Today, I go to a meeting with a brilliant internet expert. I have on my special technology hat and I’ve got my special organised notebook and I brandish my special writing everything down pen, so that I may take notes.
I take notes.
The Internet Expert, who is very nice and vastly knowledgeable and extremely patient about the fact that I still secretly live in the age of the pigeon post, looks at me directly and says, ‘Google does not like metaphors.’
My hat nearly falls off.
I open and shut my mouth like a bemused goldfish. I live by metaphors. Virtually everything I write is a metaphor. I’m not really sure what writing without metaphors even looks like.
The Internet Expert, who is kind and forgiving, sees my dismay. ‘I’m not talking now,’ she says, ‘as a human being, but as an algorithm.’
The bemused goldfish is now so baffled that it has lost control of its motor functions.
‘You have to write,’ says the Internet Expert, ‘for a fifteen-year-old. Your problem is that you write for PhDs.’
This, I think, sounds like compliment. It would be a compliment from a human; from an algorithm, it is a deadly indictment. I suddenly feel rather protective of the fifteen-year-olds. I believe in the young people.
‘Fifteen-year-olds are very clever,’ I say, driven to the last ditch. ‘When I was fifteen, I was reading Camus.’
The Internet Expert regards me with a little bafflement of her own. Camus of course sounds very grand, but it was only that L’Etranger was on the O Level syllabus. I did love the old existentialists, though, even if I did not always entirely understand what they were getting at. ‘Hell is other people’ sounds awfully good when you are fifteen, and goes very well with your adored collection of Leonard Cohen records.
‘All right,’ I say eventually. ‘I see that I am going to have to de-poncify myself. I am far, far too poncy.’
There is an interesting silence in the room. Nobody disagrees. People look at their hands. The special hat wilts a little.
‘It will go against muscle memory,’ I say, laughing at myself. ‘I suppose the fucking Google would just like me to be fucking Hemingway.’
Another fairly fascinating silence.
‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘I’m a bit sweary today.’
All this is not for me. It’s not for the red mare or any of my social media nonsense. It’s for the work I do at HorseBack UK. My job there is changing a bit now we have the Internet Expert, and she needs me to please the algorithms, and my idea of a charming Facebook post or an enchanting picture does not get the right demographics, or quite hit the right spot. Not everyone, I start to realise, sees the world through my own idiosyncratic lens. I’m very grateful to the kind expert, because she’s given me a good structure which I did not have before. I feel a little bit stupid, because all this is so, so far from the things I know. I love the things I know. I love knowing things. I love not feeling stupid. But this is 2017 and I am not wearing the hat of technology for nothing.
As I get home, I ponder all this. Some of the rules about being good at social media are a little dispiriting, like keywords and such, but some of them are in fact very fine writing advice. Hemingway would indeed have been very good at it. You need to get straight to the point. (I think dolefully of my terrible throat-clearing tendency.) Your title needs to tell your readers something. A short sentence and a short paragraph are better than a hundred sub-clauses. Clear, plain prose makes the Google happy, and in some ways, that damn Google is right. And, you know, I do love the fifteen-year-olds, so writing for them shall be a pleasure, not a chore. Bugger the PhDs. At last, I shall stop poncing about and write The Sun Also Rises. I am fifty years old, and I spy a whole new horizon.