no web access. Don’t go sending them scurrying off to log on before you’ve finished your job. Maintain engagement. Add a website to your ‘info’ sidebar at the end, at best, once you’re done.

I don’t bother with magazines any longer, a student told me the other day: you get a greater diversity of news and views online. Maybe you do, but this still saddened me a bit. You already know that you need to read and research print publications if you want to write for them. But more than that, I still think you’re more likely to stumble across and read about a subject about which you don’t know much while turning the pages of a journal. When you’re browsing online, it’s so easy to click away into the hundreds of distracting and time-wasting options presented to you or just point your browser to the specific information you habitually seek out. Surely newspapers and magazines still broaden horizons?

I don’t want to give the impression I’m fixated on print and refuse to accept the march of the web and ebooks and the rest. Print may or may not survive in the decades to come, and I don’t expect to feel especially nostalgic if it dies by the time I retire. But the fact of the matter is it’s not gone yet. We still have it. If it goes, that’s one thing, but as it appears to be still kicking, let’s not turn our backs just yet.

So I guess this is a little plea to de-web and un-net yourself for a bit – if not necessarily physically, but mentally – attitudinally. Granted, this is a bit rich given I’m writing a blog and asking you to read it online – but consider spending some hours away from the www. Make as if it had stopped existing for a day. What would you do? How would you go forward? What would you read? It might reinvigorate a lost writerly dimension in you.

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