The Internet once promised to shock us. To inspire us. To change us, even.
But an amusing and uncharacteristically candid headline on Mashable over the weekend set the bar several notches lower: In this age of breakneck Internet churn, it implied, with bona fide news organizations battling content farms for clicks, and with stories about South Sudan and belly buttons running adjacent on many a home page, the purpose of media is as much to inform and entertain as it is to simply … fill readers’ time.
The headline in question: “Totally true facts about marsupials that won’t bore you.” (The emphasis, needless to say, is mine.)
On one hand, Mashable should be lauded for its honesty. In a world awash with hyperbolic click-bait, undeserved hype and unfulfilled promises to shock and/or awe, Mashable alone is self-aware enough to call this particular piece of #content exactly what it is: something frivolous for you to read at lunch.
On the other hand, when you pull that curtain back, some serious questions lurk behind it. Newspaper barons and journalism schools once preached the doctrines of “truth” and “public service.” But in a media landscape where virtually any and every signal can be boosted — even the merely “not boring” ones — the old standards don’t apply.
So which standards, if any, do?
“That’s a question we think about daily,” said Jonathan Ellis, Mashable’s managing editor. Ellis, a veteran of the New York Times, sees coverage of the “social conversation” as Mashable’s natural vocation. Sometimes that involves Syria or MH17. Sometimes it involves life lessons from “Boy Meets World’s” Mr. Feeny.
“We’re not 100-percent focused on giving readers ‘what they want,’ because I think that leads down the path of the lowest common denominator … but one of the metrics we’ve always really cared about is share count,” Ellis said. “Whether people find something interesting enough to share it.”
For instance: A video about marsupials, headlined “totally weird and wonderful facts about marsupials (you’re welcome),” rings immediately false. It’s a sales pitch. (It’s also, incidentally, how the Huffington Post sold their post on the exact same video.) But “true facts about marsupials that won’t bore you” — that’s honest, Ellis says. That’s shareable.
Behold, we have entered the age of share-bait: Content that exists only to be shared.
We’ve all seen this type of material, of course. (I’ve written some, myself.) Arguably, most of Buzzfeed’s most popular lists are share-bait: “30 Signs You’re Almost 30” or “27 Shocking and Unexpected Facts You Learn in Your 20s” — things intended to reinforce a social (media) identity. Playboy, a magazine that exists primarily for the purpose of objectifying women, just published a social-friendly, anti-catcalling chart that has spent 24 hours making the Facebook rounds. And the new crop of fake-news sites, most of which popped up over the past 18 months, relies entirely on sharing to survive: With no built-in audience and no other Internet footprint, the only way people see sites like Empire News is when their hoaxes spread on social.
In many regards, this is neither a new process nor a surprising one, given long-running trends in media. Facebook grows more monolithic by the year, meaning it drives an ever-increasing share of news site traffic — as much as one-third, by one recent count. At the same time, the process of newsgathering has evolved from a one-to-many, dictatorial operation (extra, extra — this is what’s important) to a more collaborative process contingent on community and riddled with feedback loops, responsive largely to the so-called conversation.
“Where I think that we are different than many traditional newspapers and other sites is that fundamentally, we take a community-centric approach,” explained Nicholas White, the editor-in-chief of The Daily Dot — another share-happy digital operation. “Our first standard is always, if it’s important to our readers, then it’s important to us.”
As far as standards go, of course, that isn’t a bad one. After all, it’s a good thing when readers like your content. And as Ellis and others point out, share count is essentially a measure of how valuable and resonant readers found the piece.
But needless to say, what’s “valuable” to a billion people bored and clicking their way through the work day does not always equate with importance or newsworthiness in any traditional sense. Enter marsupial facts that are interesting, but only just barely. Or “12 stores that were essential to your childhood that don’t exist anymore.” Or the ever mounting pile of #Slatepitches and “hate reads” that seem to exist only so that contrarians can knock them down on Twitter.
In some ways, the situation is very much analogous to Facebook’s algorithmically moderated “war on click-bait,” which I discussed in this space Tuesday: It prioritizes the content that people are most interested in reading, but it’s unclear if what people are reading is informative or constructive in any traditional sense.
“I’m not convinced it’s good on a journalism level,” said a digital editor at one national legacy publication, whose team’s primary standard for choosing Web stories is guessing which ones will be shared. “Or on, you know, a soul-sucking level.”
Ellis, needless to say, sees the issues a bit differently. The social conversation, he argues, is a news beat like any other, which means his reporters will cover every hiccup in it, even if they seem vapid or meaningless or mundane. The change represents a legitimization of the Internet and online discourse, he argues. It’s not like Mashable doesn’t cover important stories, too.
“Not every story out of Syria is going to be heart-stoppingly exciting to every reader out there, and not every viral video is going to change your life,” Ellis said. “That’s doesn’t mean people shouldn’t read it, though.”
After all, there’s lots of boring material on the Web. You could do worse than marsupials.