Writing in times of Clickbait

We live in incurious times. Some would argue that isn’t true, because we are only one click away from being informed. Some would argue that in the Internet era, facts can be verified to a degree that wasn’t possible before. And yet, it feels that people do not want to know, but to be reaffirmed in what they believe. That posing questions are seen as affirmative statements that must be punished.

Have you noticed that if someone asks “What if there is no gender gap?” on social media, all hell breaks loose? It doesn’t matter if there is a sincere attempt to ground the argument on facts, the crowd dismiss them as fabricated and biased, or something that must be silenced, for these arguments create an unsafe environment in schools and universities.

In the midst of a federal investigation of Google’s alleged persistent wage gap […] an “antidiversity” manifesto authored by James Damore went viral in August 2017, supported by many Google employees, arguing that women are psychologically inferior and incapable of being as good at software engineering as men, among other patently false and sexist assertions.

Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja, 2018

Note, I’m not saying that all men differ from all women in the following ways or that these differences are “just.” I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.

Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber, James Damore, 2017

Across all cultures, people gained a large share of their information about the world from the written word. Not all of it, though: some had to be obtained by talking to other people or looking around. But for curious people, that has never been enough. They knew they had to read too, and they did read.

However, reading has these days the stigma of an obsolete fad. TV, newspapers and social media have taken over what used to be the functions of books, just as photography took over most functions performed by painting and other graphic arts. People used to order a portrait to have a faithful depiction of themselves. Now it’s just pretentious. I believe the same thing is happening to writing a novel.

Admittedly, TV spreads information extremely well; the visual communication of news has tremendous impact. And social media has helped breaking the fourth wall, so that people can now become part of the story. We know more about the world than we used to, and if it’s just knowledge what we needed, that would be good news.

But knowledge for its own sake isn’t enough. Facts can be twisted and presented in various forms; like in the case of human-induced climate change, facts can point strongly in one direction, but not be unfalsifiable. We do not have to know everything about something to understand it; too many facts are, often, as much of an obstacle to understanding as too few. And nowadays I have the sense that we moderns are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding.

The situation is, of course, not new. Seneca left written that “love of bustle is not industry, – it is only the restlessness of a hunted mind”. Human beings have evolved to control over the chaos that surround us by being selectively attentive to it. Not too much, because being aware of every smell and every sound, all the lights or everything that enters contact with our skin would be overwhelming. But neither too little; the predators around us, wounds that could get infected, or alarming sounds that need triggering our defences, all of that needed our undivided attention.

Everything that is habitual and familiar pass silently through our senses; what’s new, that we pay attention to. Human beings are biologically designed to crave news, because that’s the what we can recognise more easily. By making frequent contact with our peers we exchange news in order to be prepared. Gossiping might be a waste of time, but you don’t want to miss out on things that should make you panic.

Technology, like in many other cases, only amplified what was already there. With the invention of the printing press, what used to be contained gossiping turned into widespread circulation of ideas. By separating the emitter from the receiver, we stripped gossip from its accountability, and thus technology allowed for the spreading of a kind of misinformation humans weren’t, and still aren’t, prepared for: propaganda.

In the same way that early TV was simply radio with images, newspapers started as short books. During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, New York City’s leading newspaper was a four-page, daily with circulation of 2,600 in a city of 300,000.

At 6 cents, it was something of a luxury item, which was just as well, since […] it was aimed at the city’s business and political elite. Most New Yorkers, in fact, did not read newspapers at all.

The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu, 2016

The shift consisted of turning a set of readers that were considered the customers to a wider audience that effectively became the product for others to advertise. From then onwards, advertising would join content to defray the cost of printing and distribution. Dramatically reducing the price of the newspaper wasn’t just possible, it was needed for the model to work, for anything other than a giant readership wouldn’t have been valuable to anyone. This new model made the separation between books and newspapers complete: the reader, for the book writer, is the customer; for the news agency, is the product.

I remember, during my master’s, one professor defined a customer as someone who pays money. It sounds stupidly simple, but it hides the truth at plain sight: if you’re paying less than someone else, you’re less of a customer than him or her; and if you don’t pay anything, you’re not the customer at all.

If you’re in a theatre, and you pay your ticket, then you’re a customer; but if you’ve got seats on the first row, and you’ve been promised that you’ll visit the backstage before the performance to meet the artists, you’re likely to have paid more than the former. Those are known as VIPs. So, if you paid a penny for the newspaper on your hand, but Sainsbury’s paid 1 million pounds to have their latest deals on the back of the front cover, then they’re the VIPs, and you’re on the cheap seats.

This branching out of customers has ramifications that are critical for any media company. First, there is an interdependence between the newspaper reader and the advertiser: if you don’t have many of the first, you won’t have many of the latter, but if you have too many ads, that will scare out the readers. That suggests a fragile equilibrium between how many readers and how many ads you have.

Second, and as a consequence of the first, you need one to have the other, in a dog-chasing-its-tail fashion. The fact that many media companies were founded in the early twentieth century hides the fact that the barriers of entry to this particular line of business are pretty high.

