Every time we write we write to someone. This is true whether that someone is somebody else or just us in a later instantiation, when, with a different intention and a different demeanor, we return upon the text to revise it, to read it again – like strangers. This presence of the other that reads has been made even more obvious in the digital age. Now, there’s no more writing for oneself, if there ever was one.
|Source: The Platypus Directive|
Let’s look at it this way. Even when the privacy settings on your social media platforms are turned to ‘Private,’ we must not overlook the fact that ‘privacy’ is highly deceiving. We should have learned this lesson already. Remember ‘Like’ that doesn’t mean ‘enjoy’? ‘Friend’ that doesn’t mean ‘pal’? ‘Tweet’ that involves no bird? They’re all part of the patois of the day and we kind of understand where everything really stands in the picture. We only pretend to use the word ‘friend’ in its original meaning. We play the game of arbitrariness rather well. We pay it back to the source.
Your text is read by an algorithm
But this is only semantics. What I mean to say about digital writing is that when you write on your blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, on reddit, on any other digital platform, you cannot save yourself from the gaze of the other. The other is there all the time. Considering what I said earlier, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. All’s old and boringly familiar. But what’s new is that the other doesn’t come about as an actual reader, a person you might be able to identify in a crowd. The primary reader of your text is an algorithm. It is the machine that does the crunching of numbers, the perusing of texts, and, of course, the ascertaining of meaning.
This awakens the contemporary writer to an interesting reality. Not only are they writing to produce content, they also write to produce audience. In other words, they become entrepreneurs who pitch their product to a market. But this pitching is made to please first and foremost the algorithms that run the show.
|Source: Lisa Kurt|
It is commonly said among SEO specialists that the value of your text doesn’t matter if you’re invisible. Indeed, in the logic of the digital universe, one makes sense only insofar as one is reachable. But reachability is established through algorithms running in the background. They decide what is and what isn’t interesting, what is and what isn’t professional. Google has gone so far as to regulate language. Poorly written texts, which, let’s face it, have been bothering us big time, are kept at bay by Google algorithms that comb through content in search for mistakes. Of course, this doesn’t mean you’re in a one-mistake-and-you’re-out situation. It takes a little more than just a missed comma for Google to give you the boot.
Conform or remain invisible
But grammar isn’t everything in this game. When it comes to correctness, algorithms are far more sensitive than the occasional grumpy grammarian stomping their feet at the sight of a disagreement between a noun and a verb. Since they are logico-mathematical entities that function on the premise that the input is always valid (i.e. within predetermined parameters), it becomes understandable why an algorithm reacts bitterly when it encounters weird or unacceptable formulations.
At the end of the day, in order for mathematics to work we need to renounce the idea that the distinction between natural objects is relevant. 1+1=2. But what is the first 1 and what is the second 1? What do they designate in the real world? And what does the final result mean, if anything? 1+1 may very well be one apple and one orange, but who cares? We dismiss the very possibility of this distinction to matter. On the other hand, and also because of how mathematics works, we can’t perform an operation such as ҉ + 1, simply because ҉ doesn’t belong in the class of calculable elements designated by mathematics. It is not a number. So unless we give it a numerical value, it cannot play this game.
By association, we can think of the ҉ in the above proposition as the equivalent of a sentence that doesn’t match the patterns written into the software. (I’m not going to go into what can be done to accommodate eccentricities. Rules that break rules exist everywhere, and so do algorithms that allow for abnormal propositions.)
But the point? The point is this: algorithms (and I’m talking about the ones designed to control textual matters) shape the outlook of content. The writer who is a user of such algorithms will find, sooner or later, that he/she must conform to the algorithm if they want to cross the threshold drawn by these invisible robots between writing and display.
Because display is what matters. Not the display of letters on a screen, but the display of content made accessible to the other.
SEO and clairvoyance
Algorithms don’t just automate assent (by pointing out to forthcoming audiences the worthiness of a given text). They also anticipate the writer’s next move. Since conforming to the algorithm is the only way about, the algorithm, through its prescriptive properties, makes the appearance of a text foreseeable. Once you get your head around SEO matters you understand why a URL looks the way it looks, why some keywords appear insistently throughout the text, why titles have to be this long and this many, why some parts have to be highlighted, why links matter, and why there is a need for social media visibility.
|Source: Tactix Marketing|
Search engines search the internet for content. They do so by mining information present in the HTML script. HTML, whose role is to order the chaos of the digital world, precedes content. It is there before the text. And this is another way of putting the question of precedence.
Let’s be frank, SEO is all about pleasing the search engine, which establishes worthiness via authority. It’s precisely the notion of authority that’s the most intriguing, because consensus is the function of a statistical result.
Content optimized for the search engine is exactly what its name indicates: an effort to answer the pressure exercised by the search engine, i.e. by software designed to crunch the numbers no matter what. So that a groundbreaking piece of epistemology, the best novel of this generation, the most illuminating analysis, the best solution to a million problems, amounts to very little if the search engine doesn’t perceive it to be worth pitching. In other words, it will remain invisible.
The viral aspect of content
In order for all of the above to become detectable, visibility has to grow exponentially. And with this statement we slide into the territory of viral content. Spreading about depends on factors external to content, but which writers can stimulate by including in their content elements likely to cause contagion. The first and foremost of these factors, maybe the only one that truly counts, is none other than out good old friend, the algorithm. Because it’s the algorithm that discovers the text in the first place. Growth of popularity depends on how other users share content. While there seems to be agency here (when I choose what to post online I am communicating a personal decision), the expression of this agency is made through a piece of software.
It’s the Like button I’m talking about here. It makes apparent one fundamental thing about software: that when we use it we don’t bring our free will to light. On the contrary, we admit to our conformity to the algorithm. When we choose anything, we help the software bring its function to fruition. We are an element in the system, a cogwheel in the apparatus, an operative factor in the code.
Then there’s the even more mundane realization that only the already-popular becomes more popular. That’s because the algorithm takes shortcuts. Once a piece of content is deemed worthy of interest, a search engine will push that piece up in its ranking system. That’s what happens when we come across certain results when we search for a keyword: why some results come first, while others trail behind, in pages so distant they’re the guarantee of total failure.
With all this in sight, it’s clear, I hope, that the writer who cares about the fate of their content will have to bend to the new rules. Make sure to repeat a keyword but not too many times. Make sure to leave snares for the search engine, to catch the spiders that crawl the web. Make sure to check your text for mistakes. Make sure to send reminders, to share, to encourage interaction with your content, to catch the eye of those who can boost your traffic. We all do that. We all do SEO, whether professionally or just out of instinct. Not because of a suddenly awakened entrepreneurial spirit in us, but because the algorithm demands it. It does.
So write well!