Recently, I was asked what the biggest development in social media marketing was in 2016. I was also asked to share my social media New Year's resolution. In the past year, not only has low-quality, click-bait content reached a fever pitch in our newsfeeds and on the websites we frequent, but the consequences of click-bait have begun to be felt in American culture, journalism, and political life.
I can only hope that 2016 was the high-water mark of click-bait, and that in 2017, as social media platforms get smarter about displaying content from credible sources and advertisers, click-bait and its associated dangers will subside.
Why did click-bait rise to prominence? Creating meaningful, well-researched content requires an investment of time and talent. And both of those things cost money. Thin, trashy writing that delivers few facts or ideas is cheaper to produce. And when a content producer can get the same amount of traffic (and thus ad revenue) despite crappy content because a headline captures attention, the business model of click-bait thrives. Indeed, creating real journalism becomes a money-losing proposition.
Certain websites have grown and prospered, while traditional news sources like newspapers have shrunk their workforces or gone out of business entirely.
The editor of the Guardian newspaper writes: “In the last few years, many news organizations have steered themselves away from public-interest journalism and toward junk-food news, chasing page views in the vain hope of attracting clicks and advertising (or investment) – but like junk food, you hate yourself when you’ve gorged on it.”
Why does it matter what we read when we are clicking casually around on Facebook? Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, writes: “Social media hasn’t just swallowed journalism, it has swallowed everything. It has swallowed political campaigns, banking systems, personal histories, the leisure industry, retail, even government and security… Our news ecosystem has changed more dramatically in the past five years than perhaps at any time in the past 500.”
The way that information and idea sharing is financed has also changed in huge ways. “In the first quarter of 2016, 85 cents of every new dollar spent in the US on online advertising went to Google and Facebook. That used to go to news publishers,” writes Katharine Viner in the Guardian.
The danger of click-bait is that if the only criterion for success is clicks, then the quality of content falls. And fast. And far. Click-bait has diminished how people value news. Fake news stories flourish in a market flooded with fluff and appeals to our baser instincts. In a nation where democracy relies on a healthy Fourth Estate and an informed electorate, it is important that we get to read and share factual, well-reported content.
Ken Smith, chairman of the Welsh National Union of Journalists, told the Guardian, “Without a doubt, there is a dumbing down in terms of content going on websites which does not bode well… There’s going to be an emphasis on the trivial, rather than stories which require more considered reading.”
Luckily, it seems like Google and Facebook take the threat of click-bait and the fake news seriously. Google is working to prohibit misleading ads and both companies are constantly tweaking their search algorithms.
It also seems like content providers are seeing the light. Writing for New York Magazine, Nitsuh Abebe speaks of one of Upworthy’s primary curators, Adam Mordecai, noting that: “..his newest data discovery, which is that descriptive headlines—ones that tell you exactly what the content is—are starting to win out over Upworthy’s signature ‘curiosity gap’ headlines, which tease you by withholding details.”
My social media New Year’s resolution rises out of the problems of 2016. I resolve to go back to the basics and focus on quality, useful content.
Early programmers and technologists were idealists; they saw the Internet as a potential great equalizer, a tool that would provide everyone with equal access to information and a platform to share ideas. It would foster creativity and connection.
And in some ways, it has succeeded in that vision. But in others, it has failed. The pioneering Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan wrote in the Guardian, the “diversity that the world wide web had originally envisioned” has given way to “the centralization of information” inside a select few social networks – and the end result is “making us all less powerful in relation to government and corporations.”
When we use social media to share ideas that help other people, when we use it to learn things that expand our own intellectual or ethical horizons, we are going back to that early ideal.
High quality and useful content has always been what people were really looking for. They want to have their questions answered. They want to learn how to do things. A focus on meeting the needs of an audience with great content is the strategy that outlives black-hat SEO or tricks that take advantage of imperfect algorithms. It’s tried and true because it actually serves real people.
I’m inspired by Guardian editor Katharine Viner’s words: “We are privileged to live in an era when we can use many new technologies – and the help of our audience – to ... [build an informed, active public]… But we must also grapple with the issues underpinning digital culture, and realize that the shift from print to digital media was never just about technology. We must also address the new power dynamics that these changes have created. Technology and media do not exist in isolation – they help shape society, just as they are shaped by it in turn. That means engaging with people as civic actors, citizens, equals. It is about holding power to account, fighting for a public space, and taking responsibility for creating the kind of world we want to live in.”