Please Stop Sharing Bad Articles
I spend all day every day on the Internet. As Spider-Man would say, it is my gift and my curse. I’m like Uatu the Watcher only instead of observing all of humanity I just look at all the dumb things people put on social media. And the dumb things seem to be multiplying.
With traditional media outlets increasingly struggling, with much of the internet content economy reliant on a Facebook algorithm that keeps deemphasizing professional posts in favor of birth announcements and videos of people cutting very colorful cakes, the sites that have survived so far are getting desperate to attract attention any way they can. It’s like the Hunger Games, but for clicks.
With so much competition and an endless drive to be the first and fastest to Google, there’s only so many ways to stand out from the pack. The quickest, easiest, and most reliable is to write something controversial. Refresh Twitter or Facebook long enough and you can see why these sorts of pieces are called viral takes. One person observes a terrible article, something incredibly stupid or mind-bogglingly racist, then their tweet is picked up by another and another. At some point, a prominent social media presence with thousands or millions of followers catches on, shares it, and then it’s off to the races.
Even though these shares come from a desire to stop the flow of bad ideas, they almost always have the opposite effect. The percentage of writers who get fired for writing a dopey hot take is almost zero. The companies who own your favorite (or most despised) website don’t care if you read something because you agreed with it or because you were outraged. In the internet economy a click is a click is a click. And in some ways a hateclick is better than a genuinely inquisitive one, because hateclicks tend to result in more hateshares, which in turn generate more hateclicks.
You sometimes hear the act of sharing bad takes compared to a person smelling spoiled milk and then shoving the bottle under someone else’s nose and making them smell it too, but this metaphor isn’t quite right. You could shove a bad jug of skim in 1,000 people’s faces and it wouldn’t change the market for milk, spoiled or otherwise. There is no economic incentive for a dairy farmer to produce bad milk under any circumstance, even if you ran through the streets naked screaming “CAN YOU BELIEVE HOW AWFUL THIS MILK IS? WHY WOULD SOMEONE MAKE THIS MILK?!?”
But when you share garbage writing, you are creating an economic incentive for a writer to create more garbage content, because most writers these days are paid by (or their work’s value is at least measured by) the amount of pageviews their work generates. And the way things shake out these days, you could spend a month on a meticulously researched work of arts criticism that might get 10,000 hits, or spend two hours on a deliberately inflammatory essay that might get 100,000 hits. In that environment, what would you do?
Look, I get it. When someone writes something bad it pisses me off too. And my first instinct is to share it with a “Can you believe someone was paid to write this junk?” tweet. In an ideal world, sharing and decrying these pieces would have their intended effect. Alas, we do not live in an ideal world. When we share a piece of stupidity or racism on social media hundreds of times, and people click on it hundreds of thousands of times, we’ve given the writer exactly what they wanted (or, at the very least, have in no way punished them for doing something bad). The old truism about how there’s no such thing as bad publicity? That’s never been truer than in on the internet circa 2018.
Like I said, I’ve been just as guilty of this as anyone. But I’m trying, Ringo; I’m trying real hard to be a shepherd. Instead of amplifying the bad, I’m sharing the good. They’re not always the sexiest articles, and they rarely get shared far enough to make a positive impact on their traffic (some other time we’ll have to talk about how retweets and likes have become psychological currency, and another incentive to share bad articles). But at least I’m not helping spread the crap in the world. Instead of treating these articles like spoiled milk, we should look at them like a fire: The quickest way of stopping one is by depriving it of oxygen.