Update: in a Medium.com post today about the company’s layoffs, Medium’s CEO and founder Evan Williams (who also helped start Twitter) summarized this essay.
“Upon further reflection, it’s clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the internet. It simply doesn’t serve people. In fact, it’s not designed to. The vast majority of articles, videos, and other “content” we all consume on a daily basis is paid for — directly or indirectly — by corporations who are funding it in order to advance their goals. And it is measured, amplified, and rewarded based on its ability to do that. Period. As a result, we get…well, what we get. And it’s getting worse.”
Engragement: noun. News and media designed to capture our attention and engage us by enraging us in order to drive ad revenue.
What do Trump, poop, and fake news have in common?
They’re all demonstrations of how outrage is the primary driver of engagement and profit in online business models, and lead to the twisted and awful world of media we all now live in.
Let me explain.
My job is to maximize eyeballs for the sites of technology startups in Silicon Valley.
A marketer can get eyeballs by, for example, writing blog posts that are engaging, educational, entertaining, or even inflammatory.
Why inflammatory? Because if a blog post is inflammatory enough, then the viewer is very likely to share that post on Facebook to show just how disgusted they are with it. And once on Facebook, it will find other people to enrage, it will spread, and pageviews will skyrocket.
It doesn’t really matter if what gets written is true, or whether the author believes in it or not. And it doesn’t matter if the post made the reader feel good or bad (In fact, outrage happens to be one of the most powerful emotions that makes us act.). As long as the reader has an emotional reaction and click on the article then the writer gets paid.
Now, this doesn’t work for all websites.
For a tech company that has a product to sell, you want to actually be choosy about whose eyeballs come to your site. The company I work for sells software to very smart, very hardcore developers. So every piece of content that we produce needs to attract only that audience of people, and each piece of content also needs to increase our credibility so that over time those developers will trust our competence to write quality software. Driving views with inflammatory or fake content doesn’t serve us well.
But it’s different for news sites. They get revenue based on impressions and ad clicks, regardless of who viewed or who clicked.
Publications as diverse as The Wall Street Journal, the Daily Kos, Forbes, and Breitbart all make money based on ad impressions, so to varying extents, all they care about is creating content (not news) that spreads.
Their only goal is to get people’s attention. In this way, online media has made all journalists need to be more like tabloid writers.
Space aliens and Michael Jackson coming back from the dead get more attention than a close analysis of federal housing policy.
This brings us to poop.
A few weeks ago, friend sent me an article full of “poop facts.”
— ✏Austin W. Gunter (@austingunter) November 23, 2016
It was well-written and hysterically funny. Kudos to the writer, Christina Stiehl, for, frankly, doing such a damn good job with such shitty material.
Analyzing how an article like this gets written illuminates the process that online writers go through to decide what to write about in order to maximize pageviews.
So how does a writer like Stiehl decide to write an 1800 word treatise about a disgusting bodily function?
You might think that she just decided it would be fun to write an article about poop.
But you’d be wrong.
Before Steihl started writing about poop, she knew exactly how many potential eyeballs (and therefore how much ad revenue) there would be for an article about excrement.
Google has this neat tool (Keyword Planner) that allows you to see how many people are searching for a term on the internet. I plugged the word ‘poop’ into the tool, and found that (depending on how you refine the keyword) there are somewhere between 100,000 and 1,000,000 searches for poop every month.
That’s a huge audience for advertisers.
As a writer for a content site, Steil’s job is to maximize her chances of making a post go viral. So she just needs to do a little bit of research to find topics that hundreds of thousands of people are searching for and then focus her efforts on writing about those keywords.
Poop, celebrities, sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
What we have here is a recipe for websites writing about poop, and writing A LOT about Donald Trump. That orange-haired goon really has a way of getting us to pay attention to him (by pissing us off), to the tune of tens of millions of searches each month.
Suddenly it makes more sense how we end up with our news and Facebook feeds filled with so much crap about Donald Trump.
The way media companies decide which “news” gets covered under this business model has nothing to do with accuracy or good journalism, or contributing something new and useful to a dialogue. The most important factor here is “how likely is the the article to get a lot of attention?”
That’s a business model that any parent of any tantrum-throwing two-year-old knows well.
Media businesses are rewarded for writing salaciously, not accurately, because we click on salacious articles way more than we do on longform journalism. Who gets more pageviews, The National Review or Heavy.com?
This brings us to Facebook.
