Movies and the art of clickbait headlines
“We found something out here” is the first line you hear (at the 0:21 point) in the trailer for the next Independence Day film. Sound familiar? Here are some recent headlines from the news(ish) world: This Is What Happens When Two BuzzFeed Employees Explode A Watermelon | What I Learned From Tickling Apes
As the news business increasingly faces declining revenues and no clear answers on how to monetize itself, it’s turning to the tricks of the entertainment world, which seems much better suited to thrive in the Internet age with its emphasis on aesthetics, blockbusters and appeals to emotion over intellect.
One result we enjoy/despise is headlines that withhold information and game the psychological dynamics governing people’s attention. Overall, my guess is that this will erode trust and damage attempts by journalism organizations to be taken seriously.
I realize I am making an assumption that a neat divide exists between news and entertainment, now and in some notion of its past. Not so. But there is a big difference between trying to compete for people’s “entertainment-type attention” and their “truth-about-the-world-please attention.”
Okay, I’m also assuming things around the concept of “truth” and “attention,” but the point feels valid: At what point on people’s entire information experience spectrum are you trying to reach them? If you pretend to be one, but really want to be another, I suggest you end up creating distrust, which erodes your value over the long haul.
For fun, let’s try rewriting the BuzzFeed headline in different styles that don’t reflect an attempt to meta-describe the event in terms of its place in the media ecosystem, but rather just try to get at what is happening:
- BuzzFeed’s original headline: This Is What Happens When Two BuzzFeed Employees Explode A Watermelon
- NYT: With rubber bands and a watermelon, performers discover the limits of fruit
- AP: Performers wrap watermelon in rubber bands until the fruit explodes
- The Atlantic: Fruit and rubber bands in the age of simple wonders
- Hacker News: It takes at least 642 rubber bands to optimize the explosion of a watermelon
- Reddit: So I made this watermelon explode with rubber bands
- Upworthy: These amazing people wrapped rubber bands around a watermelon. What happened next will make you cry.
As print readership falls, 51 major metro newspapers’ websites are losing or failing to pull in readers, and young people engage more with print products than digital ones
Source: medialife magazine
I suspect these dynamics are unique to the nature of the markets theoretically served by these publications; given the nature of the online ad business and the overwhelming dominance of network builders/communication-tool-providers (Facebook, Google) to provide the reach into local people’s lives, it is very hard to be a player on the Internet unless you are trying to reach the entire world. Yet it’s surprising on the surface to think that the path to the future may lie in the past.
Online audiences are as big as they’re going to get. Without growth, investors don’t want to invest in them.
At Business Insider, for example, traffic increased 10 percent to 40 million monthly uniques over the past year, following an 80 percent increase the year prior. BuzzFeed’s growth was flat this year, at 75.3 million uniques in November, after a year in which it grew 42 percent. (All figures are U.S. cross-platform figures, from comScore.) Mashable’s traffic, on the other hand, grew at a faster rate from November 2013 to November 2014 compared to a year later: 18 percent vs. 32 percent. Gawker Media, which spent most of last year in turmoil, has seen a 16 percent year-over-year decline in unique visitors.
“There’s that sense that not all of these digital news startups will see continuing hockey stick-like growth,” said Ken Doctor, principal analyst at Outsell. “Fall behind in growth, and the current value of these companies may plummet; it’s a momentum game, win or lose.”
‘Call it the Internet, but it’s really this: The end of the Mass Media Era and the dawn of the Infinite Media Era’
At the heart of it, it’s an audience problem. In the old, information-starved days, we could guarantee market-dominant audiences just by doing news (or, for the broadcast media, entertainment). Today, news won’t get us enough audience to be competitive, and our audiences are too small for digital dimes to make up for the print dollars we’re losing.
