As we roll merrily into the future of media it’s time to define some terms. I spoke to a number of folks over the past few weeks about the Gawker case as well as the future of journalism and have come away with some interesting information regarding the disconnect between readers and writers and the general concept of clickbait. I’d like to clear a few things up.
First, understand that the 24-hour news model and blogging did not spring up like carcinomas in the otherwise pastoral body politic. The medium is the message, as they like to say, and this medium allows for rapid-fire information to flow endlessly from the keyboards of countless underpaid writers. But it would not appear if you didn’t read it.
Journalists and their journals are often led by guiding principles purer and more moral than most other professions. Snicker if you want, but a journalist’s primary mission is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Ask a lawyer or politician if that sounds like a good way forward and I suspect you’ll get a different answer. This mission is often fogged and often obfuscated, but any journalist with proper training will not forget it.
So what you have is a group of people who were told to find interesting and helpful things and write about them. Be it a review of a new phone or a discussion of Donald Trump on the campaign trail, it’s a journalist’s mission to synthesize, explain and help.
Now imagine having to do that 20 times a day every day until death.
For a media consumer who will literally notice and react negatively if they find their news feed empty or stale.
For a media company whose sole mission is to sell eyeballs in a world where those eyeballs are flitting from app to app like picky hummingbirds flitting from flower to flower.
To a world that has built up a tolerance for all but the most outrageous news and requires emotion and pathos and sex in order to stay awake.
That journalist will slowly trend toward what you would call clickbait. Their writing, if it wants to be read, will have to poke its head out of the mire and beckon readers like a slimy siren. But this is the only way the news gets through to you all — through “clickbait.”
The news media, until the late 1990s, was as staid as could be. No clickbait there unless you counted “The Best Flowers For Spring” as a clickbait headline in the Home & Garden section. Organizations like Boston Globe’s Spotlight and The New York Times were gatekeepers for the news. Then tech came along and slammed open the gates. This torrent of information was pleasing to the human brain as the pleasure centers lit up and the frisson of FOMO led us to refresh page after page. Then the blogs came along and tore the gates down, rolled over them and left a cloud of exhaust that choked hundreds of old-style news organizations and killed hundreds more. These blogs are now fighting for survival or, if they’re flush, they’re simply trying to work within the parameters given them by the medium. And this medium has changed over the past decade from a free and open exchange of ideas to a morass of opinion and hate.
But none of this happened because someone willed it so. There was a brief period when online media could have failed. Users came to CNN.com expecting video and when it wasn’t provided to them could have gone back to television. But instead they stayed for the primitively laid out text. Take a look at this, itself an example of journalism that is helpful if a little thin:
Can you imagine going back, over and over, to that page?
But we did.
Understand this: There is no clickbait. This suggests that you are fish and a journalist is a fisherman. No. You are both fish, caught in the unending torrent of news. The deluge is affecting both you and the journalist equally. There are, to be sure, some unscrupulous publishers who will take advantage of your fish-like brain, but why do you let them?
First, it’s not clickbait if you clicked it. There is no complaining after the fact that you were duped. You picked from what was on offer and you picked the fun stuff over the boring stuff. Sure there are entire ad networks dedicated to putting up funny videos and telling you you’ll feel “CHILLS!” but those would go away if you STOPPED CLICKING. The bait doesn’t work if the fish figures out the difference between a worm in distress and a dead worm on a hook.
The term clickbait suggests that you were coerced against your free will to tap on a picture of a kitten or a car crash. Were you forced by some evil corporation to watch a video of Joachim Löw picking his nose? Were you were forced to pause for a moment to watch a silent movie featuring a robot that drives a motorcycle?
You are consuming content the way you always wanted to consume content — in a constant, undifferentiated stream. It is the ultimate promise that television couldn’t provide: a stream of data that you could control. Revel in the fact that technology has given you this gift. But YOU are clicking, not the writer.
Here’s the biggest problem: You get your “clickbait” for free.
I would point to free-to-play games as an excellent corollary to this point. We see there the perniciousness of “free” in a very real way. They are games, to be sure, and in a different context they would be acceptable ways to pass the time. But because their creators are counting on big money, they have to lead you down pathways of addiction in order to force you to pay $69 for a bucket of rubies or $199 for a better gun. You pay for rubies because the game is free. The fact that children — and even adults — would pay this amount to “power up” is the true clickbait.
Journalists don’t think in terms of clickbait — at least not any I know and respect — but they do like their jobs. The fall of the small-town paper has led to a gutting of the industry and now only the urban hubs have any entry-level positions — if they have a news media at all. Gone are the days of working your way up from the Scranton Times Tribune and making the big time at the globe-spanning, crown-of-power-shaking LA Times. The Times Tribune now consists of local sports scores and AP news items and the Times is now a hometown paper. To do real work — and most journalists want to do real, crown-shaking work — you have to go to Vice, Gawker (for now) and (in some instances) Buzzfeed. And these news sources require a constant stream of stories — and I do mean constant — to survive.
Maybe the free-to-play games have the right idea. Maybe we need to start charging for buckets of Taylor Swift posts?
If you want acceptable media for free you have to pay for it with your attention. If you want good media forever, you have to pay for it with your money. If you tell news organizations this I’m sure they will be happy to let you pay in some way, either via microtransactions or a subscription.
If you think the news media is a whore pimped by advertisers, then why don’t you pay for some of its time? Or, better yet, why not pretend that the news media is a scaffold upon which our basic rights are framed and support it just as you would support any other beneficent organization? But I fear we are too far down the the road of free media to turn back, and it will only be through sheer force of will — and plenty of failures — that we right the ship of mindfulness and come back on course. Until then, why not flip over to Facebook for a few minutes to help you forget all of this? I promise that by the time you’re done browsing you’ll feel right as rain.