It took him to a long story on some cheesy-sounding website with a name like Storeeez or LifeJourneez or something like that, and though it wasn’t one of those listicle stories he was required to click through — he knew that kind of thing was bogus, everybody does — the story he was reading seemed to go on forever. Heedless of the horror of what was about to befall him, he kept reading.
The first thing he noticed was the rather forced melodrama of the narrative — a tale about something that happened to some guy who had clicked on a link on Twitter — and the strained but almost infantile efforts to replicate good, hard-boiled writing. That’s what he was thinking as he sat there in his cold kitchen, hollow-eyed, silently cursing the bleakness of a morning after an evening sucking down too much bitter black coffee and cheap bourbon. He kept reading.
Then he noticed something else, something beside the forced melodrama of the paragraphs he was reading and the strained, almost infantile efforts to replicate good writing. He noticed a certain bloated redundancy in the paragraphs, as though the writer, inept though he or she or they might be, was engaged not so much in effective storytelling but in making the reader plow through as many words as possible, something the man with the mustache was, in fact, doing. And he kept doing it, repulsed but mesmerized.
The mesmerization and repulsion and intolerable redundancy in that bleak morning after too much bitter decaf and single-malt scotch gradually morphed into a realization that the writing was also internally inconsistent, as though the writer wasn’t really concerned with facts or accuracy so much as just stringing together words and maintaining some increasingly suspicious aura of impending doom, to hold interest, but doing so with only the skill of a moderately talented fourth-grader. The mystery intensified. He read on.
And then it hit him like a ton of bricks. This thing, whatever it was, also made shameless use of cliches, as though the writer wasn’t really a writer at all, but some writer wannabe with a basic knowledge of sentence structure and a facility with spellcheck, if only as fear as that technology can take you. At this point, the man in the cold kitchen had a lot of unanswered questions, and the only way he was going to get to the bottom of this was to read on. Somewhere, the theme from “Jaws” was playing, as doom awote. Awaited, whatever.
Then is when the man did something, something bold and brave and scary and exogenous, a word he didn’t know but that sounded erudite. See, he had realized to his horror and peduncularity that his brain was melting, as though his soul was being inhabited by the person writing this ghastly thing. And for a moment, he stopped reading. But just for a moment. He needed answers. He needed them now or he felt he would literally explode.
So he got on Twitter and asked people more knowledgeable than he what the heck was going on. And it was there — to his growing dread and existential syzygy — that he learned that click-throughs are now being seen as too transparent, and losing persuasiveness as a marketing tool for measuring reader engagement: They are being superseded by other analytics, like “scroll depth” and “dwell time,” indications of how long a reader stays on a site, and how physically deeply he gets into it — essentially, how many words he read. This hit him like a ton of cinder blocks atop which, for some reason, sat a single maraschino cherry. This thing was getting weird. Like a man wiggling a rotten tooth just to feel the punishing glory of the pain, he read on.
And — bam! — as quickly as it had started, it was over. He got to the end, which was a huge disappointment. Nothing really dramatic happened! In a final burst of bad writing, he discovered that the “shattering effect” he was promised had just disappeared, exactly like something that disappears, such as disappearing ink or the shrimp at a wedding. He’d been taken. He’d been taken real good. The man, sadder but wiser, yet still diaphanously crapulent, went back to bed. But first, he had more cappuccino and brandy Alexanders.
Email Gene Weingarten at email@example.com. Find chats and updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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