Why the clickbait economy will kill us all

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I’m fairly new to WordPress, but I’ve been writing all of my life. Whether as a nerdy kid writing about video games, or as a college writing student studying craft and “literature,” I’ve been at it for a while.

Running a blog has convinced me that serious writing is dying.

This isn’t a new complaint, by any means. Our parents have been complaining about how nobody reads any more as along as we’ve been alive. Which is both right and wrong. The real problem, these days, is that no one writes any more.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

No one is publishing Ode on a Grecian Urn on the Internet.

I am addicted to checking my WordPress stats. I’ve always liked metrics— numbers, trends, and graphs. They hold a weird appeal for me, especially since I studied liberal arts at university. I check my WordPress views multiple times a day. I get happy when they go up; sad when they stay stagnant; depressed when they go down. It’s similar to the way many people talk about their relationship with social media. I will manipulate and target the content I post in order to see those numbers go up. I do this, because at the back of mind, there’s the knowledge that if I get those numbers high enough, one day I will be able to get paid for writing thisisyouth.

It’s always been my dream to get paid to write, and currently I do. I am lucky enough to work two jobs where my duties consist primarily of writing. One job is for the news aggregator Inside— a fantastic job which allows me to stay informed and help others do the same amidst the hurry of the modern world. My other job title is “Content Writer.” The job consists of Search Engine Optimization.

SEO is a field full of snake-oil, entirely at the whim of Google’s search algorithm. An engineer changes one variable in how Google Search works, the entire SEO industry turns on its head. The first person to find their bearings again runs the industry, at least until the next change.

This industry exists for the same reason my statistics obsession does: because Google leads to clicks, and clicks mean money. This is where we run into our earlier issue: people don’t write. To be rephrased more clearly here:

People don’t write good content for the web because it is economically moronic.

Take as an example this article on the current plight of The New Republic. (Also note the irony of the article explaining what killed the New Republic was its audience’s desire for pure hate, while the article itself uses a similarly brief and hateful tone).

The web, which is where the money is in writing these days, rejects longform and critical writing. Many outlets have tried it, and slowly, most of them have been spit back out, like a body rejecting a kidney. Our attention spans are too short.

This brings me back to Inside, my other job. Inside is a product I believe in, and a company I was excited to begin working for. Launched by Engadget founder and current Silicon Valley rich-man Jason Calacanis, Inside curates the best news from the best sources, summarizing the key facts in Tweetable, readable, 270 character updates. Within those updates, curators are asked to crunch down what are often thousand-word-long articles into a single 100-character lede. It needs to fit into a Tweet, see? The shorter the content, the simpler the message, the easier to spread. The clicks come easier.

Now Inside practices integrity with our stories— we actively reject clickbaiting titles and ledes, seeking to focus only on the facts. This is great. The product is, for the most part, quite solid. As a news hound, I use it often in my personal time. However, I really do think that working for Inside has damaged my ability to read critically and properly synthesize information.

I am now the world’s best scanner. When I am fully focused on work, I am one of the fastest curators on our team. I am paid on a contract rate, so my impetus is to summarize as many stories as I can, as quickly as I can. And my quality is high. But I do not have the time– or really the desire– to fully read articles. The small details, which are often the most important in understanding and reaching beyond the thesis of a piece, are not economic for me.

I make more money, but my understanding of the world suffers.

Which brings me to my third “job”: creative writing and blogging.

Here, I get a chance to stretch my sentences and feel the flex in my fingers, dancing under my own direction, to my own rules. Like all writers, I feel I have a book in me. It sits, misshapen and full of dreams, on my hard drive. I spend a morning on it, sometimes. A fire burns in my belly to tell this story. But at the back of my brain, where the spinal cord meets the squishy stuff, I feel the itch of my two “real” jobs.

They have taught me more than school ever did. They whisper to me ways to make money, the things I should do. “Reach 3-5 percent keyword density.” “Keep it simple, make it sharable.” “Limit your scope.” They taught me reality, while school taught me idealism. This is why so many college graduates come out lost and confused; disillusioned. Their university did not tell them the reality of the world. They never had those jobs to whisper into their ears. All these young people know is that they need money, and it’s hard to do that in the way you might want to.

All those thoughts my jobs have planted in me are very true; all things that would put me on my way to a nice bell curve on that stats page. They are all things that are killing my soul.

The entrepreneur has replaced the artist in me. The Atlantic, one of the last remaining online magazine outlets still standing against the crumbling of quality, would have you believe I’m not alone.

I bet that article doesn’t get too many clicks though.

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