Intentional Insanity: The Occupational Hazard of Writing Online for a Living

It’s a job that requires the doer to be selfish, self-absorbed and superficial

offthemedia (1)Every job carries occupational hazards. As Michael Lewis recently pointed out, the hazards of working on Wall Street are that you start to pretend you know more than you do, and you eventually find it astonishingly hard to care about anyone but yourself.

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These hazards are alarming for anyone. But as Mr. Lewis makes clear, they are especially dangerous for the young. Banking and finance absorb the nation’s best and brightest every year. And every year, it funnels them into an often toxic and corrupting culture.

It’s easy in the aftermath of the financial crisis to think that banking is the only industry that has this kind of corrosive effect. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to make a similar argument for some of the best and most thoughtful thinkers and writers of my generation, who head into online journalism and online content, where they face an equally appalling though rarely discussed set of hazards.

“A man is worked on by what he works on,” Frederick Douglass once put it. What is it that the average online writer is expected to work on in 2015? Expendable content. Outrage porn. Speculation and rumors. Pseudo-news. Fluff and artifice.

And this says nothing of the culture that accepts and even encourages the publication of genuinely exploitative, de-humanizing, vicious, and occasionally criminal stories. For what? For clicks and likes. For traffic. For precious pageviews and ad dollars.

These forces are influencing everyone writing online, even if you don’t blog full time or for a major entity. Wherever you publish, on your own site or elsewhere, it can become so easy to see a piece as good because of how many social shares it got (compared to say, whether it was your best effort or something that advanced the public’s understanding of a major issue). Also because anything can be published and everything that is published is published immediately, one quickly overestimates their abilities as a writer and their importance in the universe. It becomes so tempting to produce for attention and validation in the very short term instead of putting in the hours and paying the dues one needs to pay in order to grow. The system is designed to make you worse at what you do.

Where there was once a path that might develop young voices, teach them to write, let them develop their talent, channel their egos and ultimately help assemble them a career in which they could speak and produce great work, we have a system that finds talent, underpays it, teaches it bad habits, inflates its self-importance and then kicks them out when pageviews dip or trends change.

As one former VentureBeat blogger, Bekah Grant, recently confessed on Medium, the job was a relentless, rapid machine that had to be constantly fed. “I wrote an average of 5 posts a day,” she said, “churning out nearly 1,740 articles over the course of 20 months. That is, by all objective standards, insane.”

The primary occupational hazard of blogging is this: it’s easier when you yourself take on some of the traits of insanity. It’s a job that requires the doer to be selfish, self-absorbed and superficial. Jason Kincaid, a former writer for TechCrunch, described it as an emotional “callous” that grows over these employees—it has to. It would be incredibly difficult otherwise to break news without due diligence, to mock without mercy, and to regularly opine about things one doesn’t understand. It’s why the average age of professional bloggers tends to be rather young. Immaturity is a rather effective suppressant on empathy and perspective.

And then bloggers go and try to find other jobs with only some success.

Look at Valleywag, which has chewed up and spit out close to a dozen writers now in the last decade. And where are the writers now? In better jobs at more reputable outlets? Of course not. Wherever they land, they seem to land for a year or so at most before getting pushed out or leaving. The same is true for ReadWriteWeb, Mashable, TheVerge, New York Magazine and BuzzFeed which seem to have a revolving door of editors, writers and hatchet men.

At least a young banker is on a path that will make him or her rich.

And where are the people these writers ravaged—or overhyped—on the pages of these websites? Well, most of them, ironically, are doing better than ever—building things, living reasonably happy lives, and contributing to their companies and the economy.

Because I also have my hand in traditional publishing, I watch with some interest the people from the blogging world who sign big book deals. It’s fascinating to watch a writers finally given a project all their own regularly bungle it by not working hard enough, by overestimating their talent and of course, totally misjudging their audience (one former Valleywag reporter published a book that has to date sold just 400 copies in hardcover). Spoiled by the massive platform they write for these writers assume that they themselves are important, that people care what they have to say.

First Look is another rather appalling example. The story is this: a group of writers who have spent an immense amount of time criticizing not just how corporations and leaders execute their businesses and organizations, but about how other media outlets operate, are given essentially a blank check to build a new vision for media from the ground up and then fail ineptly and miserably to do anything with that gift. To call First Look a failure at this point is an understatement. In reality, it is not only an embarrassing mess but one that the participants have obscured, hidden and lied about from almost day one.

“One of the mistakes we made is, we were so excited about what we could achieve, we didn’t stop and think about the pitfalls of creating a new media organization,” Greenwald recently told AdWeek. “We didn’t discuss what expectations Pierre Omidyar had for us, what his organization [wanted] and what we wanted.”

Ahh, yes, the words of someone who should probably rethink the haughtiness of their corporate or government criticism.

It’s the same occupational hazard as before–but this time with adults and professionals as well as naive young bloggers. Once more, starting to think that writing about something with an authoritative voice is the same as actually knowing what you’re talking about. It turns out that running a business is really hard, and it was precisely their tendency to brush over messy, complicated, no-win decisions that likely contributed to their very public failure.

It’s why I try to push the writers I work with toward developing real sources and relationships. And when someone says they don’t feel comfortable publishing something, I do my best to encourage them to trust their gut and personal boundaries. Mostly, I try to talk to them about having an idea of where they actually want to end up in life—as writers, thinkers, people—because if they don’t, it’s very clear to me where they will end up. Work is moral education—an idea that’s basically vanished in the modern era of journalism and content creation. In this case, it also doesn’t pay enough to trade your soul for.

Occupational hazards like the ones we’re examining here act most strongly on the aimless and the impressionable. That line from Budd Schulberg about a journalist deluding himself that he can “deal in filth without becoming the thing he touches” is true. But it’s also true that temporary exposure to toxins in small doses can inoculate us. We can watch as others go down a bad road and realize how very much we want to go in the other direction.

Ryan Holiday is the editor at large of Betabeat and the author of Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.

Intentional Insanity: The Occupational Hazard of Writing Online for a Living