Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Blogging and Audience

Should we teach our digital composition students the "tricks of the trade" for bloggers and other new media publishers?

The ancient texts on rhetoric discuss proper attire, gestures, and tone of voice to appeal to audiences. Aren't these almost as shallow as writing the best headline to drive traffic to an online post? Clearly our Greek and Roman ancestors understood that the superficial (nice robes, deep voice) was part of the persuasive art.

We tell our students to focus on the quality of their arguments, while blogging, reporting, and scholarly writing fades fast on the Web of today. The great World Wide Web that was going to bring information to everyone is one giant magazine rack, thanks to Facebook and Twitter.

Short headlines, ideally implying something sexual in nature, drive traffic. Shocking. Horrible. You won't believe your eyes. From the Huffington Post to old-stalwarts like The Atlantic, clickbait headlines dominate the flow of information (as opposed to knowledge or wisdom, because those are lacking).

Yes, online reflects the physical world. Magazine racks always had a little space for the fine arts, music, poetry, and philosophy. But it was (and is) Cosmopolitan, Sports Illustrated, and Playboy that ruled the stands. Their digital cousins rule the Web.

Clickbait isn't my specialty as a blogger and my websites don't scream "You'll never guess what happened!" For years, that was okay, but I continue to see declining traffic to my websites and blogs. The loss in readership means I'm not giving audiences what they want, which is interesting.

The Web was supposed to allow niches a space to flourish. When millions or even billions are online, then it should be easy to maintain a few thousand readers. Online, barriers of geography and class were supposed to fall. A website on almost anything was going to find an audience.

People have always been more interested in stories about sex, relationships, and sports than public policy. However, the Web was supposed to help us find our little communities of special interests.

That leads to the question, what do readers expect? Know your audience, we tell our students. What does an online audience want? What does it take to even get that online audience?

Search engine optimization (SEO) used to work. But it turns out that people are shifting away from search. At first, I thought that was impossible, but then I started to think about how I find news.

Yes, I use Google, but I use Google News, not Google Search. I read my Facebook feed and (admittedly) click on stories of interest. I have dedicated apps on my phone for the Washington Post, New York Times, RealClearPolitics, Politico, and a handful of other media sources.

I cannot recall the last time I used my RSS reader. I have Apple's News app on my phone, but I forget to check that, too. The dedicated apps are where I go for information, including some searches. That means I'm searching only within the sources I've already favored. I'm not exploring, like I might have explored in the late 1990s or even ten years ago.

What do we tell students in media courses? What do we tell our composition and rhetoric students? Has the nature of public discourse changed in this brave new world of app-based reading? Stumbling upon stories of interest isn't easy when you stay in the apps from major newspapers or magazines.

How do you teach about obtaining and keeping an audience? Or, do you hope that great content will somehow always find readers? How does that great site find readers without the Google searches of the past?

I don't have answers, but I am trying to decide how I should approach this topic of audience in coming years as a professor and speaker. Tossing things out onto the Web and hoping simply isn't enough. Neither are the old tricks of SEO, from good keywords to proper use of HTML tags.

When there was Yahoo, the curated director of websites, you could find some pretty great content. When we used RSS, you could skim headlines and the first paragraphs from hundreds of online posts. Today? We're buried in an avalanche of purposefully titillating tweets, many with attractive models. Even the images and content that isn't sexual is called "porn" for a reason: food porn and fashion porn posted to Pinterest.

Digital media and public rhetoric. The dream has come up against reality. Our best media inventions always end up being used for base entertainment, but somehow deep discourse survived and thrived on the fringes. Is that changing?