At the Altar of the Algorithm
You may have noticed more clickbait headlines lately. Here's why.
In the year ending March 2022, 87.27% of all American internet searches were made on Google. SEO people joke that the best place to hide a dead body is page 2 of Google search results.
A 2021 Pew Research study estimated that “around seven-in-ten Americans use social media to connect with one another, engage with news content, share information, and entertain themselves.” Search engine technology also shapes the ads you see, the posts that rise to the top of your social media feeds, and your media aggregators.
Once upon a time businesses joked that 80% of their advertising budget was wasted, but they didn’t know which 80%. Today you can track exactly how many eyeballs viewed your ad, how many clicked through to your site, how many abandoned their carts, and how many closed the deal. You no longer have to guesstimate your readership based on print runs and sales. You know exactly how many people visit your site, not to mention their approximate ages, incomes, genders, education levels, and all sorts of other useful data.
All this data lets you target your ads, messages, and campaigns more accurately than ever before. But it also forces you to compete with other businesses. Your place in those searches is measured largely by clicks and eyeballs. And if you want to get those clicks and eyeballs, you have to genuflect at the altar of the algorithm.
We roll our eyes at the chumbox ads promising to improve our gut health if we just throw out this one root vegetable. (“I’m begging you,” says this famous physician). But we can’t stop wasting our time and attention on clickbait.
Dopamine is one of the major neurotransmitters involved in our sense of pleasure and excitement. Cocaine and methamphetamine act on the dopamine system, as does sexual stimulation. And dopamine helps determine the stories you read and the images you share with your Facebook friends.
Certain calls to action get more responses than others. Certain phrasings get more clicks, and certain subjects bring longer reader engagement. Most of this data simply reaffirms what we already knew. The New York Post was notorious for its headlines well before its 1983 front page. But that kind of attention-seeking was only for newspapers that catered to the hoi polloi. Serious journalism and literature were above that sort of thing.
When you’re looking for a paper on a newsstand - especially a paper you’ll be bringing to the office where your colleagues and higher-ups will see your choice of literature - you’re going to be at least as interested in the paper’s reputation as its headlines. When you’re swiping through a list of choices online, you have much less chance to consider the source and much more inclination to click on whatever catches your eye, tugs at your heartstrings, or arouses your ire.
In October 2013 Mic leaned into its best-performing content - heart-tugging social justice narratives. Over the next several years a team of 2,500 writers and a 20-person in-house editorial team produced 50-100 daily posts featuring virtuous heroes and hiss-worthy villains. By 2015 Mic boasted 30 million unique visitors and $30 million in venture capital funding, thanks to its carefully crafted formula. As Adrienne Jeffries explains:
Every time Mic had a hit, it would distill that success into a formula and then replicate it until it was dead. Successful “frameworks,” or headlines, that went through this process included “Science Proves TK,” “In One Perfect Tweet TK,” “TK Reveals the One Brutal Truth About TK,” and “TK Celebrity Just Said TK Thing About TK Issue. Here’s why that’s important.” At one point, according to an early staffer who has since left, news writers had to follow a formula with bolded sections, which ensured their stories didn’t leave readers with any questions: The intro. The problem. The context. The takeaway.
Mic’s success was fleeting, and it wound up sold off at a fire sale price of $3 million to Bustle Media. But other outlets were hiring their own SEO advertisers and crafting their own eyeball appeals and click magnets. Executives and shareholders now had access to more data than ever before about what was attracting attention. And editors and writers tailored their work to meet those new demands.
And as journalists bowed before He Who Brings Clicks, so too did political operatives. Companies like Occupy Democrats and Turning Point offered provocative (if not always accurate) takes on current affairs. The other side became not just misguided but actively evil. And reaching across the aisle was replaced by supporting your own side at any cost.
You can’t argue with success, especially when you can show it with graphs and tables. These tactics led to greater customer engagement and helped build brand identification with younger audiences. Journalism and politics became less about Apollonian objectivity and more about Dionysian emotional outpourings. It is difficult to say whether Donald Trump fueled the nation’s polarization, or if he was an inevitable byproduct of America’s growing dopamine addiction.
Today millions of social media profiles proclaim that Black Lives Matter, that Love is Love, that we must Trust the Science and Stand With Ukraine. Alongside their statements of faith are warnings that fascists, racists, homophobes, TERFs, Trump supporters, and other badthinkers will be blocked, ignored, or beaten.
Shallow support for fashionable causes is certainly nothing new, and it’s easy enough to dismiss this all as “virtue signaling.” But that dismissal misses an important point: most people look to their community when determining what is or is not virtuous. That means that many will decide that those slogans must be correct, and many more will decide that arguing about them is not worth the social penalties. These slogans don’t just tell you what to say, they warn you of the questions you must not ask.
Opponents aren’t just wrong, they are literally killing people. Online antics become moral crusades, with all the warm dopamine glow that entails. And amidst all that nobody notices how Fortune 500 companies have funded many of these causes lavishly. Nor do they note that social media giants not only promote these ideas, they suspend critics for “hate speech.”
Technocrats have monetized the dopamine centers for search engine clicks. Is it surprising to discover they have also weaponized them to achieve their desired political ends? Or that they would channel social anger away from topics that might threaten their position and towards less threatening issues?
According to a 2021 Gallup report, 29% of the public currently has "not very much" trust in the media, while 34% have "none at all." While many pundits blame Trump for this ill will, it’s hard not to wonder how much of this distrust could more accurately be described as burnout by people who have grown tired of living in a constant state of crisis.
As mainstream media continues to hemorrhage viewers and relevance, many journalists have railed against “fake news.” Facebook and Google algorithms give heavier priority to mainstream outlets and lower weight to openly partisan groups. But instead of shoring up confidence in journalism, it has had the opposite effect as “fake news” became a synonym for “news I don’t want to hear.”
Sites like Snopes and Politifact promise unbiased analysis of media and political claims. Yet those who watch these watchers have noted a distinct Democratic-leaning bias. (It’s hard to call people who support the Biden/Harris Administration “Left” by any meaningful interpretation of the term). And while Facebook consults fact-checkers for editorial input, this has not done much to inspire confidence in either Facebook or the fact-checkers.
The algorithm measures “authority” based on a secret sauce that weights consensus quite heavily. (In other words, if you’re the only correct source your answer will get less traction than the dozens of incorrect ones that are wrong in the same way). The algorithm can measure clicks, viewer retention, backlinks, loading times, and a whole host of variables. The algorithm can neither measure nor generate respect.