What’s the single most annoying trick that people do to get your attention? Headlines like this one. Especially if they’re coupled with photos like this one, which, by the way, has nothing whatsoever to do with what I intend to write about. It’s just a woman’s butt, which is the most surefire way to get people to click on a link. Especially connected with declarations and promises.
But the larger question is why it matters. Who cares?
I do. Maybe more than I should. Certainly more than is good for my mental health right now. But click-bait is killing content quality. And there’s plenty of blame to go around.
First, let me say that I am a member of a very privileged class of writers and editors online. I get paid. The site for which I both write and edit – which means I both curate and create content for them – pays better than the vast majority of sites out there. Which is to say that it pays at all. Last time I checked our Alexa ratings, we were bigger than Oprah and Politico, which is huge. And because of that, we have the luxury of revenue, and the luxury of paying editors, and some writers. Which is more than most sites can say. I’ve had stories run on major sites with big names and bigger traffic, never been paid by them. Like many writers, I just like seeing my stuff out there, and since I’d write anyway, it is no “real” skin off my back.
Good Vibrations used to pay me in sex toys, which was fun, in theory at least; I still haven’t cashed in my credit.
However, my biggest pay-day comes in letters from people who tell me that I have changed / saved / impacted their life. I tend to write about hard things. Things like rape and alcoholism and depression and raising kids and body image and sexuality. Things that change lives, and hearts, and minds. But that will never drive as much traffic, and revenue, as an Amazing Video Of This Shocking Thing You Won’t Believe.
Who cares? Why does it matter?
I care. Because most writers are paid for clicks. So, that amazing good fortune I have to get paid for what I do? For the last 4 months of work, I will get paid $468. I’ll spare you all the metrics, but after my posts hit a certain number (a big one, one that is a big ego-boost to hit, but also a huge barrier to payment) I get, I think, 50 cents for every 1,000 pageviews. (Oh, $150 of that was for writing an article specifically for an advertiser, so it was fee-for-service. Which makes my numbers even worse, really.)
So, you can see how a viral video that is simply cut-and-pasted from some fucking link farm and gets millions of views, might present a problem for people who are working hard to create meaningful content that changes lives. They’re the mean girl of the content cafeteria.
But hey, who cares if they get all the revenue, fair’s fair, it’s a free-market. And, generally, you’ll find no bigger supporter of the free-market than me. But, cash for content is a very limited resource. Ultimately, sites will do anything necessary to get the clicks and the cash that they bring in.
They’ll write UpWorthy style headlines that promise you something they don’t deliver. They’ll use their editorial resources to chase clicks rather than quality content. And the people who create quality content will give up, unless they have the financial luxury to keep going for free, and the emotional fortitude to watch idiots reap the rewards for shitty content while they make nothing.
All those sites, UpWorthy, BoredPanda, ViralNova and the like….. They’re bad news. In addition to accelerating the race to the bottom in terms of quality content, they take – and profit – from the views of content that they not only didn’t create, but that stops views from adding up on sites like YouTube, where content creators DO get paid for views.
So if someone posts a video on YouTube and it gets lots of views, that person gets paid. If those views are happening on a link farm instead, that link-farm gets paid.
Don’t get me wrong, I love cute cat videos. Those photos of the little boy sleeping with his puppy slayed me, and I still return to it when I’m blue. But I do not want to live in a world in which that’s the only content available, because it’s what gets clicks, and makes money – for both sites and the people who post it.
So who drives this? The dynamic duo of consumers and advertisers, of course. The same people who drive all commerce. And it’s impossible, really, to say which comes first; the crap people sell or the people who want to buy crap. Which came first, our belief that women needed to be prettier, which means make-up, or someone telling us we need make-up to be pretty? It doesn’t even matter anymore, it’s all the same big clusterfuck, and until we stop buying the myths, and the product, we’re gonna be stuck in this world. Content is no different.
Advertising agencies buy eyeballs for their clients. They do it according to what’s called a CPM, which is the cost to reach 1,000 pairs of eyeballs. The most expensive CPMs are print magazines, because it actually costs a hell of a lot of money to buy the raw materials, produce and then ship the thing. Newspapers are less because all of that is less costly. Online? That was the golden payoff for advertisers, it costs next to nothing to produce a web site, so really, ALL you are paying for is those eyeballs, not paper, ink, shipping, and increasingly not talent or content. Just eyeballs.
