Audiences don’t consume blogs like by subscription, they consume them just like they consumed yellow papers—whichever one catches their attention at that moment. A quick look at the traffic sources for blogs confirms this: Referral sources like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other aggregators combine to dwarf the direct traffic that sites get. RSS is dead. The Huffington Post doesn’t arrive on your doorstep, you read it when people email you links (and then later you click the most titillating headlines and the “Most Read” and “Related” articles that come along with them).
Blogs compete on a per-article basis, and so here we are in 2011, on our fancy Macbooks and high-speed broadband, stuck with the same bogus headlines they had in the 19th century.
From today: Naked Lady Gaga Talks Drugs and Celibacy; Hugh Hefner: I Am Not a Sex Slave Rapist in a Palace of Poop; The Top Nine Videos of Babies Farting and/or Laughing with Kittens; How Justin Bieber Caught a Contagious Syphilis Rumor; Little Girl Slaps Mom with Piece of Pizza, Saves Life
Compare those with some classic headlines from the late 19th and early 20th centuries: War Will Be Declared In Fifteen Minutes; Couldn’t Sell His Ear, Old Man Shoots Himself; Owl Frightens Woman To Death In Hospital; Bulldog Tries To Kill Young Girl He Hates; Cat Gave Tenants Nightly ‘Creeps’
As magician Ricky Jay once put it, “People respond to and are deceived by the same things they were a hundred years ago.” The One-off Problem is ugly, no matter what century. Only today, the headlines aren’t being yelled on busy street corners but on noisy aggregators and social networks.
Let’s compare two leaks. One from the era of subscription news and one from me, in the era of blogs.
A: In 1971, The New York Times titled its first story on the Pentagon Papers—leaked by Daniel Ellsberg—in typically understated fashion: “Vietnam Archive: A Consensus to Bomb Developed Before ’64 Election, Study Says”
B: In 2010, I orchestrated a fake leak to the blog Jezebel, which is owned by Gawker. Pretending to be an American Apparel employee, I told them I had stolen some photographs from the company’s servers (in reality we couldn’t use them for legal reasons). Their headline: “Exclusive: American Apparel’s Rejected Halloween Costume Ideas (American Appalling).” Overstating has its rewards: The post drew nearly 100,000 pageviews—even though the content was nothing but some extra photographs from an ad campaign.
Granted, the stakes in these two leaks are hardly comparable, but my point is not the substance but the presentation. Imagine a blogger understating a headline because he or she felt the story was too important to sensationalize. They wouldn’t. That’s not their job. They exaggerate and deceive their readers, and are paid well to do it.
Their ideal, our nightmare
For a publisher, an ideal blog post strikes several nerves: It’s provocative, it has a simple hook, it generates links and traffic, and it leaves enough out for follow-ups. In other words, it is overstated, polarizing, and incomplete. And it must fulfill these conditions cheaply and at the lightning speed of the web. The divergence of interests is clear: what is good for online publishers is bad for their readers and, cumulatively, for culture itself.
Having studied and observed blogs from deep in the trenches, it is obvious to me that they are assailed on all sides, including but not limited to the crushing economics of their business, dishonest sources, inhuman deadlines, pageview quotas, inaccurate information, greedy publishers, poor training, the demands of the audience, and the marketing manipulation of people like me. Under this duress, their incentives become our reality.
In his landmark book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argued that the dominant cultural medium determines the culture itself. Today, blogs and social media are that dominant medium.
Unfortunately, they worship a single god: traffic. The central question for the Internet is not, “Is this entertaining?” but “Will this get attention?” “Will it spread?” And it happens that almost everything that blogs do to get traffic, keep traffic, and profit from traffic puts them at odds with the truth, good journalism, and serving their readers.
That’s the world I operate in. This world exists primarily because it is so poorly understood—too commonly dressed up in the cyber-utopianism of the Jeff Jarvis crowd, or lost in the out-of-touch complaints of old-school journalists like David Simon.
I can’t tell you what can be done about all this—it’s too soon for that. All I can say is, this is what people like me do behind the scenes, this is how it’s possible, and these are the results.
I hope that’s enough.