The breed of the classical essayist is almost gone. It has been diminished by clickbait, by memes, by “discussions” held over short-message services like Twitter.
Around 2005, I first became aware of what then was called the “blogosphere” - the idea of a blog then was commonly described as a “public diary”. The concept was ridiculed - why would someone publish his or her inner thoughts to the internet, when such information would eventually be read by “the wrong people”? The first blogging platforms were crude and simplistic, and in the end, it turned out many of the “early successes” in blogging were journalists and opinion pieces, texts that would have fared well in traditional print. While there was a revolution, and while the internet did offer what we expected to happen in the 1980s (“Every human a publisher”), it was not happening in the way we originally thought it would. Many did not participate.
With the rise of social media, the blogosphere came under some pressure. The “writer with an audience” usually kept up the old format, though their texts did become shorter, as readers’ attention spans shrank. And those who used their Blogger account to post pictures of their cat switched to Facebook, or Tumblr, or Twitter.
Around the same time, memes took over with the younger folks, and messages were standardized and formalized into individual pictures superimposed by few words - crude comics at first (it seems only “trollface” survives to this day), then pictures of seemingly random animals (such like “Courage Wolf” or “Awkard Penguin”), to particularly memeable still photography or movie scenes. Ideas now were limited to predefined and generally understood concepts, and individual thoughts were categorized by them.
Brevity is often useful, but hardly ever a sensible train of thought can be expressed, and explained, in only 140 (or 280) characters. If a message gets too short, it will not only lack in content and context, it will also lose stylistic tone, which may inhibit a reader from understanding the author’s intent coherently. Sometimes, that is intentional: it is so much easier for a politician to throw out a random soundbite to his followers, vague, but promisingthan to explain his idea to a largely uninterested electorate - and we have seen a recent US President masterfully orchestrating a hostile media with single tweets.
And the “writer with an audience”? Eventually, many of them bought a camera and are now making videos for youtube, where clarity and context can be lowered in favour of charisma, and which allows for easy sharing between different social media plattforms.
I am not much of an essayist - writing was a chore during school, and the choice of topics often was boring and uninspired (a result of standardized, one-size-fits-all approaches to schooling). I was a hungry reader, though, a consumer of the written word, a devourer of ideas - and the tastiest ideas, the most inspiring thoughts often were found in little-known, almost neglected books. Or, today, on the odd small website few people know.
It is time for more brain-teasing content on the net, journalistic, philosophic, and essayistic content.