We know what you want to know

What precisely are you searching for on the internet today? What do you want to do, see, or find out more about?

We, the content creators, assume you have an answer to that question. In digital writing, best practices revolve around the notion that every opportunity to garner eyeballs begins with an innocent entry keyed into Google’s search box.

It is a game of mind-reading. The aim is to figure out what internet users are asking for at a particular point in time before other websites figure it out, and then ensure that our page is the source that is most well-tailored to capturing that specific need when demand is at its peak, while also factoring in all the other needs of all the other internet users, everywhere, and adjusting the mix of content accordingly.

During this process, there are three key variables that must be taken into account:

  1. Popularity- Is this really a hot topic that everyone is interested in? Or has this interest been amplified within your social circle? For example, I assume that everybody is excited about the upcoming Singapore International Festival of the Arts just because a couple of my friends are buzzing about it. “Nobody cares,” my editor informs me.
  2. Timeliness- Is the topic being talking about right now? Or is it something that everyone was excited about yesterday, and have promptly lost interest in? If Kim Kardashian drops a new app or posts a controversial picture on her Instagram in the morning, you need a story about it up on your site by that afternoon. Otherwise, by the time you publish, your story would be buried below all the others that got there first. This is because Google’s search algorithms recognise articles that are published earlier as those that have gained more traction and will continue to draw them up as they accumulate more and more page views and ping-backs from other sites that reference them as an original source. (One of the most morbid and worst kept secrets about the media is that we prepare famous people’s obituaries well in advance… y’know, just in case.)
  3. Specificity- Are you hitting the exact issue on the nail, or are you just using broad strokes, taking clumsy swoops at it with a large butterfly net of related ideas hoping that you catch a few stray readers? When you search for “Donald Trump”, you can get hits ranging from “hairstyle” to “bankrupt” to “Melania hot wife”, though of course you only care about “why and how did he get to be presidential nominee wtf america”. Let’s say I’m a fashion writer. The only way I could leverage on the increased volume of “Donald Trump” searches during the elections is to angle the story along the lines of  “Top Five Tips to Stay Super Sexy like Donald Trump’s Wife”. If I’m lucky, you might click on my article about  out of curiosity, but a political op-ed is much more likely to grab you.

When we attempt to evaluate each of these factors with respect to a particular topic of interest, we immediately face a representation bias because every news outlet is clamouring for the next big story and the moment they think that they’ve got one, the entire media industry explodes with stories, interpretations, commentaries of their own. The topic, however personally relevant it may be, is forcibly imposed onto consumers of every type of media.

In such a scenario, are individuals picking the topics that they are interested in? Or are they really just being told by the media what ought to be important to them?

Even those in the media industry find it very difficult to discern whether the readers’ motivations are self-determined, or prescribed by the players with the biggest audience and meaninglessly echoed by the rest of us who are hoping to ride on their wave of success. Or maybe we choose to avoid thinking critically about the subject at all. That’s certainly the view Alain de Botton has of us. In his idealistic book (that at time borders on naivety) The News: A User’s Manual, he states:

“The news is committed to laying before us whatever is supposed to be most unusual and important in the world: a snowfall in the tropics; a love child for the president; a set of conjoined twins. Yet for all its determined pursuit of the anomalous, the one thing the news skilfully avoids training its eye on is itself, and the predominant position it has achieved in our lives.”

We, collectively, have control over your reality. When we write about issues, we are telling you that they are worth knowing about, that you should want to know about these issues… because we think you want to know about them. Yet, no one single agent is in commandeering this ship. We are all taking cues from each other, listening to you- interpreting your perceptions of important issues from numbers of clicks, time spent on a page, or, at its lowest level, Likes on a Facebook post- all while you take cues from us. If it’s in The Economist or TIME magazine, it has to be ‘legit’ right?

Being on the other side of the news, I find myself asking the question: Isn’t my purpose of writing to help my readers sift through the mess and make sense of the world? By chasing trending topics and website statistics, I’m just contributing to the noise that causes us so much distress these days. Already, there are too many voices shouting the same thing and overwhelming us that even Arianna Huffington, founder and editor-in-chief of one of the most ubiquitous new sources on the internet, The Huffington Post, advises her readers to “[t]urn off all notifications; you should control when you want information, not the reverse.”

I am thankful that I have this personal outlet to share my thoughts without the pressure of meeting KPIs and subscriber/follower targets. Every weekend post is an opportunity to process my thoughts and air them instead of letting them build up and get lost beneath a pile of work stories that do not engage me on the same emotional level.

In an interview I did with her yesterday, the beautiful and most affable Nikki Muller had this wisdom to offer: “Always make time to check in with yourself. Curate your own personal space around you. And figure out what you value in life.”

It dawned on me that blogging is that time and that space that I give myself to look within and figure it out. I don’t need to track the number of followers I have, and I shouldn’t either. Regrettably, the attitude towards ‘searchability’ and ‘clickability’ that I have cultivated has spilled over recently and I find myself thinking about what people want to read before starting on a blog post. I forget that I’m really writing for me, not for anyone else. Does writing for my own peace of mind make me egocentric? Maybe, but I don’t know. If what matters to me also matters to you, then we both benefit right?

Even if I did want to grow my readership, I’d want it to be organic. I want you to read my blog because you think that we have similar values and tastes, that I discuss issues that you care about, and most importantly, that we can have a conversation about. To attract you under false pretences using meta-tags and highly searched words is kind of like offering ice cream and cupcakes in exchange for friendship. It may entice people initially (because hey, who doesn’t like free ice cream and cupcakes) but after awhile they find that the relationship isn’t all that rewarding.

So, dear reader, I might not have ice cream, or cupcakes, but I do have stuff to say. And if you like what I have to say, then you’re welcome to stick around. I’ll try my best to keep you around but I promise I won’t try too hard.

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