Tuesday, January 7, 2014

On digital trickery

It all started with this post from a Facebook friend:

The article being discussed is this one, which appeared in Esquire recently. The basic premise is that in an environment of digital, social, and networked information being first is often valued more than being right. This on its own flies in the face of what we have come to understand journalism is, and what we have come to expect from the people and institutions in which we invest both trust and authority. 

But wait there's more, because the business model of today's Internet is predicated on attracting eyeballs and shares, even if it is with 'click bait' or 'link bait'. It all monetizes, and the person that gets there first gets the most clicks and shares and retweets. Everyone else gets the sloppy seconds and the rest, well I guess it gets sorted out by the gladiators in the comments section.

The hands of very few are clean in these click olympics. Even the writer of the piece in Esquire admits: "Give me the viral pictures, and I’ll give you the truth. And then, after an appropriate waiting period, I’ll give you the other truth, and capitalize on that traffic too. It’s almost a perfect callback to William Randolph Hearst’s infamous declaration on the eve of the Spanish-American War, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Even more fitting, historians don’t think he ever said anything like that. Then as now, it’s the myth that plays, not the reality. Today it just plays on an exponentially larger stage."

Though true virality happens about as often as lightning strikes, it is still the thing everyone online chases, because the wins, when they happen, are big wins. Think of it like the rows of people seated at the Las Vegas slot machines with the yogurt pails full of nickels, waiting for that one big win, and you've got a reasonable analogy for what most publishers and marketers are trying to accomplish online.

For some, the definition of a 'win' begins and ends with the metrics. If X number of people click or share on a piece of content, it's a win. Whether there's quality, integrity, or truth is beside the point. And increasingly stories are designed to lure online readers in exactly this way. If it can evoke an OMG or WTF in the body of the tweet, it is much more likely to get prime placement on the screen.

Companies such as Buzzfeed and Upworthy and to a lesser extent Gawker owe their existence and their good fortune to the quirk of human nature that drives us to circulate this kind of content. Sometimes it is digital water cooler, a can-you-believe-this story, and sometimes it is, to use my Facebook friend Sean's term 'digital horseshit', i.e. untrue but clickworthy.

This was was the case with this story about the recent snowfall on the Sphinx in Egypt. It's not that there wasn't snow in Egypt. There was. The most snow in over a century, no less.

Giza, Egypt? Nope. Japanese theme park? Yup.

It's just that it was easier and faster to run a bogus picture from a Japanese theme park than it was to get a real one from a journalist at the Cairo bureau, or just some person with an iPhone in the area. Plus the real photo probably wouldn't have been as attention grabbing as the fake one. The fake photo got retweeted and shared thousands of times, maybe more, and in the process brought in the dollars that accompany the diversion of traffic online. And when we aren't paying for content online we pay with our eyeballs' value to advertisers.

In a time when attention is one of the few things we do not have a surplus of it is not surprising that hijacking it has become the name of game for some online businesses. In the music business leaking has become one of the new forms marketing, and in the content business the same might be said for harmless hoaxes. In the words of one John Lydon, ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

Ed. Note: And a week later, this story circulated, about people in China resorting to watching the sun rise on a giant screen as the smog is so thick the actual sun cannot be seen. Time, CBS, Huffington Post, and the Daily Mail all ran (with) the story. H/T @AaronSmith50. (Metaphor alert: The click smog is so thick, the actual story cannot be seen).

Here comes the sun in China...delivered on the big screen. Happened? Again, no.

But wait, there's more...

From the 'for every action on the Internet there is an opposing action' department, meet Downworthy, the plug-in that dials down the sensationalistic headlines of the culprit sites noted in this post.

And from the world of research, there's And from the world of research, there's TwitterTrails, which tracks levels of skepticism on Twitter, correlates to propagation levels, and then follows stories on their path to truthfulness, or just more Internet bullsh*t.