Think of the movie “The Social Network”, for instance. Think of Justin Timberlake saying you don’t want to ruin it with ads, ‘cause ads aren’t cool.

MR.HATCH: “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your services?”

MR. ZUCKERBERG: “Senator, we run ads”.

Third, the only reason why a user would read a newspaper is because it’s valuable to him, and the only reason why a company would run an ad on a newspaper is because there is value to it. There is an inescapable truth: what individuals think is valuable cannot be predicted. You are cast away on an island, sending messages in a bottle from which you get only the money advertisers give you. Big Data and Analytics are the latest trends in trying to figure out why certain messages on certain bottles make more money than others.

Customers, again, are those that pay money. As news agencies have funded their business with even more ads than with a higher price for copies of the newspaper, the reader has lost any leverage he might have had in holding those agencies accountable. Readers are now sitting on the very last row of the auditorium; all they can do is boo.

The newspaper business model is based on drawing the attention of a big enough readership with low price tabloids and then reselling that attention. But one consequence of that is that newspapers can only survive if they gain and hold that attention. This means that, under competition, the race will naturally flow to the more vulgar, radiant and scandalous alternative. To what end? Apparently, to none.

Let’s consider the space in a tabloid as we would have considered building space if we were real state developers. Town majors know that parks, libraries, police stations and the like provide any city with the shared value that attracts families to live there. They rise the value of the real state nearby by simply being there, and even though you can’t build on top of any parks, the increase in nearby value offsets the cost of not building on that particular area. In our analogy, these spots are the content of the newspaper.

Naturally, as a real state developer, the question is how do I get the most value out of any piece of land, regardless of its proximity to parks or fire stations?

One approach, the old school, is to build a mansion: a piece of land so expensive that only the wealthiest can afford to live there, and are willing to pay that price. Some newspapers take that approach: having correspondents peppered throughout the globe, in order to be the first, or to have a unique angle. These are costly, but seemed a sensible approach to begin with.

A second approach, maybe more modern, is to build a skyscraper: even if the space is tiny, it’s been elevated so highly that many people can focus on it, and in fact is where most of us in some form of another live. This is what following what’s trendy feels like. What’s the weather going to be like this weekend or the sports section are the skyscrapers of mass media.

One third approach, quite crazy, is trying to find gold in the terrain. Just tinker with the arena, pour water on it, prospect the land, do some work on it and, who knows? you’ll find gold, or diamonds, or oil. That’s what clickbait is all about— finding the luckiest, but easiest path to glory. There is no need for struggling; you just copy what the others are doing. In most cases, you would ruin the fundaments, and turn out with nothing but mud. BuzzFeed is mostly that, but even then there’s method in their madness: they keep on betting, all the time, there’s gold on every piece of land they own, in the hopes that whatever they find will make up for the surrounding mud left.

What’s interesting is that there’s been a shift from the first and second approaches onto the last one during the last ten years, probably in acceleration since longer. It’s as if someone have found gold in clickbait and everyone is rushing to do the same, because there is no value in erecting content anymore. Virtually all newspapers include articles with potential for going viral; the question is how closely they do it to the front section. The rule is: regardless of the newspaper, enough scrolling will get you to an article that’s pointless and is there to catch your attention, not inform you.

In real state, things are what they are; families that bought a house that turned out to be The Conjuring will promptly leave. But information isn’t tangible. You can get away with a lie for an indefinite period of time. What you need to do is tap into some of the metaphorical levers that evolution has placed in humans’ minds and you’re good to go. A reckless and methodical industry will eventually figure out a way to tap on them, and make certain lies something you want to believe are truth.

Fake news is what you get when you’re not the customer. If you were, and you were recurrently lied to, then you would vote with your feet for some other newspaper. There would be someone that give you what you want in exchange for the value that you perceive it has.

In that sense, both the newspapers and us are at guilt: it feels that neither of us think that content is valuable in itself.

Are we placing so little value on being well informed, that society doesn’t hold the newscasts accountable for the news they are given? Are we so reckless, that we have delegated the decision over what we need to know in the hands of an unaccountable somebody?

Advertising-supported journalism was born on the idea that the masses are simple and demand simple things, and that the collective action towards a more challenging set of news can be drowned by a flood of listicles and clickbaits. That people are no longer in a position to demand anything, because they no longer pay for the content they read.

Have we chosen to live this way? Well, in a way. When I was younger, critics of TV news used point out that we knew very little about what really mattered. “Tell us about the war in Central Africa”, they said, “They have been at war since 1987”. The answer, in one form of another, was: “People don’t care”. But did they? Fact is, we couldn’t care if we didn’t know, so we didn’t care.

We relied on the newscasts to tell us what is important and what isn’t, and for that we are guilty. Every time we sat in front of the TV, we said “this is good enough for me; after all, it’s free”. It’s tough to figure out that the news are paid on the supermarket.

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