The machines read so you don’t have to

It’s some point in the late pre-internet age, somewhere in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana. A cinephile with an appetite for films as ravenous as Tarantino’s has just hit record on his VCR. His home is full of such recordings. There are so many, in fact, that it hurts to think that one person could ever watch them all in one lifetime.

But watching them isn’t always the point. For this particular cinephile, the recordings serve another purpose. It is, he says, ‘as if the VCR is watching them for me, in my place.’

That man is Slavoj Žižek, the critical theorist and psychoanalyst turned rock-star intellectual. ‘Although I do not actually watch [them],’ he once wrote of his home-recording fetish, ‘the very awareness that the films … are stored in my video library gives me a profound satisfaction.’

Fast forward a few years and cast your eyes to suburban New Zealand, where a dance music fan is using an underground peer-to-peer file-sharing network to download the entire contents of hard drive belonging to a DJ in New York. The collection would take three years to listen through once, and the New Zealander only ever blasts out a few dozen of the selections in the cache. Yet she derives a great amount of enjoyment from simply having such a collection in her grasp.

It is, as Žižek would say, as if the hard drive is dancing to the songs for her, in her place.

Then we come to today, to the smartphone of an Overland reader who is, it will be no shock to hear, a hopeless news junkie. His Twitter feed has become a glorious tangled mess of updates from newspapers, blogs, tech start-ups and battlefield correspondents in every corner of the globe. Clearly, he can never keep up with it all, but again, that’s not the point. It’s as if his Twitter account is keeping on top of the news for him, in his place.

Some might call this being greedy. Others might say they are living vicariously through (over-)consumption. Lacanian psychoanalysts like Žižek have another term altogether: interpassivity.

Interactivity is considered one of the defining features of the online experience, yet the reality of most media consumers today is one defined by interpassivity. And it presents a serious challenge for those of us engaged in online journalism.

For example, research by Slate’s Fahrad Manjoo and analytics company Chartbeat found articles which ‘get a lot of tweets don’t necessarily get read very deeply.’ In other words, even a short piece of journalism someone likes enough to share with the world is liable to be consumed interpassively: we don’t finish the piece, we let our tweets read it for us (theoretically, of course).

Sometimes the headline is all it takes for a story to get shared around in this way. And headlines can sometimes be so beefed up on SEO these days that, interpassively speaking, they have already read the story for us.

Journalists have also been accused of offering up stories that lend themselves to interpassive consumption. Take, for example, the New York Times’ ‘Snow Fall’ – a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of online journalism which seamlessly integrates multimedia into its 17,000 words of reportage.

One of the major criticisms of ‘Snow Fall’ was that hardly anyone actually read it. In a sense, there was no need to.

The average user spent twelve minutes on the story: a huge amount of time by web standards, but barely long enough to do more than engage with the multimedia which defined ‘Snow Fall’. In other words, people let their scrollbar enjoy the piece’s extensive passages of text, while they took in the novel bits which had everybody talking.

This reaction is, in the words of Dutch philosophy lecturer Gijs van Oenen, ‘a symptom expressing an ambiguous message.’ He calls interpassivity ‘a strategy to keep up with an active life,’ which helps us remain loyal to our desires while also releasing us from what Lacan calls the ‘over-burdened demand to enjoy.’ We have too much of a good thing, and what we want with our interpassive consumption is ‘to present an attitude of activity to the world.’

The challenge in this for online journalism – and especially those making long-form works – is to embrace the computer user’s non-passivity. When we sit at a computer, we rarely want to sit passively, as we would with a television or newspaper. We want to scroll, click and fidget. We want to engage.

Just as the ‘new journalism’ movement of the 60s and 70s borrowed literary and storytelling devices of the fiction-writing world, perhaps today’s groundbreaking online journalists need to look more closely (and more creatively) at the world of digital fiction for inspiration.

In other words, online journalists need to produce works that users will (actually) consume actively, not ones they browse through interpassively.

Jack Kerr

Jack Kerr is journalist (The Guardian, ABC, Vice, Der Spiegel, etc), radio documentary maker and former lecturer in Online Journalism at RMIT.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Jack – interesting piece! But I think many of us do engage actively – in fact more ppl than ever before are having their 2 cents – and I get the need for more interactivity – but I’m also weary of whether that will distract us from particular messages ever more – perhaps though – as you are suggesting – the net will cast and catch a wider audience – I love – for example – the gifs explaining complex academic theory that are often embedded in articles on theory for this very reason. We can now choose to interact via twitter, fb, insta, tumblr – etc etc – and many of us do – for better or worse! How do you foresee digital fiction transforming online journalism? This idea is really intriguing!

  2. I always think of this sort of activity as a digital equivalent of hoarding, but one that won’t get the council on your back to clean up your health hazard house and yard.
    It is not helped by the fact that we are in a capitalist economy encouraged to consume far more than we need, so it is natural that we take this approach into our online lives. I know I keep things that I may never read and scrolling through and sharing is all too tempting when a piece is long and you find reading long blocks of text off a screen uncomfortable.
    I know that it is wrong of me, but I expect a digital article to be short and to the point, anything longer than 1500- 2000 words and I don’t finish it, but I will if it is in a book, newspaper or journal.

  3. Great article. Thanks.

    It makes one think about the superficiality of the net and its journalism. If one is not reading deeply and yet proclaiming a politics of engaging actively, how far reaching in depth and complexity can that engagement be. Thus, engaging actively via twitter and fb etc, the sharing of headlines and outrage in snippets or 140 characters, is not a very deep and complex engagement at all, is it? But is rather superficial, and in the end, just contributes to noise and chatter that washes easily away in the daily rinse of Google search and internet feeds. What is left is a kind of sediment. In other words, the real issues, which will take time and complex thought to address in any meaningful way.

    Moreover: “We want to scroll, click and fidget. We want to engage.” Yes, but this scrolling and clicking IS just fidgeting. It is a nervy inattentive distracted way of staving off boredom, of filling one’s days with busyness, of being seen to be busy. In the end, it may be the more still, contemplative, long-form view that penetrates to the heart and soul of the world in which we live. We may only understand NOW in twenty years time.

  4. Wow. This is a fascinating piece on so many levels. These people sound fascinating (or weird), not sure at the moment.

    As a teacher, I find that the concentration skills of students are steadily declining. I am in no doubt that this is because of a myriad of factors, including the ease of responding, being seen to have a significant online presence (somehow, anyhow will do), FOMO and so many other reasons. Skimming is the predominant form of reading nowadays. Enjoying language per se is almost a thing of the past. Part of the responsibility for this lies within the education system that has over used its online reliance.

    There is so much in this article to unpick that I will have to reread it and slowly. It is disturbing to think that journalists have to dumb down their content.

    Really enjoyed your insights.

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