This will be the last regular post on Culture Ramp. The reasons bear some explanation.
From the start, the character of the site was bound up with its editorial calendar: three articles a week, one in each of three departments. Granted, in Web publishing terms, that’s a light rhythm. Many sites publish as many articles or more each day, but part of the experiment here was to build an audience around mid-length explorations of each topic that came under the lens, sometimes using “feature” series to push further in direction of long form. (Even calling them “mid-length” is a stretch; it’s an index of the Web’s relative intolerance for length and depth that some of what Culture Ramp published would be considered, in that context, mid-length.) That meant articles routinely ran to more than a thousand words. Some months, we were, in effect, publishing a novella.
With help from other contributors, I did manage to keep pace with the editorial calendar, but it was, essentially, a part time job, held on top the 40 hours I already work each week. That meant sacrifices, and for the site itself, the most critical of those sacrifices had to do with the material we published. I can’t lay the blame on our contributors, who gave more than I had any right to ask of them. Pinched by the lack of time and resources, though, my own contributions ended up suffering from lack of rigor. There are highlights here and there, but generally speaking, Culture Ramp should have been better. Too much of the content was editorial; not enough of it was properly journalistic. My goal was to eventually shift that balance, but there were only so many ways to get ahead of the calendar.
Undergirding all of this was a more intractable problem, and it’s there that I’m hoping this autopsy will be of use to other would-be editors. From the very beginning, Culture Ramp suffered from a complexity problem. The Web rewards clarity, even when that clarity is ersatz. You need, above all, a hook. That’s true even with apparently free-ranging and topic-less sites like BoingBoing and Buzzfeed, which are ultimately about the sort of hooks that play well online.
Culture Ramp had no hook. That grew increasingly clear to me as I put the About page through progressive revisions. In the place of a hook, the site offered a particular perspective—culture as seen through shifts in media tech, the arts and gaming. It’s mission was to use that perspective to leave its readers better equipped to shape the culture around them.
That isn’t to say that Culture Ramp would have coasted toward its goals with a better hook, but the complexity of that mission created hurdles. For one, it was by no means an intuitive perspective from which to write. That may have played some part in discouraging submissions. It often meant entire articles dedicated to explaining a single, relatively complex point. By making the interest of such articles difficult to summarize, that may have discouraged readers from sharing over social media, where brevity is a virtue. To compensate, I often found myself writing excerpts that distorted beyond recognition the more carefully constructed message of the piece.
Most of all, I think it made it difficult for new readers to form a basic conception of what the site was about. Would the next article be relevant to their interests? What about the article after that? They didn’t know, and there’s so much competition in the attention-space of the Web, they may not have had much incentive to find out.
Back in November, I wrote a series called “Press Publish.” While I didn’t trumpet it as such, one intention behind its four parts was to clarify the problems that stand in the way of a more constructive, equitable, and robust online culture. The longer-term ambition of the site was to foster solutions to those problems. The current poverty of that culture is not responsible for the death of Culture Ramp—that blame falls solely to me—but it does mean that, for the foreseeable future, nothing both so ambiguous and ambitious as Culture Ramp stands much chance of surviving, let alone thriving. For now, you need a hook.
Which isn’t to say that I’ve given up on those ambitions, but commitment to the Culture Ramp approach meant sacrificing time that could have be spent on other projects. Some of the projects I set aside for the sake of the site were, on the whole, more rewarding for me personally. I was willing to put them on hold on the premise that I would take them up again once I managed to establish a groove that didn’t rely on my providing most of the articles that filled Culture Ramp‘s editorial calendar. That groove never came, and I suspect now that it never will. In the long run, then, it may be better to return to those other projects, while finding more time-effective ways of pursuing the goals that animated this site. For the immediate future at least, what’s here will remain available for anyone interested in its content.
To everyone that read or shared Culture Ramp articles, followed the site or its Twitter feed, and interacted with me and its other contributors, I owe a debt of gratitude. For any that are disappointed that I’m not forging on with the site, I offer my sincere apologies. I’ll be taking up some of the same concerns in a few less formal Web-based projects, starting with Notable Reader, so I hope that you’ll follow me there.