Keeping the Content Machine Whirring

Reports from an experiment in the manufacturing and distribution of clickbait…

conveyorreduced1

While the internet’s main function may be the display of cats, beheadings, and pornography, a sizable portion of the remainder consists of opinion, both political and cultural. Every day, hundreds of brief thinkpieces are churned out, each containing a packaged nugget of argument about something in the news. Readers get to post these on Facebook, in order to both signal their affiliations to friends and feel good about having contributed to the public debate. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the internet is in large part an affirmation economy, for them to profess their identities and beliefs and have them confirmed by others who share them.

As someone who enjoys writing, over the past year or so I’ve been experimenting a bit with the manufacture of hot takes. They’re enjoyable enough to produce (you just have to get angry for about 700 words and then throw in some links), and often they pay (though not well). So when a Harvard professor threatened to sue a Chinese restaurant over a $4 tip, I used the medium of The New Republic to insist that he was completely right to do so. I also insightfully called Ted Cruz an idiot for Salon.

But while writing these things is both easy and fun, more than one person has observed that the displacement of actual cultural and political analysis by short slices of superficial clickbait is one of the most unfortunate consequences of digital media. My own adventures in thinkpiece-land have confirmed what others have observed; there turns out to be a huge market for thoughtless inflammatory contrarianism, and much less of one for anything reflective or nuanced.

The worst part of this, to me, is not that writing is becoming shorter or more partisan. I’m not a member of the Strunk and White brevity brigade, but I do believe in being economical. Like many others, I gasped when the new editor of the New Republic announced that he was bored by anything over 500 words. But it’s also true that most published writing is too long, and many useful points can be made quickly. There’s not much that Ta-Nehisi Coates says in the last 7,000 words of his Atlantic articles that he hasn’t already made quite clear in the first 10,000.

Nor is it inherently damaging that writing is increasingly opinionated. Polemic can be invigorating; Gore Vidal was not known for his fairness of judgment, yet nevertheless produced some of the century’s finest essays. The same goes for H.L. Mencken or Dorothy Parker. Better to read something that takes a stand than a bunch of dreary “on-the-one-hand” waffle.

No, the problem is not that this writing is opinionated, but that so much of it is boring and predictable. With any piece of news, we know exactly what the commentary will consist of. And then we know what the commentary commenting on the commentary will consist of. (And the commentary thereupon, and so forth until the news cycle elapses after a few hours and the process begins anew.)

I recently tried a small experiment in online writing. I wanted to try to get some things published, and see what would make it and what wouldn’t. (I call it an experiment, but that’s probably misstating my intentionality a bit. I was curious about what would get published, but my main motivation was that I was in need of money and desperate to write something that would pay.)

So I wrote two articles. One was a carefully-reasoned argument on immigration, critiquing progressives for advocating the deportation of criminals. The argument went as follows: if we believe in deporting people with criminal records for fear that they will harm society, then deporting them is simply imposing that harm on some other society. It’s very easy to say that, when an unauthorized immigrant kills someone in America, they should have been deported, but in practice that amounts to wishing they had killed an innocent person off in some other country. Now, perhaps you think those people deserve to be the ones victimized. But being honest in the immigration debate requires one not to pretend that deportation is a magical way of stopping crime. It isn’t, it just moves crime elsewhere, to those we care less about.

I wrote this argument as carefully as I could, with clear reasoning and many sources. I tied it to an event that had, at that point, been in the news for about two weeks: the killing of a San Francisco woman by an unauthorized Mexican immigrant with multiple felonies. Many progressives had recently agreed that this man should have been deported, and so I thought it important to point out what the consequences of thinking that were.

My second article was basically an attempt to write the most clickbaity thing I could think of; i.e. taking some item in pop culture and calling it racist. For that, I went to see the film Trainwreck and then just mindlessly wrote a screed about it. I looked online and saw that nobody in a major outlet had called the film racist yet, and I figured that as long as I was the first person to call Trainwreck racist, it would be easy enough to get such a thing published. People have said that the star, Amy Schumer, is a racist plenty of times before. But nobody had yet called this particular film of hers racist! I figured it would be a sure fit for Salon, since it was basically exactly the article I think of when I think about the site.