That is why print media started dying off. And look, I’m all for getting rid of paper and embracing new technology, I think that’s a good thing. But when the content itself is disappearing, and in its place we’re getting viral videos and online outrage about viral videos, well, it’s a pretty sorry state of affairs. But it’s pretty much free, and it attracts eyeballs, and eyeballs can be sold.
The only thing that ad buyers want to see is how many eyeballs they can reach. So if a stupid viral video can capture millions of eyeballs, but a great article on depression can only get thousands, guess which one the web site is going to try to produce more of? And it can be the same viral video that is already on every damn link farm site out there.
And guess who gets paid more, the person who posts the tired old viral video, or the person who worked really hard to write an excellent article. It’s hard to be inspired to work in that environment. Or to think optimistically about what it promises.
On the one hand, it’s easy to say “hey, that pays the rent for the great articles on depression and stuff.” Which is true. But it also rewards the person who posted the video far more than the person who wrote the article. And I’ve heard people say, “hey, these are the people who are creating the posts that drive in the money, they deserve to be paid more.”And that’s where I get really sad.
Sure, the cash is the fuel that feeds the engine of the larger train. But that train still isn’t running on its own. Someone has to drive it, the cars have to be hooked together, tracks put in place, fuel shoveled and all those other seats need to be filled in order for it to be worth running the train at all. By just rewarding the guy who dumps in the coal, you are missing the point entirely. You are LITERALLY not valuing everything else that goes into making the train run, not to mention giving it a reason to run. It’s valuing the fuel, but nothing else about the train, or its passengers.
But that’s the system we have. Because most sites, like most advertisers, pay by the click. We reward clicks, not quality. And that totally deincentivizes (and insults) content creators.
But it seems like such a great metaphor for our culture. Just give me more. More stuff. More clicks. More attention. Ignore the substance, look at the bling.
And even good sites get high on the viral hits, it’s easy, and natural, to want another hit. And you know what happens when you’re just chasing the next hit, right….. Nothing good.
So ya. I’m in a funk. I am super proud of the work that I do, the things I write, the people I reach. Most days, I go to bed proud that I am making the world a better place.
Look, I don’t want the videos to go away. That “how to peel a pomegranate video” changed my life. And sometimes, a fat cat playing “hide in the box” is what we need. But we need to be educated consumers. These things need to be our internet dessert, not our main course. And both publishers and advertisers need to get real about how traffic numbers indicate user relationship with a media property and value them differently. Because, realistically speaking, they are very different. And an ad on a site – or piece of content – with a smaller audience but deeper connection IS going to be much more targeted and impactful.
We all have to get more excited about relationships and meaning than numbers. We’re all starting to sound like PUAs. “Dude, I got 4 million hits!” Even the language we use to talk about it is that of drug-users and PUAs. “I’d hit that.” “I need more hits.” The relationship and the meaning is just getting lost, or taking a second seat, it’s the hopeful bi-product of another hit, but if it doesn’t happen, at least we have a hit we can sell to an ad-pusher.
And I can’t pretend that it doesn’t piss me off that I will never be rewarded for the work and the research as well as someone who posts videos of Justin Bieber’s DUI arrest. But I won’t become one of those people. I just won’t.
What can you do? I wish I could tell you to stop clicking on the links. But let me just give you a cautionary tale…. Have you seen the movie Idiocracy? I don’t necessarily recommend it because it isn’t that great, but it is a look at what happens when, hundreds of years in the future, our habits reduce our life to the rhetorical end of the lazy, greedy and stupid spectrum. In this dystopian world, the only show left on TV is one called Ouch My Balls. In which an endless parade of morons do stupid things that wind up racking them in balls.
In the future, they predict, that will be all we have, because it’s all people watched, and it’s what advertisers would pay for. That future is online now.
That’s how I feel about the direction our media is heading. We are rewarding the stupid, lazy and surprising spectacle. Not wanting to read, or even consume anything that doesn’t give us an emotional response in less than 20 seconds. Those are the bits of content that are getting rewarded with cash. And cash is what we value.
Am I bitter? I’m getting there. And if you know me, that’s a hell of a statement. But it’s happening.
Ouch, my boobs.
* I did not initially point out that I did not work full-time writing and editing, which I totally should have pointed out. It is a freelance gig, and the hours I worked varied due to many factors, most of which come down to when I felt like it. I didn’t mention that because the metrics I was discussing were clicks, not hours, so it slipped my mind and I regret that. I would also like to re-emphasize that I felt honored and privileged, and was lucky to get paid at all, because that is incredibly unusual. I could have and should have made it clearer.