Apps and websites will all blend together and talk to each other, because that is simpler and better for your audience
Source: Donny Reynolds on Medium
Rather than needing to download an app to access an experience, we’ll simply find the experience we want through whatever means and Google or Apple will “stream” that app to us as needed. No more interruptions between individual story of interest and a person’s desire. No more trying to catch people inside yet another walled garden.
But didn’t you hear that apps are dead? It’s all about the bots now.
I’ve not used this service yet, but I like its simple timeline describing the evolution of info/digital experiences:
- Mid-1980s: desktop computers
- Mid-1990s: browsers and websites
- Mid-2000s: smartphones and apps
- Mid-2010s: messaging and bots
Facebook Live is another pillar of its attempt to become the defacto “Internet”
Source: The New Yorker
No need to rewrite; here are a few grafs from the article:
I wrote several years ago that Facebook’s dream is not to be your favorite destination on the Internet; its desire is to be the Internet. It would prefer that when you connect in the digital realm—an increasingly all-encompassing expanse—you do it within Facebook, which now includes Instagram, Whatsapp, and Oculus VR (in addition to its robust news feed, its Messenger chat app, its Moments photo-sharing platform, its video-player platform . . . well, you get the idea). This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon; for years technology companies have waged platform battles, hoping to lock in users with hardware, software, or services that only function inside a proprietary venue. Closed systems make your patronage simpler and more consistent, and it is through a closed system that a company can most readily own and control your data, which is then converted to revenue.
Facebook has been particularly focussed on three areas lately: publishers’ content (that is, all the stuff that makes Facebook worth reading), video (the thing every creator on the Internet must do right now), and the youth market (all the people Facebook will need tomorrow). In all three places, the company has been playing a haphazard game of catch-up, trying to concoct a mixture of services, partnerships, acquisitions, and outright steamrolling that will insure ownership and control of these three crucial axes.
On Wednesday it launched a service called Facebook Live, which simultaneously takes aim at the trifecta.
Branded content is going to flood every communication channel, and there will be a backlash against it.
People have told us that they find some types of branded content to be less engaging than others, and this was typically when the content was more promotional. Based on this feedback, our branded content guidelines prohibit overly promotional features, such as persistent watermarks and pre-roll advertisements. Additionally, cover photos and profile pictures must not feature third party products, brands, or sponsors. Branded content integrations that are allowed to be posted on Facebook include content like product placement, endcards, and marketer’s logos.
It will be harder to find “pure” information, if such a thing exists, and ever more difficult to understand the behind-the-scene motivations and restraints on the quality and character of the information you’re consuming. This, overall, is not good. We need institutions in our society with power and influence that have something besides profit as their motivation. Verizon, for example, will never produce news that damages its interests, which may not serve humanity overall in very beneficial ways.
Slack should become a publishing company. This makes sense. All ideas begin with conversations.
I’m still looking for the magic tool that combines robust calendars (that feed into other services), collaborative document editing with track changes, IMing, project management, video conferencing and phone calls, a CMS, social media integrations for publish-once-be-everywhere simplicity, ability to add/remove collaborators so to work with freelancers, curation tools, communication cleverness that allows all conversations on all mediums/tools to be organized by project effortlessly and quickly and on the fly… the list just keeps going. Right now I accomplish this using a ridiculous array of services. The only premise I’ve discovered is that all information turns into other information for different times, places and people, so I need to tools to handle the stresses of time, complex information-source networks and numerous publication/communication channels.
Companies that build the tools to communicate are the new publishers
Medium amps up its efforts to become the publishing powerhouse of thoughtful media. So give up your sovereignty in exchange for a network purporting to somewhat reflect the audience you want? Let them handle revenue and tech infrastructure so you can focus on writing, shooting photos and interviewing smart people doing great things? Well, your business becomes tied to theirs. And as more organizations flood the network, it becomes less differentiated. What about when lawyers and foreign governments show up telling Medium to take down certain posts?
Neil deGrasse Tyson talks online journalism with Arianna Huffington and Jeff Jarvis