So which of my articles made it through: deportation or Amy Schumer-is-a-racist? Well, I think you’ll be able to make a pretty sound guess if I tell you the headline: “Trainwreck’s Race Problem.”

As for the deportation article, the only page was published was my email outbox. (It’s now at Current Affairs.)

Now, let me say that I don’t not think Amy Schumer is, to use the present terminology, “problematic.” Frankly, I don’t really know her work very well; the only thing I’ve seen of hers, outside of the film, is her extended 12 Angry Men parody, which I enjoyed. I have almost zero Amy Schumer expertise, it just seemed as if people really liked reading other people’s opinions about her, hence she seemed a good subject.

I believe most of the things I wrote in the article were roughly true, although the real story about Trainwreck is not race issues but the fact that it’s confusing and poorly-assembled. But, yes, the race stuff was inadroitly handled. In fact, I might trivialize it too much when I say I just “called something racist.” It was, a bit, I suppose. The problem is not that the observations were wrong, it’s that who cares?

Actually, a lot of people apparently do. The article received scores of comments and was reposted hundreds of times. People violently disagreed with me and called me names, but they read the thing. (The funny thing about the thinkpiece-economy is that the people who hate them the most are some of the strongest drivers of traffic, by incessantly commenting and reposting and keeping the debate going.) There’s a Trump Syndrome phenomenon going on here, whereby everybody spends large amounts of their day loudly insisting they don’t care about something, and writing huge bodies of text listing all the reasons why they don’t care and why the thing is overhyped and not worth discussing.

And this dynamic repeats itself every day in the exact same way. Pop Culture Thing X or Current Event X will occur, and then some writer looking to earn a hundred bucks will fire a shot, and then a huge firefight will ensue for about a day, and then night will come and the dust will settle until the next day and the onset of Thing Y and the refreshing of the cycle. In fact, you can observe this empirically. A sociologist friend of mine, Zach Wehrwein, is starting to produce some research on “Twitter outrages” and their predictable dynamics. Zach has produced charts showing all the angry tweets on any topic. You can watch the thing occur, then the tweets roll in, and then the tweets subside. Then you find another thing, and watch the conversation on that. Each online outrage follows the precise same form.

“So what? That’s how news works. It’s not news forever, we talk about it and then there’s more news,” a hypothetical interlocutor might say at this point. Yes, true enough, all things must pass and whatnot. But the the reason this is harmful is that these blossomings of controversy are (1) manufactured for consumption and (2) totally disconnected from any kind of meaningful action in the real world. As to point (1), it’s odd that I can get paid to think of ways to poke the internet hornets’ nest, and that if I can get a bunch of people to shout about a thing, a company makes money. As to (2), it’s very odd that the public conversation about something so serious as racism can be reduced to gabbing online about a Judd Apatow comedy.

“But that’s not the whole conversation. There are other, more serious things being discussed as well.” Yes, but it really is shocking how much of it is vacuous. And it’s true that even when good points are being made well, the ultimate function of so much online media consumption is social signaling (for the consumer) and profit-seeking (for the media entity.) Perhaps there is an attenuated connection between online media and the real world (if my article goes far enough, Amy Schumer might hear about it herself and get mad and/or sad for a few minutes!) But that’s certainly incidental to its function.

An unfortunate consequence of the fact that this really is a writing economy is that writers themselves are stuck in a bind. Online media is so ruthlessly click-driven that it’s almost impossible to break free of the existing forms. After all, they do precisely what they’re supposed to do. Clickbait gets clicks. I click on it myself. I would probably actually have read my own article, even if I would have been bored by it and then fumed about how petty and humorless the author was.

