At about the same time that Michael Kinsley’s hilarious response to a blog post of mine hit the web, The Atlantic also uploaded to its website Kathleen McAuliffe’s excellent story about how parasites shape our behavior.
McAuliffe’s 5,873-word feature was written for the magazine, and went through multiple layers of commissioning, copy-editing, top-editing, fact-checking, and the like. It’s not, by any means, an easy read; it includes quite a few passages like this.
The neurotransmitter is known to be jacked up in people with schizophrenia—another one of those strange observations about the disease, like its tendency to erode gray matter, that have long puzzled medical researchers. Antipsychotic medicine designed to quell schizophrenic delusions apparently blocks the action of dopamine, which had suggested to Webster that what it might really be doing is thwarting the parasite.
And yet, within 36 hours of being uploaded to the Atlantic’s website, the story had already amassed half a million pageviews — and was “well on its way to becoming the most visited piece ever” in the history of the site, in the words of Alexis Madrigal.
Meanwhile, earlier in the week, Salon editor Kerry Lauerman had revealed some traffic stats of his own:
We ended 2011 on a remarkable high note, with over 7 million unique visitors for the first time, without any giant, viral hits that could be outliers. And now we’ve finished January in similar fashion, at 7.23 million.
There are concrete reasons for this We’ve — completely against the trend — slowed down our process. We’ve tried to work longer on stories for greater impact, and publish fewer quick-takes that we know you can consume elsewhere. We’re actually publishing, on average, roughly one-third fewer posts on Salon than we were a year ago (from 848 to 572 in December; 943 to 602 in January). So: 33 percent fewer posts; 40 percent greater traffic.
All of which would seem to imply that Kinsley is right, and that there’s something amiss with my more-is-more thesis of online journalism. Have we really — finally — reached the point at which quality is asserting itself in the form of monster pageviews? Especially given the fact that the New York Observer, the subject of my original post, is getting fewer pageviews now than it was in its much more assiduously edited days at the end of 2007.
If we have reached that point — and I hope that we have — it’s a function of the way that the world of the web is moving from search to social. Companies like Demand Media were created to game search — to take what people are genuinely interested in, and then exploit those interests to get undeserved traffic and ad revenues. Gaming social media, by contrast, is much harder: people tend not to share things they don’t genuinely like.
The one thing that Kinsley got undeniably wrong in his piece was his assertion that I find the “more is more” formula to be “a wonderful development”. I don’t. Yes, I said that the Observer threw out the old and did something brave and new; I also said that I preferred things the way they were before.
What I do find to be a wonderful development is the way in which social discovery engines like Summify and Percolate surface much more relevant and much higher-quality content than search ever did. (Although I do worry, a lot, about the way in which Twitter seems to have bought Summify just to shut it down.) The more that we share stories and use such tools, the better the chance that great content will get an audience commensurate with its quality — even if it doesn’t have a web-friendly headlines like “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy”.
That said, the downside to publishing subpar content is certainly shrinking. Once upon a time, if you read a bad story in a certain publication, that would color your view of the whole enterprise. That’s no longer the case: in a world where websites are insatiable, there are precious few publications of consistent excellence. As Kinsley says, almost no one achieves good writing most of the time — but once upon a time, editors could and did simply spike material which wasn’t good enough. Nowadays, less-than-great copy tends to get published anyway, since websites have no space constraints and the old excuse about how “we ran out of pages” doesn’t hold water any more.