Just like any other ad-driven website, Facebook wants us to spend as much time on there as possible, and so it’s designed to give us more of what we click on. But as anyone who has been trying to lose weight will tell you, humans are incredibly good at wanting things that aren’t good for them.
And Facebook has done such an exceptional job of giving people “what they want” that they’ve of lost sight of the reality that what people want often isn’t what’s good for them. Have you checked the number of hamburgers McDonald’s has sold recently?
Both the media and Facebook have a conflict of interest here, and they know it.
As Les Moonves, the CEO of CBS, said about Donald Trump’s candidacy, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” — that is, the engraging spectacle Trump creates that drives eyeballs.
Moonves is intentionally engraging CBS’s viewers to make a buck, and doing it under the guise of journalism.
This is something Moonves and all media executives know. The more pageviews they elicit, the more spectacle, the more profitable their networks are.
CBS is giving us what we wanted, which, counterintuitively to many of my left-leaning readers, was more Donald Trump, not less.
In fact, every time John Oliver and Saturday Night Live do a masterful lampooning of The Orange One, all my Democratic-voting friends smugly rejoice at how moronic The Donald is, share the very funny video on Facebook, and pat themselves on the back for how they see through all his nonsense. The more times that video gets shared, the higher the interest is in HBO subscriptions.
As we’re sharing these clips, these media creators – CBS, Last Week Tonight, and SNL – are seeing their viewership skyrocket as a direct result of Trump, and The Donald gets more free media coverage that he used to propel his campaign and grow the value of his brand.
When we share those videos that mock Trump, we’re feeding the Trump ratings machine.
Trump and media companies are effectively colluding to engrage the American people for the sake of profit.
Trump sees us as the product that elects him and builds his brand. Moonves and Zuckerberg see us as the product they sell to their advertisers.
SNL and John Oliver wouldn’t have done nearly as well in 2016 if they didn’t have all the material Trump gives them to work with. I know the alt-right likes to call Trump daddy, but Alec Baldwin probably should do similar before he dons the Donald wig every week. He just got 4 years of SNL keeping his brand in the spotlight handed to him for free.
It’s a really fucked up system of incentives, and we’re all being played by it.
And we need to ask whether or not Facebook actually wants to reduce the amount of fake news and engraging content on their social network. In the same way that Google rewards someone for writing an article about pooping, Facebook will reward us when we share something really really awful because it will get massive engagement.
The following article is an example.
I didn’t link to that article on purpose, but you can copy/paste the link into your browser if you want. I don’t recommend you do that, and frankly the title should be enough to leave a bad taste in your mouth. The content is not only inaccurate, but it’s degrading to women, and I don’t want to send any traffic to the site. I’m sharing it because it’s a good example of how the internet rewards bad behavior and engraging content.
You’d think I’d need to go digging around for a misogynistic article like that, right? Actually, I didn’t. The article dropped in my lap when several of my most progressive and feminist friends shared it on Facebook.
Why would anyone share an article like this on Facebook, must less a professed feminist? This is an article they don’t just disagree with, they are rightly disgusted that someone could write it in the first place.
They shared the article precisely because they were disgusted by it and wanted to let other people know how disgusting it was, which is exactly what the piece was intended to do; piss you off so much that you’d have to talk about it.
And so that those huge ads on the page will get impressions.
This is the definition of engragement.
And what makes it even worse, is that you’re tempted to share the article whether you agree with it or not. If you agree with it, you share the article as gospel. If you disagree with the article, you share it as an example of how offensive some people are on the internet.
The article comes from Breitbart, whose former CEO, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump appointed to be a strategic head of his administration. My friends who shared this article wanted everyone to know some of the work this particular leader inside Trump’s administration is responsible for.
They shared it with really good intentions, but unfortunately that means that the ad revenue associated with this piece increased.
Over 215,000 people have shared or otherwise engaged with that article. And the number of people clicking on it shot up over the past couple of weeks because well-meaning people like my friends were sharing it.
Breitbart fits the definition of “engragement.” They make money by enraging people, and they’re really really good at it.
And each of those 215,000 engagements of that article on Facebook is exactly what the social network is designed to do. It’s designed to be a place where people can share things that resonate with them.
Facebook is more or less agnostic about what we’re sharing as long as maximum number of people are sharing as much as possible. Algorithms are amoral. It doesn’t matter if people are sharing good things or bad things, only that what people share can be algorithmically served to another user who will want to see that content, and will therefore spend more time on Facebook, viewing more ads and generating more revenue.