So it’s not that editors are bad gatekeepers with poor judgment. In fact, it’s astonishing just how perceptive they are. They know exactly what succeeds. I’ve had things turned down because they came literally 24 hours after the window for their newsworthiness closed. But if you watch the graphs of the tweets, you know that an editor is right when they say a public conversation died yesterday afternoon, and that everybody has moved on and won’t be interested.

But a writer therefore has to produce the material that fits perfectly into the media moment. You can’t wait a moment longer; if you’re not the first to bring up racism in Trainwreck, nobody’s going to want to hear it. Instead, then you’ll have to write the “In Defense of Trainwreck” article. Or the “Why People Defending Trainwreck Just Don’t Get It” article, with steadily diminishing reader interest for each iteration, with the Next Controversial Thing hopefully having arrived before we get to “People Keep Writing Articles About Trainwreck–And That’s a Problem.”

(Actually, the same is true in a different form in more “serious” news. Look at the disproportionate amount of attention the Greek economic crisis received, just because it made for an interesting drama. Not that the Greek crisis was unimportant, but during that period it was much harder to get anybody to listen to you about any other country, because that’s not where the action was. A friend of mine spends seemingly half his waking hours in a state of exasperation over the fact that the ongoing multi-month Saudi bombing of Yemen gets hardly any media attention. And in fact, at a certain level this is a problem of news generally. I continue to think there’s something deadening about religiously following“current” affairs, because remaining current precludes getting in-depth background knowledge. Reading the newspaper becomes ritualistic rather than useful or educational. It’s always funny that the more time you spend trying to “stay informed,” the less informed you actually become compared with someone who doesn’t stay informed but goes out and learns untimely things.)

It’s hard to know how the cycle can be escaped. Nobody can resist clicking on the bait, and there’s a lot of money being made. Writers learn quickly that the more contrarian they can be than the next guy, the more interest they’ll pique (even though so many true and necessary things are not contrary to received wisdom; in fact, they’re exactly what you’d expect.) Even worse, despite the money being made, for the writer herself it’s very hard to eke out a living, no matter how fast you can churn out Content. The demand is high, but so is the supply, hence the relentless competitive pressure.

I have to say, though, after producing some stuff just because I knew it would get published, it really doesn’t feel worth it. That Amy Schumer thing is the first piece of writing I’ve ever produced that has felt shameful, because it was created from an ulterior motive. It was calculated. And the feeling of producing things that aren’t your best, just because you know they’ll sell, isn’t worth the paltry cash they give you.

Yet you can’t really tell that to someone trying to make a living writing. Personally I’m fortunate in that I do something else for a living. But I’ve always thought if I could quit the something else, and subsist solely by writing, I’d do it instantly. I realize, though, that that’s not true. I’d much rather only write things that feel like my own, yet be unable to live by it, than constantly be thinking about what will get commented on or shared.

Because it does eat your brain. You can insist that you maintain a strict division between your two sides: your personal side, with the integrity, and your professional side, which is shameless in selling itself. But every piece of writing is also writing practice, and it’s impossible not to be affected. For one publication, I had written something successful without thinking about the kind of response it would get. Then the editor told me it received a large amount of traffic. And when I went to write something else, I couldn’t help but think about whether the next piece of writing would replicate the success of the first, and that thought inevitably affected the end result.

I think, therefore, that to have any chance of being a good writer depends on having a stubborn commitment to resisting incentives. The media landscape is so bleak that anyone who consciously tries to succeed in it, and writes accordingly, will end up producing work that they are not proud of.

That’s not to say that I think good writing will never be noticed or become popular. I think it will, and sometimes does, but to get quality and popularity to coincide depends on being driven by an ambition toward the quality rather than the popularity. That’s a completely unoriginal thought, and applies across so many spheres. But I’ve learned it especially through these recent forays into paid writing. Doing anything less than your best work will never be worth it, will always be embarrassing, and can only ensure that the hideous cycle of online writing culture keeps whirring until eternity.

Author: Nathan J. Robinson

is the editor of Current Affairs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *