Reading Without Meaning

Before I was a writer I was a reader. Doesn't matter if I'm reading a short story, a news article, an essay or a poem, I flat out love the act of reading. I love the way words interact with each other and spin different meanings and understandings based on how they are arranged and used. I'm also not alone in this love of reading. There are billions of people around the world with a similar love.

But lately my reading hasn't been as satisfying. The problem isn't with the traditional fiction, essays, and journalism I read. No, my problem is with many of the online news articles linked from places like Yahoo and Google News. I'm sure every reader of online news is familiar with these articles, which have eye-catching titles like "Can't Sleep? 7 Eats to Avoid" or "5 Cheapest Places To Live in America."  But once you read the articles you come away feeling unsatisfied, as if you'd eaten candy all day and forgot to ingest any actual food. These articles are often little more than lists, promising much more than they can deliver. They lack context. They lack a deeper understanding of life. They lack meaning.

I understand why this is – these articles are created by content farmers, whose only aim is to get as many eyeballs as possible clicking through their content. They don't care if their articles contribute nothing to their readers. They only care that they're good enough to work as SEO and that the big boys like Google don't call them spam.

But despite claims that search engines are cracking down on content farmers, my sense is that the content farm way of life is spreading more and more into online journalism. As one AOL writer asked his boss, “Do you guys even CARE what I write? Does it make any difference if it’s good or bad?" The answer, of course, was no.

But that "no" is extremely irritating to readers, who quickly tire of reading things which tell them nothing new and provide no deeper understanding of the subject matter. So yes, these articles may land a ton of eyeballs, but how many of those eyeballs exist under irritatingly raised eyebrows, and how many of these readers make the subtle decision to stop wasting their time with online news because of crap like this. Such a process might be slow but it can definitely happen. And it is very much a case of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

But the future promises to be even worse for online news readers.

According to the provacatively titled "Will Robots Steal Your White-Collar Job?" journalism is at risk of being AI-sourced by the new generation of intelligent computer writing programs. The article mentions the program StatSheet, which has generated "more than 15,000 articles a month and over the course of its nearly four-year lifespan, has created a million pages of news."

The program's inventor, Robbie Allen, adds that "Within the next three to four years, it will be better than what a human can produce. And the reason for that is pretty much the foundation of computation: We can analyze and access significantly more data than one person can on their own."

I have no doubt about that last point regarding data handling. But can your program provide meaning and context and the deeper understanding that readers enjoy? No.

In fact, the article where I first read about the StatSheet is a perfect example of what these types of programs – and indeed, most content farmed articles – can not do. "Will Robots Steal Your White-Collar Job?" is a short but in-depth journalistic examination of an emerging trend. The author, Brian Fung, pulls together data and original information, including original quotes from knowledgable people, and crafts all of that into an informative article which left me knowing much more than before I read it. His article is a perfect example of the insights I expect to receive when I read shorter-form journalism.

It will be interesting to see where all this goes. These types of writing programs could be useful in cranking out breaking news articles. But if they are applied to other types of journalism I expect readers will react in similar ways to how I react to content farmed articles. All these articles do is waste time and leave the reader wanting to read less, not more.

The simple truth is that if you don't love reading there is no way you can be a successful writer. The passion and committment to words can't be faked and can't be content farmed out or generated by a program. And the same is true of helping readers to see to deeper meanings and understandings.

Perhaps I'm simply being naive. Perhaps not. But I do know what I love about the act of reading. And reading farmed content – created either by humans or computers – is not what I love to read.