What makes for good writing on the Internet? Goodness knows, we see enough bad writing. Fluff doesn’t have to really say anything – its purpose is to facilitate the introduction of the keywords, and the links, that will drive users to a site while artificially inflating search engine rankings.
Content should have substance and communicate genuine ideas, rather than simply exist to bait the hook for search engines.
Good Data Equals Excellent Data
One of the most important types of substance in good writing is data. A solid grasp of the data involved in treating a topic is one key to communicating real ideas effectively. A writer who provides solid data is giving you information you can use if you plan to base your actions on the subject matter of the article. Data is information, the lifeblood of genuine communication.
Of course, data can be misused. It can be crunched, manipulated, distorted, or misrepresented in order to create the false illusion that substance is being presented.
Caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware,” is a word worth remembering when one is a consumer of anything on the internet. A careful, wary reader is impressed by solid data, but suspicious of data that seeks to misrepresent its subject matter.
Mark Twain’s famous comment is legendary: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Twain attributed this comment to British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, but it’s not found in any of Disraeli’s writings, and most people suppose that Samuel Clemens himself (who used the pen name Mark Twain) was the author of the quote.
Certainly that’s how the quip is perceived in most people’s mentalities. This would make the attribution a “lie,” but probably not a “damned lie,” and, in any case, not a statistic.
How Poor Quality Content Affects Your Credibility
What did Clemens mean by the falsely attributed quip? He was pointing to the fact that it’s rather easy to present a statistical smoke screen of alleged data whose purpose is not to inform but to obfuscate. How does one arm oneself against this rhetorical abuse?
After all, most prose on the Internet is not accompanied by an extensive bibliography that backs up statistical allegations. And even if such bibliographies were present, we all know that bibliographies are easy to fake. The only remedy is an attitude of sensible wariness when reading data-based content on the Internet.
For example, consider seller approval statistics on a wildly popular e-Commerce auction site, offering Buy It Now products as well as auctions. We are urged to believe that certain sellers deserve more trust because they have high percentages of positive feedback in their customer approval ratings. However, studies have revealed that these statistics have occasionally been manipulated by offering discounted products as rewards for positive customer feedback reports. The content is data-driven, so there seems to be substance there, but the data itself is intentionally false. Not to put too fine a point on it, a “damned lie.” Let the buyer beware.
Link farming is another way of manipulating statistics to produce a false impression. The practice of linking websites for the sole purpose of producing higher search engine rankings can produce the impression of tremendous value, when in fact such “value” is totally manufactured. This is a statistic that would probably qualify as a “damned lie” in the classification Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) attributed to Benjamin Disraeli.
The Essence Of Data-Driven Content
Nonetheless, we still should respect the fact that data-driven content is more substantial than fluff. Savvy consumers will be able to respect quality data and distinguish it from manipulated statistics. It’s a simple matter of cultural sophistication, education, and native intelligence.
What would be some examples of data-driven substance that should be taken seriously by the savvy consumer of Internet writing? Charts, graphs, tables, pie charts, and the like would all qualify, as long as they are adequately documented and provide statistical data that fits with the sophisticated reader’s sense of reality. But don’t just believe any chart that’s trying to generate a sale. Consider the source and the motivation for the presentation of the statistical material.
Since Gutenberg’s wonderful invention of the printing press, writing has evolved as an important persuasive tool (Before that time, every text had to be produced by painstaking copying by hand, a feature that did not exactly contribute to widespread dissemination of such texts).
For instance, Luther’s reformation coincided fortuitously with the early decades of Gutenberg’s invention, and Luther and others today may attribute the very existence of religious pluralism to the widespread dissemination of texts (Earlier reformers, relying on the copied word, were largely burned at the stake). Luther’s opponents were no slackers in the printing game either. Counter Reformation writers were as prolific as the Protestant firebrands.
All of which, with further attendant developments in persuasive writing, makes us the inheritors of a substantial body of rhetoric, a lot of it fluff, some of it data-driven, much of it misrepresented (including those famous lies, damned lies, and statistics), but some of it genuinely informative.
How is one to distinguish these various elements in the tradition of rhetoric? Unfortunately, there’s no golden key, no easy device that one can apply to distinguish the fluff from the substance, the manipulated data from the real. The sensible response of a careful, judicious reader is the only rule one can apply. Education, including internet education, is the key.
All we can do is stay the course, use the tools that we have for evaluating content, and make our best judgments about the conclusions. Of course, data-driven content is the most substantial, as long as the data is accurate, honestly presented, and well placed.
Is that the case on the internet? Sometimes, sometimes not. Let the buyer beware.