You may have heard this before, but in today’s world, the most powerful currency you have is your attention. It’s also the thing most internet content producers (*waves* Hiiiii!) covet: to know that, for a few moments at least, they have your undivided attention. Websites use metrics like “unique visitors” and “time spent on page” and “shares” and “likes” and “friends” and more to quantify the size, demographic and engagement of their audiences. And in the case of for-profit websites: your Facebooks, your Huffington Posts, your random looney conspiracy theory sites – these metrics translate directly to ad sales. Hell, even unprofitable outfits like mine benefit from being able, for example, to pull in sponsors for blog posts, or prove to theater companies and authors that I have readers who’ll pay attention if I review their product/ions. And if you’ve ever seen me go ballistic on poor customer service or a bad product (Aereo, anyone?) you’ll know that social media reach tends to be helpful in those areas, as well.
Which brings us to the question of how websites get these clicks. In some cases, they’re purely organic. People list a search term and Google points them at my site. Some people click through from my Facebook page. Others have subscribed to the blog, or follow me on Tumblr or Twitter (most of my hits come from Twitter).
Once in a while, a random reader will repost or link to my site and suddenly I’ll see a surge of traffic – examples of this include my post about Amanda Palmer’s fundraising efforts, David Tennant’s accent in the US series of Broadchurch, or my essay on how much I can’t stand the Hunger Game novels.
Now, here’s the thing. While I don’t run this blog directly for profit (though there is that donate button in the upper right hand corner, hint hint), many websites are profit-generating machines. The Gawker family of sites, Buzzfeed, and others far more offensive – they’re notorious for “clickbait” article titles – titles that try to lure in readers by posing inflammatory questions or statements. You click, they get another unique visitor, their readership numbers go up, and they look more attractive to advertisers. While you don’t fork over cash to read their content, you do ultimately compensate their efforts with your attention.
Which brings us to what I’m going to call toxic clickbait. This goes beyond the annoying top-twenty lists that make you click through fifteen slides of celebrity haircuts instead of featuring them all on one page (more pages, more clicks) and beyond news-neutral articles from hysterical hate-spewers masquerading as news organizations, and involve people actively posting inflammatory, offensive and outright disturbing material for the purpose of getting as many clicks as they can. Even when this is a secondary purpose, and they actually believe the garbage they’re spewing, the mere act of clicking on their page actually helps support what they’re doing.
We talk a lot about affecting corporate ethics with our dollars – boycotts of socially liberal or conservative businesses, supporting small or local operations, etc. – but what people don’t talk so much about is affecting the tone of discourse on the internet, in whatever minor way possible, by consciously and actively deciding what we support with our clicks.
This was all brought up the other day when a friend posted a horrible and offensive piece she’d found from a horrible, offensive blog, talking about why women with tattoos were worthless, damaged “sluts.” She posted it on Facebook with a comment about how awful it was, and before you knew it, there were a dozen or more comments from those of us who read it and realized the post had been made by someone who was not only a deeply disturbed misogynist, but who was probably profiting off our outrage. After the first handful of comments, a few people started chiming in with admonitions not to click the link – and the discussion turned instead to sites that critiqued the piece and other posts made on the same site.
Most of those critiques refrained from posting links to the article in question, although many referred to it by name. Why? Because most people are too lazy to go to Google and seek out an article that isn’t right there for them. Which, in these cases, and in my opinion, is a good thing.
Not citing the piece you’re writing about or commenting on is antithetical to most of us who grew up writing in hyperlinkable text. And yet, there are some pieces and people that are just so toxic that to direct others towards them is just spreading their pollution. What’s more, people who are used to having rational, informed debates and engaging in discourse with those who don’t agree with them are trained to consider both perspectives, so deciding not to click on a potentially offensive story seems like playing the ostrich; sticking your head in the sand and just ignoring the problem instead of engaging it head-on.
And yet there is no way around it: avoiding engagement of any kind with toxic sites might be the only way to deprive them of the “oxygen” of unique page visitors, and the only way to ensure their writers don’t get rich off the bile they choose to spew.
It’s a problem I really don’t have a solution to: “spending” my attention on sites one agrees with only contributes to the increasingly narrow set of views we’re all exposed to, creating silos and echo chambers and over-curated content streams. And while many of us enjoy reasonable discussion with those who don’t agree with us, being exposed to new points of view and considering the perspectives of others, it’s hard to tell whether the “opposing side” is willing to have a civil conversation until you’ve already started to engage with them.
How do you handle the darker side of internet opinion pieces, websites and political arguments? And I mean the really ugly stuff: misogyny, racism, homophobia, toxic nationalism, class prejudice…? Do you avoid it entirely? Do you read links from The Daily Mail and shake your head? Do you pass links on to your Twitter followers and Facebook friends in order to shred the “arguments” put up by bigots and monsters? How do you balance talking about issues that need to be called out with not supporting those who spread hate?
I’m interested in hearing how others deal with these issues; if you have any thoughts or want to talk about how you approach the political act of following hyperlinks to toxic clickbait sites and other “hate speech”-style articles, please share in the comments.
(Note, please, that that is decidedly not an invitation to post toxic content. I will be the judge of what constitutes toxic content. Toxic content will be removed.)
Within that framework, I look forward to hearing from you.