Notes on the Cleverness Economy

As a young aspiring writer (of what, I didn’t know), I wrote an awful lot of words in notebooks for the better part of the 1990s, and I mean “an awful lot” to have multiple meanings in this case.

All self-deprecation aside, one of the easiest, most satisfying ways to string words together was to attempt both brevity and wit at the same time. To write an epigram encapsulating one thought, hopefully with some sort of sarcastic or otherwise clever twist on a conventional concept.

I read a lot of Byron and Coleridge in those days, so here’s an obvious example from the latter, a 19th Century epigram that might be followed by a #meta hashtag today:

What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.

CUT TO: 2007, and suddenly there’s a medium for this sort of thing. 140 characters at a time, with an audience, and buttons to push allowing that audience to give the author instant feedback on just how much cleverness they had managed to wrap up in a neat little tweet.

Compare Coleridge’s couplet to this tweet from Merlin Mann, currently high up on the ‘Popular’ list at Favstar.fm, one of a species of site that tracks Twitter ‘Favorites,’ for those of you that use the little yellow star to mark the tweets you find most clever:

As @homerjsimpson might say, it works on so many levels.

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Obviously, I’m not the first to make the epigram-tweet connection.

Here’s Morgan Meis in what looks like July 2009, running down a number of examples and parallels, including Dorothy Parker and @badbanana:

Voltaire once said “a witty saying proves nothing.” Exactly. Proof, like narrative, is a creature of triples; premise, argument, conclusion. Wit is a cheater. Wit sidesteps. Epigrams try to steal a sliver of truth without having earned it. Witticisms look for knowledge on the cheap.

And a bit less literary, but here’s Tim O’Reilly in September 2008, referencing something Jay Rosen said regarding Robert Scoble:

I only follow a few hundred people out of millions of twitter users, so I’m thinking that there must be tens of thousands of great lines waiting out there to be captured into a book of twitter one-liners.

There were, of course, and Nick Douglas snagged a book deal to gather them up in a neat little package called Twitter Wit.

Other notable Twitter-based book (and/or sitcom) deals for what might best be called collections of epigrams include @fakeAPstylebook and @shitmydadsays.

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Now, I’m not here to criticize the Cleverness Economy — far from it. I’m a participant myself, favoriting all sorts of cleverness left and right, and occasionally producing linkless, mildly topical epigrammary, like so:

In the grand scheme of things, however, that clever tweet has nothing to do with creating any lasting value, and everything to do with engaging my friends/fans/followers/audience/co-conspirators on a regular basis, to keep them on the hook for longer, less clever content, such as the blog post you’re reading right now. If all goes according to my plan.

That’s the idea anyway.

Over at Snarkmarket, Robin Sloan nails the important part of balancing the “flow” of updates, tweets, links, and general social participation with the “stock” of long-form writing, blog posts, articles, and even books. What’s your stock/flow balance look like today? This week? This year? Here’s Robin on what happens if all you do is file tiny tweets, reblogs, and shares:

Flow is a treadmill, and you can’t spend all of your time running on the treadmill. Well, you can. But then one day you’ll get off and look around and go: Oh man. I’ve got nothing here.

Robin also rightly points out that search engines are more likely to glom on to the long-form stuff over time. It’s what will show up two years from now, although your engaged and active Twitter/Tumblr following will be a pleasant and useful thing to have around.

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There’s a good solid metaphor in all this somewhere for online news if you feel compelled to seek it out.

It goes something like this:

“Breaking News” is the treadmill. It’s the “flow” that keeps your audience engaged, coming back, checking your site or your blog, turning on the TV, visiting your national news site on their phone first thing in the morning to check if anything has blown up overnight, subscribed to your hyperlocal blog’s e-mail updates, checking their RSS feeds to see what’s new. And that’s crucial to building and engaging online news consumers.

But it doesn’t last. The stuff that does last? The most obvious answers include investigative and enterprise reporting, but I think there’s room these days for great infographics and data visualizations, too. For example, I’ve gone back to this New York Times piece on the 2008 Democratic primaries more than a few times over the last year, sometimes for political reference, and sometimes just to demonstrate the sort of displays of information that interest me these days.

Recommended: Find the balance, online producer, between churning out a steady stream of content and taking time to build something of lasting value beyond the next few hours.

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There’s more out there to read about the Cleverness Economy if you’re interested. Anytime you see an analysis of Twitter’s codified “retweet” feature and it’s intentions, that might be part of it. The short bits of clever-set handwringing on the occasion of the shutdown of Favrd provide some insight into one corner of it. The somewhat related ebb and flow of Tumblarity appears to have played a part.

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I’m not (ahem) clever enough to roll my ideas about this up into some pithy kicker to close with here. This is an ongoing exploration. There will probably be a Part 2.

6 Replies to “Notes on the Cleverness Economy”

  1. Thanks for taking the time to put something down on how the “stock/flow” balance relates to journalism. I’ve been thinking about that in the back of my mind ever since you posted that link to Twitter, but hadn’t gotten to the point of putting it into words.

    Do you think the basic, not-changing-very-often reference pieces like lists of elected officials’ contact info — or even essays about local history — are part of “stock” as well? I’ve been wondering about the capacity of things like this to drive traffic over the long term. If a piece of content like that on our site were to get four or five page views per day, over the course of the year, that’d just as many views as a typical story…

  2. @Erik:

    I think everything evergreen is ‘stock,’ especially databases and local information. That’s the sort of thing that has lasting value, that will show up in search engines years later, and that your audience will keep coming back to.

    A process story on a zoning initiative out of a city council meeting? That’s flow.

    A fun game for news orgs might be to figure out ways to generate flow with as little investment of time and resources as possible.

    Things to try: Don’t write more than a few grafs on a city council meeting. Treat breaking news as a blotter item or a brief, building larger ‘stock’ stories based on context, trends, analysis of a string of ‘flow’ events.

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