That’s why I find it rather disingenuous when Zuckerberg talks about removing “fake news” from the platform.
Facebook is designed to customize itself to the content each of us individually wants to read. It’s not designed to surface “real news” instead of fake news. If someone happens to love reading conspiracy theories about Edward Snowden and the Illuminati, Facebook’s algorithm will figure this out and make sure they see a ton of that sort of content each time they log in.
Should Facebook change its platform to reduce fake news even if it knows those changes would likely reduce revenue?
The mission of Facebook is to be a place where the world connects and shares effortlessly online. People have always shared tons of unpalatable stuff with one another. Now that they’re sharing things on Facebook, does Facebook have a responsibility to censor the conversations people would be having anyways?
Removing or censoring engraging content would negatively impact the company’s revenue, and the public markets would punish Facebook’s stock price for making a decision that they knew would reduce revenue.
Unless something very powerful changes, Facebook’s business model is just as dependent on engragement as Breitbart’s.
Media companies on the internet are designed to give us what we want so that we’ll keep coming back and paying attention to their ads. These companies are giving us exactly what we want. They are reflections of who we are.
The problem isn’t in our algorithms. The problem is in our humanity.
As Ryan Holiday points out, fake news designed to engrage us is probably older than “good” journalism is. Media hucksters have been manipulating our emotions to drive advertising revenue for over 100 years.
Engraging content has always been around, but it’s only in the last few decades that it could spread across the globe in an instant.
Facebook and Google have simply scaled the size of the opportunity for low-principled folks who are willing to bend their morals in exchange for ad revenue. And now that we all login to the same social networks and live on the same internet, journalism and engragement are competing for the exact same eyeballs.
The problem is that good journalism isn’t as consistently sensational or titillating as the latest thing Donald Trump decided to tweet in the middle of the night.
Ben Thompson holds up Buzzfeed as the most important news organization today because they do not rely on pageviews for their revenue. At Buzzfeed, journalists are encouraged to publish often, and aim for virality so that the news spreads.
Sometimes this results in the “is the dress gold or blue” and sometimes it means that Buzzfeed is the only organization other than the New York Times that has someone on the ground as they did in Monrovia, Liberia when Ebola was breaking out
And this seems to be the best business solution. We need to move away from pageview-based business models for our media because generating pageviews is almost entirely disconnected from producing high quality journalism. There is massive opportunity for innovation around journalistic business models, and Buzzfeed is leading the way, listicles and all.
But we need to be honest with ourselves that business models in a wholly capitalist society will continue to pander to our baser desires and be incredibly profitable for doing so. Again, McDonald’s.
I wrote this article to illustrate how these engraging media business models work because I think it’s powerful for individuals to understand how the media operates. When we see that the media are intentionally manipulating our outrage in order to drive engagement and ad revenue, we can choose to act differently.
First off, we can take the small step of noticing when we’re clicking on content that is designed to elicit our outrage. The Breitbart article I referenced is a good example, but there are a lot of lesser examples as well. Chances are, a lot of the things that have to do with Trump right now are designed to outrage us. I know he’s our president-elect, but we don’t necessarily have to play his media game.
Second, we can notice the sites that seem to be the most egregious producers of this sort of content and stop clicking on their stories in general. It’s a bit dissatisfying, but one of the only ways to silence these publications (outside of cracking down on free speech) is to refuse to consume the content they produce, and ignore them when they clamor for our attention.
Boycotts and protests will simply feed the beast.
For example, if you don’t think that Milo Yiannopoulos, who penned the Breitbart article mentioned earlier should have a book deal (which he just got), don’t write articles saying he shouldn’t have a book deal (even if your name is Leslie Jones) or protest his speaking tour on college campuses. Those actions simply keep him in the news, engraging more and more people. That means his publisher, Simon and Schuster, can be confident that a lot of people will buy his surely engraging book.
And finally, I think we need to make it less socially acceptable for our friends to share engraging content by ignoring it when people do happen to post poop on their social media profiles. Just ignore them. Don’t respond with a comment. Don’t feed the attention beast. The less we engage those posts, the more we will train Facebook’s algorithms to de-prioritize engraging content.
As I said, our media and our social networks are a reflection of who we are as human beings and who we are as a culture. If we don’t like what we see, then it’s time to take a close look at ourselves and ask what we might do differently.
Hope this helps.
Austin W. Gunter.
Many thanks to Josh Bernoff for his thoughtful edits to this post.