The media targets of a Facebook screed written by Mike Hudack—Facebook’s Director of Product—were quick to throw the blame for rampant clickbait right back in his face. Addressing his charge that the site is basically CNN for a different demographic, BuzzFeed (one of Facebook’s top media partners) painted itself as the victim of “capricious algorithms of powerful Web giants.” Ezra Klein’s Vox, which came in for special abuse, noted that “these days the bulk of Web traffic is driven by social media and the bulk of social traffic is driven by Facebook.”
That is to say, both sides are locked in a death struggle whereby nobody can be held accountable for slipping journalistic standards or the general absence of intelligent thought online. (Is it me, or does Facebook’s new “Trending” sidebar always offer an item about Jennifer Lawrence, no matter what’s happening in the news?) Everyone seems aware, on some level, that this is a race to the bottom, though no one’s quite sure how to apply the brakes—or who exactly is driving.
There’s ample evidence, on the one hand, to suggest that Facebook has a frightening degree of control over what we read and share via social media. A few months ago, it looked as if a change to their news algorithm, meant to promote “high quality” content over “meme photos,” took a huge bite out of the traffic that viral websites including Upworthy and Distractify had enjoyed till then.
But while it’s true that Facebook is becoming, as Matthew Yglesias writes in Vox’s response to Hudack, “the home page for the Internet,” and seems to favor updates that provoke knee-jerk reactions, it doesn’t necessarily follow that dumber articles will become more and more successful. Writers were already catering to the lowest common denominator back in the Web 1.0 era, when you had to access sites directly on a regular basis to keep up with their coverage. It’s hardly odd that they’ve honed this technique to a razor’s edge over the past decade-plus.
Ultimately, one only has to consider the long-lived success of institutions like Two and a Half Men or People magazine to realize that the audience is a major part of the perceived disaster here, but Facebook wouldn’t (openly) insult its users, and publications wouldn’t dare shame their readers. What this fight comes down to is the American need for passively digested infotainment, which is the flip side to the population’s aggressive disinterest in complexity and nuance (see also: the climate change debate). Despite the supposed #Longreads renaissance, we all know that you can’t seize the attention of the masses by challenging them to think harder.
In the absence of Facebook, we’d still be publishing the sort of things that perform well there. Why? Because reporters and editors can be every bit as lazy as the people whose eyeballs they need on their work. If it’s been proven, time and again, that a headline beginning with the word “This” is a guaranteed engagement-booster, and who are any of us to fight that? If being glibly contrarian nets you twice as many views, why wouldn’t we slip into that mode now and then? We can’t properly explain these effects; all we can do is try to follow and exploit the pattern.
That pattern is probably more organic than either Hudack or his opponents in today’s skirmish—which may augur more drastic changes to Facebook’s algorithm, if the initial rant wasn’t simply a warning—would care to admit. Think of it as a feedback loop: Facebook relies on the human desire to fill time, the media now counts on Facebook to disseminate its reportage, and readers have always wanted the media to decide what’s important enough to spend time and energy on. Everyone’s complicit in the game, because they’re all equally unlikely to break out of a frictionless formula that delivers the intended results. Hudack and other moaning critics can come out of the woodwork to allocate responsibility however they want, but they remain a stark minority. The greater majority will be perfectly content with a GIF listicle.
Maybe the problem with the attention economy, or what so annoys us about it, is its maddening mix of transparency and opacity. Civilization has seen countless battles for influence and authority, but never have we been able to peer inside the war machine and see the gears turning. All the same, we remain totally mystified as to which part does what, why the engine occasionally stalls, what keeps the whole structure afloat. No wonder the media leans so heavily on clickbait story—it’s like a lifeboat when you’re lost at sea: obvious, familiar, and safe.
Illustration by Jason Reed