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Is the Internet killing good writing as we know it?

The great digital disruption is making an impact in every sector, and the literary scene has not been spared from that. Writers are increasingly having to navigate the new normal with the rise of social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram, which have encouraged videos and visual imagery to take precedence over the written word. Undeterred, many are exploring new ways to reach their tech-savvy audience.

The great digital disruption is making an impact in every sector, and the literary scene has not been spared from that. Writers are increasingly having to navigate the new normal with the rise of social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram, which have encouraged videos and visual imagery to take precedence over the written word. Undeterred, many are exploring new ways to reach their tech-savvy audience.

The headlining speakers at the ongoing Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) 2016 are living examples of the impact digital platforms have on writers today.

Meet Evan Puschak, 28, the American creator of The Nerdwriter, a popular YouTube web series of video essays launched in 2011, commenting on culture, arts, and politics. Puschak, who will be making a splash at the SWF 2016 this Saturday as he unravels the results of the US Presidential Elections, shared how social media and the Internet are the foundations of his work.

“Without the Internet and YouTube, I’d be doing something very different with my life, something not nearly as fun and rewarding. YouTube is a really exciting space because there are tons of people already there waiting for new content,” he said.

With close to five million views, his most popular video, published last year, analyses a long-winded one-minute answer given by Donald Trump during an interview and shows how Trump’s sentence structure and basic word choices gave him an advantage over other presidential candidates when speaking to the American public.

Also speaking at the SWF, Frederik Obermaier, one of the two German journalists who broke the news about the Panama Papers earlier this year, agrees that the Internet and social media platforms offer completely new ways of telling and investigating stories.

“Internet research as a matter of course is part of my work. Naturally, social media is also part of it. It helps to find people and information — and it also helps spread the word about new investigations or new scandals.”

The 32-year-old journalist, who will be speaking on the issues of privacy and surveillance in the 21st-century this weekend, added: “As money, politics, abuse of power and corruption reach across borders, journalism has to reach across borders as well. I expect international cooperation in the field of investigative journalism to become more and more important.”

 

WRITTEN WORD VS SPOKEN WORD

For homegrown spoken-word poet Jennifer Anne Champion, 28, who will be performing at the Esplanade as part of SWF, social media platforms are an inevitable extension of her work. “The performance aspect of spoken-word poetry predates social media and audio-visual culture. In that sense, when the Internet and social media came along, it was only natural for the more ‘performative poets’ to exploit the medium. Or more charitably, take to it like fish to the ocean.”

Pushcak, too, views the possibilities for up-and-coming writers on virtual platforms as exciting. “New writers have landed in a world where the gatekeepers to publishing content have basically disappeared. You can build an audience all on your own, and with an audience comes opportunity and potentially a career. Do it right, and you’ll never have to write up a resume or attend a job interview again. That’s exhilarating.”

However, Obermaier cautioned: “If there is no story to tell, the best ideas about how to spread the story are useless. And the beginning of all journalistic storytelling stands: Research and investigation. In-depth-reporting (which needs time) will hopefully be an anti-pole to the constantly accelerating and clickbaiting copy-paste-rumour-spreading industry.”

 

STANDING OUT AND STAYING RELEVANT

Certainly, the implications of writing in the era of the Internet have not always been positive, giving rise to the keyboard warrior and online commentary that blurs the lines between fact and fiction.

“The angriest and most conspiratorial perspectives always come from online sources; sometimes from people who hide behind avatars, sometimes from online publications that have made it their mission to discredit the mainstream media,” Puschak observed.

Obermaier pointed out that what is lacking is the “media standing out from the masses”. “People will only pay for media consumption if they are offered something that other media cannot offer. One way of gaining such exclusivity is investigations,” he added.

For Puschak, producing the Nerdwriter was essentially about doing something that differentiated him from the online voices. “Namely, present a well-researched and thoughtful essay in video form, where the video isn’t just ancillary, but essential to the message. Luckily, there was an audience for that sort of thing.”

Champion, who is also multimedia editor for online platform poetry.sg, said there are more opportunities for people to differentiate themselves on these platforms. “We’re seeing different kinds of poets breaking out digitally and having that immediate audience.”

Aside from encouraging diversity, another long-term implication from these online platforms is its brevity. “I’ve staked my claim in quicksand. I’d like YouTube to last forever, but that’s a fool’s wish in this medium,” Puschak admitted.

“As Bruce Sterling (American science fiction author) once said: Live by disruption, die by disruption. Before long, I’m sure the Internet will require me to adapt to something new. Whether I’m up to the challenge remains to be seen.”

 

The Singapore Writers Festival runs till Nov 13. Festival passes and tickets are available at Sistic.

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