If you’ve spent any amount of time online then you have come across a weird genre of online writing that we’re going to call the Quirky Author Bio. You’ll find them at the end of blog posts all over the internet. It goes like this: “So-and-so is a writer from (city, state) whose hobbies include cooking, reading, and poking badgers with spoons. He has a pet porcupine named Mr. Prickles and loves making home-brewed kombucha. His favorite word is ‘onomatopoeia.'” (NOTE: If the subject of said biography is a Christian male, the odds of the bio also including awkward or creepy references to the man’s wife and her physical attractiveness are ~60% with that figure rising to ~85% if the man in question is reformed.)
It’s easy to mock the Quirky Author Bio, of course, and in one sense we probably should. It’s an excellent example of the adorably twee style that is ubiquitous across large chunks of the internet, particularly the (aspiring) literati part of the internet. That said, while some mocking is appropriate, it’s worth taking the time to understand how this strange thing came to be and what it says both about the economies of writing and how they shape individual writers in mostly corrosive ways. In the vast majority of cases, if you economically incentivize a thing, then that is what you will almost certainly get. And the online writing economy massively incentivizes things like the Quirky Author Bio.
This was not always the case with writing economies, however. In the pre-internet writing economy, the difficulty of distributing information created a thriving network of small and large media companies that had the means to distribute information broadly. This was something that no other companies or individuals tended to possess and so it was something of a lucrative business once you got into it. This is why we had local newspapers and why those newspapers could charge insane prices for advertising, which helped build and sustain an industry that only 30 years ago was swimming in money. With that money they made from advertising (and some not inconsiderable subscription revenue as well), media companies could employ large numbers of writers. Newspapers employed journalists, of course, but the market for freelancers also existed thanks to the (relatively speaking) high number of profitable magazines eager to pay writers to grace their pages.
The internet has, of course, changed all that. Thanks to Craigslist as well as Google AdWords, Facebook Ads, and a host of other similar products, advertising is either free or relatively cheap. This reality, has, in turn decimated the print media world, which has always depended largely on print advertising to subsidize the costs of producing their newspaper or magazine.
But there’s a further issue as well: As is routinely the case with digital technology, technological “improvements” mean a massive loss of jobs. In the days when advertising was expensive due to the high cost of distributing media, it was easy for many local newspapers to pop up all over the country. If you needed to reach a person in Denver with a message, the best way to do that was advertising in the Denver newspaper. The same held true with most other metro areas.
But the internet turns that model upside down: Local media outlets are no longer viable business models because the two things they relied upon to make themselves valuable to users have both been taken away from them. Advertisers no longer need their distribution networks because they can reach those same people at far less cost via Google, Craigslist, Facebook, etc. Local readers no longer need their reporters—or at least that’s what most people think—because basic reporting of facts now happens largely on social media, which can be read for free. (Obviously the expertise of local news reporters who know the history of a place and can draw on years of knowledge and experience when reporting a story is valuable. Unfortunately, readers have, functionally speaking, said that those things are not valuable enough to justify paying a subscription for a local newspaper.) The result of all this is that local media companies are no longer viable businesses and are no longer providing steady, reliable jobs for aspiring writers.
The problem runs even deeper though: The once-gigantic national media brands have also been rocked by the change as readers would rather read things for free online than pay for a monthly subscription to a magazine. (There’s also something to be said for the way technology has changed how we read. Reading magazine-style feature pieces is now something people do throughout the day rather than in a single, concentrated time of sitting down in an armchair to read the latest issue of Time or Newsweek.)
The result of all these changes is that there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of journalistic jobs available to young aspiring writers. Finally, a final point further complicates the picture: The flip side to the point about distribution networks is that it is now very easy to begin new publications online. Hosting and a domain name can be as cheap as ~$7.00/month. (You can also, of course, simply set up a blog on a WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, or Medium domain for free too, although that is a terrible idea for all sorts of reasons I can’t get into now.) There are other things that can add to those costs, but the point is that the barrier to entry to start publishing your own writing online is virtually non-existent.
Thus we end up with a nightmarish writing economy—finding paying work is exceedingly difficult, but publishing work for free is quite easy. The result is that the internet is flooded with writers who will publish their work for free and only a very small portion of those writers will find paying work. This creates a cut-throat mentality in the world of online publishing which has almost unambiguously disastrous consequences for online writers who aspire to be of any use to the world at all.
And so we return to the Quirky Author Bio: Traditionally an author biographical sketch would run in a byline of a newspaper or somewhere in a book and its purpose was to tell readers about the author they had just read. In other words, it told a person who had already paid for the work about the writer they were already supporting. That is no longer how author bios work online.
Rather, author bios are first seen, in almost all cases, after someone has read something the author has made freely available to anyone who stumbles across the article online. And the bio is no longer a way of relaying basic information about the author to the reader; it’s a way of branding that author, of marking him out as interesting and fun and the sort of person you’d like to follow on Twitter. It’s a desperate attempt to stand out in a sea of similarly cash-strapped freelance writers desperately trying to find a way to stand out and be noticed by the right person.
The challenge here, of course, is that this sort of “quirkiness” ceases to be quirky when it is universal. Further, this becomes one further way in which the work of the writer begins to resemble the work of the salesman in which they are trying to sell themselves to readers and, eventually, editors at publications that pay their writers. But once this move has been made in the author’s mind, the focus of their work has shifted from the work itself, to writing truthfully, clearly, and beautifully about their subject, and toward the person doing the work. Once that happens, the “product” ceases to be the writing and becomes the writer—at which point the writing can only be boring, derivative, and tired, all of which are good descriptions for the quirky author bio.