HAVE EDITORS EVER KNOWN SO MUCH about their readers? And known, in particular, how little and how badly they read? Today even the Weekly Standard and Democracy: A Journal of Ideas announce up front how long it takes to get through one of their online articles, like a warning, or a dare to cull the weak. Newspaper and magazine editors track page views, unique page views, time on-site, and, for the publishers willing to pay thousands a year, scroll depth — the exact point at which readers give up. Twitter, meanwhile, is a scrolling record of bad reading habits. Retweets of pieces one hasn’t finished; parts of pieces one wants to read but isn’t ready to endorse; fragments that cause one to click away in disgust. A reader argues with a stranger about whether they’ve actually read the piece, only to discover that the stranger is the author. The author, a reader herself, knows all about bad reading habits.
The intimacy between online writers and readers determines how we read and write. As late as the 1990s, despite the lurid fan pages and dank chat rooms of the early internet, there was presumed to be a gulf between these two constituencies. Even with Fox News ascendant and internet news ever more dominant, mass media institutions remained monolithic enough to manufacture consent. The first decade of the 21st century was a transitional one in terms of reader-writer relations, its habits now as foreign as those of Edward R. Murrow’s America. Gone are the happy days when we dialed up to submit a comment to Salon.com, only to be abused by Glenn Greenwald or destroyed — respectfully — by the academics at Crooked Timber. Back then, we could not have imagined feeling nostalgic for the blogosphere, a term we mocked for years until we found it charming and utopian. Blogs felt like gatherings of the like-minded, or at least the not completely random. Even those who stridently disagreed shared some basic premises and context — why else would they be spending time in the comments section of a blog that looked like 1996? Today’s internet, by contrast, is arbitrary and charmless. On social media, criticism once confined to the comments now comes as free-range abuse directed at other readers. Readers can address all parties instantaneously — writers, editors, publishers, and the world. And so writers who publish online peer into the fishbowl of readerly reception. Drop in some flakes and watch the fish swarm.