Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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Beauty and post-postbag journalism

What online writer doesn't bait readers to get their hits fix?

Samantha Brick on Mail Online
"Read this and agree with it!". Samantha Brick on Mail Online

Yes, this is about That Journalist. I don’t even need to mention her name; you almost certainly know who it is, unless you’ve been lucky enough to avoid Twitter all week, don’t read the Daily Mail and don’t watch This Morning. In which case: God bless you. Go outside and frolic in the daffodils. This is for the rest of us, who have had to wade through the porridge-thick mass of comment and countercomment that has been social media over the past few days.

So That Journalist wrote an article in which she said being beautiful led to problems. People disputed whether she was beautiful, or deluded, or whatever. It became what people call a Twitterstorm, though I tend to imagine that word spoken aloud as one might say "hit parade" or "wireless"; even though it is a relatively new word, it seems dusty, obsolete and confused already. Since then, you haven’t been able to move for comment about it all. Was she a helpless victim? Was she a knowing participant? Were the Twitter masses worse than her? And so on, and so on.

We all do it, in one way or another. I would so love this blogpost to go viral, although it won’t (although if you’d like to retweet it, or share it, then please do, I wouldn’t say no, that’d be great). I’d love to be trending on Twitter. Wouldn’t you? If not, you’re probably not cut out to be a writer. But writers (or those of us who consider ourselves writers, even though our readers, and our tax returns, may disagree) do. Most of us write because we crave validation, or attention. "Read this!" we scream. "Read this and agree with it!" But mostly, we just want you to read this. Read this now.

There was a pre-digital time when people didn’t know whether columnists were popular or unpopular. You could get a reasonable idea as to whether people liked them by judging from the postbag – though that’s a pretty blunt instrument for working out whether someone’s writing stuff that the readers are engaging with. You might not get letters for the hundreds of people nodding along in agreement, but you will for one person getting the wrong end of the stick, or getting angry with what you’ve said.  

The more outrageous and controversial the opinions the columnist decided to have that particular week, the bigger the response (good and bad) might be from your beloved readers and subscribers. It could be tempting, then, for writers to come up with surprising, alternative or abrasive opinions, just to stir things up a bit more than they otherwise might have. It’s the whole point to create a debate, but it’s tempting to create a more vigorous debate, to make your work more noticeable.

Most of us who’ve written for dead-tree publications (as well as online) will have felt that temptation, but now with the internet there’s a much easier way to find out: just look at the numbers. The stats won’t tell you whether the readers were amused, appalled or dismayed when they read what they read, but they will tell you whether they were there or not in the first place: and that’s important for revenue. Traffic is money.

If you write something horrifically provocative, but which hauls in a million angry sightseers, you and your publication have a very nice day. You don’t need necessarily to retain these folk, because as I explained the other day, operations such as Mail Online (for example) are vast enterprises designed to attract as much traffic and revenue as possible – but their visits add a welcome boost to your stats.

It’s not true to say that Twitter mobs are single-handedly fuelling certain newspapers’ websites, but they are a jolly handy thing to have, if you can taunt them into clicking. It’s not the fault of the internet itself for being used in this way, since it can mobilise people into marvellous acts of generosity and humanity, but the technology we have means it’s possible to bait folk in a way it simply wasn’t before. Now you aren’t just targeting your hardcore readers: you can tempt anyone you like to read what you want.

It is a genuine sadness to me, a fading remnant of the days of ink, that articles are perhaps more often written for the reaction they will generate, rather than any intrinsic value they might have. Can I say I haven’t done it myself? Of course not; I play the game as well, although I hope that the things I’m sincere about make more impact than the things I’m less sincere about. But that’s all it is, a hope.

So I don’t blame That Journalist for writing That Article. I’d love to be on This Morning and meet Philip and Holly, and talk about my experiences. I’d love to have all eyes looking at me. Of course I’d love to have it happen for some great triumph of prose or investigative journalism rather than just some maggot-dangling linkbait, but I think most of us will take what we can get. 

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