Note: This essay was originally posted on Wednesday, May 11, but was inadvertently deleted during a Blogger service failure and reposted.
Might some Christian websites be unintentionally making themselves obsolete?
Not through the poor utilization of cutting-edge technology. But by the poor choices they're making regarding their content.
I used to work for an Internet technology company, and one of the mantras my employer constantly stressed was "content is king." And he's right: there's no reason to visit any website other than to access its content. By itself, Internet technology doesn't soothe you, it doesn't make you rich, it doesn't educate you; there's no benefit for any organization to simply have a website. It must deliver relevant content to be worth anything.
That makes sense, doesn't it? But it's so easy to forget.
Now, where Internet initiatives make their profits comes with how you define "relevant." And the proliferation of websites during the past 14 years promised the world a treasure-trove of accessible news, information, opinion, and products that would help make the human experience more informed, sophisticated, efficient, and productive.
And, to a great extent, this has happened.
When Content Quality Isn't Job One
Yet, as I troll the Internet searching for content that can be exploited into an essay for my blog, I've become aware that too much of the content - particularly on Christian websites - is rapidly becoming either redundant, suspiciously inaccurate, or is cunning marketing pablum in disguise.
For example, how many articles on Christian websites are written by or about Christian authors who've just had a book published?
Like the old TV talk shows and print magazines, which provided a forum for celebrities to publicize their newest productions, many Christian websites have become hazy PR factories. Which helps explain why so many organizations let their marketing department manage their website. However, in the rush to maintain a web presence, post content that won't scare away advertisers, and attract new website visitors, content isn't king like it's supposed to be. But they still want you to think it is.
Just yesterday, I was on a well-known and heretofore well-respected Christian website run by a legacy Christian magazine. I had found an article by a person I'd never heard before, but who I assumed was some sort of expert, since his piece was featured on the home page of this famous magazine's website.
As it turns out, the guy just had a book published, and what he wrote as thinly-veiled marketing material for this website was sheer blather. It didn't make sense, there was no coherent train of thought, and the condescension he lathered throughout his ill-fitting paragraphs in an attempt to sound avant-garde was palpable. He claimed to be writing about contemporary Christian music, so I didn't expect to be particularly impressed anyway. But even other readers, CCM fans who've commented on the article, have blasted its author - and the website - for tricking us all into thinking this was valid content.
Their frustration validates my own concern that this website wasn't interested so much in educating or even entertaining us, but simply fulfilling part of a publicity contract for the author's publisher.
This isn't the first time I've finished reading an article on a Christian website and realized I'd just wasted 5 minutes that I'll never get back on junk literature. I just didn't expect it of such a well-known marquee.
Surfer Savvy Eclipsing Conventional Content Standards?
Which leaves me wondering: how long can these sites peddle such drivel before their Internet readership catches on and becomes ambivalent about the organization's integrity, or gives up visiting their site altogether? Believe it or not, most of us have better things to do than devote time to seminary professors whose ivory tower gibberish fails to translate into everyday life, pseudo-famous preachers and "experts" whose craft better titles than articles, and the growing swarm of authors more interested in selling uninspired books than conveying significant ideas. I mean, seriously, people: we Americans already have more material and study guides than we know what to do with, and we're still not wowing the world as salt and light, are we? In a way, we're choking on our own food.
Granted, some websites give their visitors some sort of code or heads-up about the purpose or relevance of their content before we commit to exploring it. In addition, some articles have readers' ratings, but not all of them. Of course, those can be biased or even rigged by publicists, so their accuracy isn't foolproof. And sometimes, the best content is the least popular.
I suspect other websites - like the one I visited yesterday, which exist simply as online extensions of print magazines - have had a more difficult time adjusting to the transition from print to Internet than they'd care to admit. They really still want us to subscribe to their print magazine, so they sprinkle teaser pieces on their website to try and generate interest in subscriptions once they've captured visitors on their site. In effect, they're banking on the legendary legitimacy of their print magazine to cover a multitude of sins on their website. Trouble is, the Internet isn't going away anytime soon, whereas print editions...
Being Tricked by the Trade
Despite all of the rapid advancements in Internet technology, the only way we can currently determine the integrity of an online article is by clicking on its link. That click doesn't prove the article is worthwhile, however; it really only tells tracking software how convincing the article's title was. Once we land on that page, and realize it's junk literature, we can't go back and erase our indication of interest. As far as the webmaster is concerned, the article's content was successful. Even if readers are hitting the response buttons with withering criticism of what they've been tricked into reading.
Odd, isn't it, how with magazines, you never really got that agitated if something was junk literature. Maybe because we could quickly skim ahead to try and figure out where the author was going. More likely, however, it was because with a print magazine, you purchased the whole thing, and you knew that its editors weren't making future content decisions based on individual articles. With the Internet, most readers know that what they view is helping the website's owners determine future content. So, being suckered into virtually affirming something we didn't like is more than frustrating; it's misleading, and could result in more of the same bad content down the road.
At this point, the capitalist would say that we have a handy-dandy fix for this problem: Internet advertising revenue. But even that has its problems. For now, advertisers still think that click-throughs and page-view counts are providing them relevant data which supports the prices they're paying for ad space. Meanwhile, without our being aware of it, our Internet habits are being compiled and vast data mines are being created to help websites selling ad space - and advertisers looking to buy ad space - figure out how to get you and me to spend more money. The more we click on links to articles with bad content, we actually pollute the data being collected on our reading interests with endorsements for more bad content. As data mining becomes more pervasive, it will become a vicious circle of bad content affirming more bad content.
I wonder how long it will take for some of the advertisers on Christian websites to realize that many visitors to these sites are getting increasingly jaded by misleading titles and hollow articles. Unfortunately, the media companies who are pushing for some of this content won't be convinced their current model isn't working because it all still generates some sort of exposure for the person or idea they're trying to showcase. It's like the late Irish author, Brendan Behan, said: "there's no such thing as bad publicity."
Except maybe on the Internet.
The whole information technology genre is based on instant access. Some people have interpreted this to mean that content can be disposable in quality. And certainly, for some people, all they can digest is disposable content, and sites which pander to these types of people won't go off-line anytime soon.
But I suspect that people who visit Christian websites have a significant interest in substantial content. They're willing to explore concepts and ideas which directly relate to basic core principles of life. And they expect instant gratification that's legitimate.
They're not visiting Christian websites hoping for junk content that will blow a spare three minutes between tweets. They're willing to think over valid content that they're taking the initiative to find. They don't want their website visit to waste their time and /or insult their intelligence with anything less.
Over time, the more they get burned, the less likely they are to visit such websites. Another thing my IT boss used to say was it's a lot easier to keep current website visitors coming back than finding new ones. Which brought him back to mantra #1: content is king.
Why have I harangued on this topic so much today? Because I've invested over a year and a half to improve my skills as a writer, which means I want to contribute meaningful content in the Internet age.
I also think it would be a shame for certain Christian websites to peak in their influence so early in the Internet age.