Being linkbaited to death: How the desperation to get clicks destroyed the internet

In the competition to get traffic to our sites, a few rules evolved based on the understanding on what makes content go viral.  One of these rules emphasizes the use of numbered lists.  You’ve probably seen them before:

“19 things to see in Paris”

“5 different ways you can brush your teeth”

“11 ways to break up with your boyfriend/girlfriend”

“8 tricks to getting a successful colonoscopy “

And so on… to infinity.

Writing is now tailored for easy scanability, because the masses no longer read content so much as they power browse.  The more in-depth content is, the more likely people will click away to something else.  It’s why sites like Buzzfeed have become so popular, despite the utterly vacuous nature of its verbal content and over-emphasis on the use of animated gifs.

Don’t believe me?  Check out this site called Buzzfeed Minus GIFs, where the author quotes the site’s written content, minus the graphics.

So what DOES Buzzfeed look like without gifs?  Here’s one example:

The 19 Worst Things Ever

This. This. This. This. This. This. This. This. This. This. This. This. This. This. This. This. This. This. This.

Profound.

Writing on the internet is no longer about the expression of thought so much as it is about generating easy linkbait to boost traffic and ad revenues.  Some people blame corporate marketing for this, but in reality marketers are merely responding to the signals they receive, and those signals clearly indicate a preference for the quickest, shallowest and most meaningless forms of content.

Horse lying on a couch

A horse on a couch. This has nothing to do with anything I’m writing, but market research says that I’ll lose 50% of readers at this point if there isn’t a Funny Animal Picture interrupting the text. (Hat Tip: Nummification of America)

I fell into this “sinkhole of shallow” myself on my old blog, attempting to tailor my writing so it would conform to what the audience at large was demanding.  Sometimes I would blog a post, and the thoughts would keep flowing, and I would thus keep writing, until I’d remember with a violent jolt, “Oh wait, my post here is already 1,000 words too long.  I need to condense it to 350 words for optimal search engine ranking and then break it up into a few bullet points so people can scan the content better, plus add some vaguely relevant thumbnail images, or readers will think I’m utterly and stupendously boring, or be so disgusted with the verbose nature of my content that they’ll hire Israeli hackers to bring my site down and ensure I never show my disgusting presence online again.”

But my mind simply didn’t work that way.  Writing to me was eclectic in nature, an incongruous mixture of thought that could either be short or long, visual or verbal, reflective or reactive.  It spanned a wide spectrum of topics that simply can’t adhere to a rigid structure or schedule.  Until I came to terms with that, my blogging suffered enormously and deteriorated in quality.  It wasn’t until I created A Geek in the Wilderness that I started to find my groove again, deciding it was better to have a medium to express myself freely and appeal to a minority, than to conform to the expectations of society in an attempt to appeal to the majority.

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8 Responses to Being linkbaited to death: How the desperation to get clicks destroyed the internet

  1. Ashli January 4, 2014 at 8:39 PM #

    Thanks for this post. It is informative and disturbing.

    I quickly (and sadly) learned while working at a university that people just don’t read. And I’m talking people like the president and vice presidents of a university, along with all the educated high-ups that work with them. It was a depressing eye opener.

    I relish reading. I feel so grateful that I can read and have access to so many incredible things worth reading. When I worked at a university, I thought I would be surrounded by other learned, scholarly individuals who would love to read and discuss and mull over ideas as much as I do. WRONG.

    Anyway, I digress. Back to your post – so sad. I don’t always agree with your opinions, and at times, your ideas have been so off-putting that I can’t seem to visit your site for weeks. However, I do come back because I like to read thoughtful ideas and opinions (whether I agree or not). I’ll be so sad if you make a site of lists. Seeing bulleted lists will flash me back to that horrible university-working time where paragraphs just didn’t exist. *shudders*

    • Frank Swift January 4, 2014 at 9:00 PM #

      My next post will be titled, “11 reasons why Ashli just can’t quit me.”

    • Frank Swift January 4, 2014 at 9:09 PM #

      On a slightly more serious note,

      This tendency to “power-browse” actually had a negative impact on my reading comprehension. There were times where I could swear I read a paragraph a certain way, only to go back and see I had missed key phrases here and there that resulted in completely misreading the text. Thankfully it doesn’t happen often, but it seems to be more frequent now since I’m always in a rush to get through my daily reads. It’s embarrassing because I consider the written form to be the best way I communicate with others.

      One of the things I’m resolving to do is to FORCE myself to read at a slower pace, and search out more complex content to help engage my mind in a way that bullet point lists can’t.

  2. Ashli January 6, 2014 at 3:46 PM #

    Lol.

    Of course this is a great opportunity to push my teaching agenda now…
    Perhaps limiting daily reads and filling the now empty time with book reading would help you to become a power reader again. For at least 30 minutes a day, I read something offline. It’s a good practice.

    On a totally unrelated note, I just defeated perhaps the most epic salad that has ever been created. It was tasty. That is all.

    • Frank Swift January 6, 2014 at 7:26 PM #

      One of these days I’m going to work up the nerve to read Moby Dick. As I understand it, it is the king of dependent clauses and a good way to unfreeze the brain from all the dry quick scanning of the news I usually do.

    • Frank Swift January 6, 2014 at 7:31 PM #

      That salad… I bet it was chicken.

  3. Ashli January 7, 2014 at 12:08 PM #

    Moby Dick is an undertaking.

    For people who aren’t into literary analysis (I’m not sure if you are), I suggest beginning a reading practice with books that are “fun.” Moby Dick, as is the case with most classics, is not a fun read. Reading “fun” things is motivating and, well, not depressing.

    I know I am a literary snob. I rarely venture out of the classics, but I majored in English, specifically literary criticism. It’s what I do. And even I get weighed down by all of the hardcore self-reflection that the classics bring. I usually hate and loathe the books I love. They’re painful to read and process, but I guess I’m a glutton for that kind of thing. Moby Dick falls into that category.

    Ah… my salad. Fresh grilled chicken was only one of the components. It played a supporting role but was hardly the main character. What made you think my salad had chicken? Am I that transparent?

    • Frank Swift January 7, 2014 at 7:05 PM #

      Not sure about transparent, I’m just very perceptive. It’s an INFJ thing.

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