Internet Week, Part 1: What would you do for a click?

The “curiosity gap” is a term used to describe the gap between what we know and what we really want to know. Today, plenty of websites are finding ways to exploit that gap.

Sites like BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post and Upworthy have become some of the fastest growing websites on the Internet by using headlines like “No one applauds this woman because they’re too creeped out at themselves to put their hands together” and “Watch a teenager bring his class to tears just by saying a few words.”

These websites write headlines by making them shocking or manipulative in some way (a strategy known as “click bait”) so that the user will click on them.

My other criticism of websites is best described by Katie Rife from the A.V. Club: “Outrage is quickly replacing porn as the Internet’s most valuable export.” Just getting someone to click the link doesn’t really add a lot of revenue.

The real money comes from getting a lot of “someones” to click the link.

Outrage is so easy to induce: show something and point out how offensive it could be to someone, write some snark and see the comments and shares pour in.

Yes, there are situations in which anger, frustration, snark and outrage are totally justifiable; it is far harder to tell where the line is today, because every celebrity comment or article or ad causes so much noise.

Recently, a CNN video with three people talking about a catcalling video from New York went viral. The phenomenon of catcalling and the racial and socioeconomic  implications of the video were so interesting, but that discussion was drowned out when everyone started sharing and discussing the video. CNN decided to pick an awfully offensive, sexist man to discuss the video (smart of them). Now all anyone can talk about is this nobody.

I write for a newspaper. I get it.

My editor-in-chief and other purists may disagree, but our job is, in a way, to sell newspapers””or, in Trinity’s case, to get people to pick one up. I have probably been guilty of writing a headline that crosses the line into manipulative or misleading. The days of yellow journalism come to mind with huge headlines that are meant to grab your attention when you walk past the newsstand””exact accuracy or factuality be damned.

When you spend as much time on the Internet as I do””an unhealthy amount””it is hard to distinguish a lot of things from each other if you don’t take the time to really analyze what’s around you. That is almost impossible when you scroll past hundreds of articles in a day.

I feel like I never take the time to think about why something caught my attention or why I shared it on my Facebook wall. Unlike the times when only a handful of newspapers controlled news output, there are now a million websites for that purpose””and we have less time than ever, making it much more difficult to analyze the content.

My hope is that there will be a trend away from headlines that make you curious and withhold information. But I doubt these sites will start policing themselves. We are only going to be more inundated by crap articles with crap headlines.

The responsibility to change that is up to us.  Gut reactions are important, but the most important thing is that we have to think for ourselves and not just repeat whatever a person in authority said, however intelligent they may be.There is a lot of injustice in the world, a lot of interesting content, a lot of real experiences””but it cannot be properly found and consumed if all other content is just as loud and demanding.