no content/high clicks: the future of us?

Friday, January 2, 2015

It's not as if I didn't know this already. It's just that it leaves me (once again) disheartened. From the Andrew Marantz story "The Virologist," on Emerson Spartz (creator of the Dose, among other things), in The New Yorker.

Spartz calls himself an aggregator, but he is more like a day trader, investing in pieces of content that seem poised to go viral. He and his engineers have developed algorithms that scan the Internet for memes with momentum. The content team then acts as arbitrageurs, cosmetically altering the source material and reposting it under what they hope will be a catchier headline. A meme's success on Imgur, Topsy, or "certain niche subreddits" might indicate a potential viral hit.

Then there is the making of the headlines. Here Marantz is speaking to a young content producer, Chelsea, who has a degree in journalism from Syracuse University.

When she writes Dose headlines, she said, "there is a part of Syracuse University Chelsea that's like, 'I don't know if this is the way I should write it.'" The headlines that "win," according to Spartz's testing algorithm, are usually hyperbolic, and many of them begin with dangling participles or end with prepositions. "But then another part of me is, like, 'Actually, there's pretty definitive evidence that this version will get a better response.' So is the goal for people to look at it and be like, 'Wow, that girl wrote a really articulate headline'? At some point, you have to check your ego."

Recent photo themes, according to the story, include: "This Dad Decided to Embarrass His Son in the Most Elaborate Way Possible. LOL." and "The 21 Most Unusual Horses That Make Even Unicorns Seem Basic."

Marantz tells us that Spartz's parents made him read four brief bios of successful people daily—an educational cocktail that, Spartz himself reports, led to content borrowing and hyperbolic headlines.

It's not that I don't value the intelligence that goes into building algorithms and capitalizing on hot topics—or the hours that I'm sure Spartz puts in each day. I just find myself wondering how any of this makes society as a whole more intelligent or compassionate, less self-indulgent, more apt to fix some of the massive problems (education, environment, political standoffs, ISIS) that stand before us.

What if click harvesting were turned toward a greater good? The possibilities seem endless.


MissKelly said...

I am touched by your carefully worded description of our worldly troubles on which we should focus our talents and energies. As individuals, we could feel exhilarated and empowered by our small doings which combined with others would make the great changes needed in this world.

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