Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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Phony Rhetoric

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A few years back it looked like the internets were actually making some sort of progress. With markup improving and with the content is king motto being repeated all over. We saw many ‘old media’ companies like newspaper put substantial amounts of their texts (or ‘content’ as people like to call it these days) online and make them accessible to readers and indices. And for sure there is more text (‘content’) now on the internet than there ever was.

But still I think that not everything is great. At the end of the day having a great number of ‘hits’ is still worth more than having good content. And good ‘content’ mostly doesn’t seem to be the stuff that generates plenty of ‘hits’. I am not speaking about the gazillions of spam sites here either, I am speaking about honest-to-goodness sites, sites that do have things to write and inform about. And I wonder to which extent the drive for ‘content’ and ‘hits’ changes their presentation style to a degree that they start sucking.


There are plenty of news sites on the web. And they are helpful in being up to date. In fact, frequently just skimming the headlines of a news site seems more informative than watching TV news. With the added benefit of only taking a fraction of the time and letting me decide on which stories I want further details.

However, I also find that the news site crave for extra ‘hits’. Even with completely trivial stories which can be told in three lines, they try to turn it into a two paragraph mess, so they can fill an individual page for the story rather than just letting you read it on the main page. And even in the sub-headings they often use rhetoric techniques like questions or mock contradictions to make things appear more interesting or relevant than they really are.

Why isn’t it OK to market a puff piece of journalism as a puff piece? People have bought celebrity magazines for ages, money, adultery and tits are attractive enough, there’s no need for mock astonishment or even ‘scandals’. Or for mock contradictions either, or for mock investigative ‘or is it?’ questions at the end of the headline or – worst of all – for any of the above added behind the headline with a dash.


All right, all right, I don’t expect too much from commercial web sites. They are owned by companies who want to sell stuff. So they’ll probably dress up in their shiniest suits, not mention all the penguin killing, oil spillage or child employment they are responsible for and tell me their story. That alone doesn’t irritate me too much.

But what does irritate me is that those sites which are supposedly filled with information that I – as a customer or a potential customer of the company – may need to decide spending my money with them, are frequently completely void of useful information.

For example, the other day I was trying to find out some more information about the new contact lenses that had been recommended to me. And for sure the company making them had a web page on those lenses. And that web page, in turn, featured plenty of sub-pages with general information on contact lenses. Cool, I thought, I could do some reading up on that as well – assuming that the info given would probably be biased a bit so it fit their offerings particularly well. But not even that. At the end of the day, each of those pages essentially said something along the lines of please go to a professional contact lens shop for advice and adjustment – and be sure to throw away your monthlies after a month so you can get new ones. Ahh, zero information.

And they aren’t alone with that. Many companies do that. Why not actually tell me in which respect their lenses are supposedly better than those of their competitors? Why always move an opaque ‘expert’ – who usually isn’t just an ‘expert’ but has quite a solid business interest in how my purchase goes as well – in my way? Makes me suspect that they don’t have anything to offer that they could sell on its merits alone.

Uh, and if you are a company wanting to sell a product, what about actually listing approximate prices on your web site? If you don’t list prices I’ll have to assume that the prices are so high that you are ashamed to list them. Or that you are interested in letting your retailers have a lush life at my expense. You could as well just have a ‘Yeah, we’ll rip you off’ page on your site.


Interestingly, the puff-piecery didn’t stop at the world of blogging. There are zillions of blogs, even without the whole spam/rip-off industry. And – in their respective area – many of them have something to offer. But in the past year or two I have also started to see some kind of slight professionalism arise. And to me it looks like that is also related to what will be popular.

The most obvious point are pictures. People like pictures, and thus they find their way into posts more and more frequently. (I plead guilty at that one as well.) This may be a matter of digital cameras, bandwidth and photo hosting being ubiquitous these days. But it also seems to be a matter of popularity hunting.

In the past year or two we have also seen a trend of more professional blogging. Not in the sense of corporate bloggers, but in the sense of people equipping each of their posts with a pretty (but usually only mildly related) stock photo. And while that doesn’t necessarily make the writing worse, it gives the whole affair the stale taste of badly done journalism (yeah I’m the guy who absolutely hates it when reading a report about some musician which describes their looks including their clothes and then seeing a random press photo on which the person looks completely different right next to that)

A fixed form can contribute to such a stale feeling as well. Once people get the hang of which posts will be popular or get many comments, they take the flattery and give us more of the same. So, if mock disagreement goes down well, we’ll get more of that. Hooray. Of course this is a bit more subtle here than it is in the field of professional journalism as mentioned above. And sometimes I’m not even sure this is a conscious development. But still it reduces my enjoyment.

February 22, 2007, 20:59

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