Buzzfeed, AJ, Vox, The Huffington Post, Business Insider, The Intercept: Despite their many differences that any media critic could point out, these fast-growing media organisations all have something profound in common – as purely digital publications, they rely heavily on analytics to determine which articles are being read and tailor their content accordingly.
A recent polemic on Al Jazeera argues that virality – a phenomenon in which a piece of information is circulated rapidly and widely from one Internet user to another and can sometimes be harnessed by those well-versed in social media – is diminishing the quality of journalism. Specifically, the article looks at the young community managers, “digital prodigies”, web designers, and social media analysts that complement most modern newsrooms.
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A closer reading reveals that the fight isn’t with virality at all but, rather, with youth and inexperience.
As such it comes across as an admonition of innovation in the newsroom, when in fact virality is a phenomenon closely studied by psychologists and marketing experts alike, in some of the most vaunted universities in the world.
A profit-driven phenomenon
That is not to say the piece’s arguments shouldn’t be taken seriously; in fact, many of the points the author makes are worth addressing, if only to point out how wrong they are.
The modern media organisation is indeed dependent on digital talent. Video producers – like those who have made AJ famous – web designers, whose work has made The Intercept’s new format soar, and yes, even social media mavens make sure that, in the internet age, content gets seen.
News organisations both big and small hire these tech-savvy, often worldly young people with multidisciplinary backgrounds to ensure that, in an ever-changing media environment, their content can compete. But why is such competition necessary?
Just as in the past, when newspapers sold entire pages to companies to hawk their wares, news organisations are dependent on advertising.
Today’s media industry is still trying to find a solid revenue model. Just as in the past, when newspapers sold entire pages to companies to hawk their wares, news organisations are dependent on advertising.
But unlike those days, today’s advertisements are dependent on clicks. That’s where digital analytics come in: In order for advertisers to get eyes on their products and services, they must turn to an increasingly sophisticated suite of analytics tools.
In other words, because media companies rely on advertising to stay afloat, they have an imperative to market their content in a way that reaches the most readers. Clickbaity headlines are not, therefore, the fault of young “smorgs”, but of the media industry’s primary profit motive.
We should be more concerned with the amount of advertising content masquerading as journalism, as lampooned in a recent episode of South Park, or with the algorithms employed by social media companies that filter the information we see and tailor content to our professed or assumed interests.
By contrast, virality requires consent: No matter how much a headline “baits” us, we still make the choice of whether or not to click.
Virality has allowed content that is popular with the public to prevail, and should not be recognised as a net negative – a phenomenon that has allowed cute cats and celebrity gossip to float to the top, thus degrading journalism.
One need only look briefly at the modern media landscape to realise that, actually, virality has been a net positive.
From Tiananmen to Tahrir
Compare, for example, coverage of Tiananmen with coverage of Tahrir. Although the famous “Tank Man” photograph was snapped by an American AP photographer, overall, global coverage of the protests was limited and the lenses through which individuals in different geographic regions viewed them greatly varied.
Undoubtedly, someone who grew up in Moscow has a different view of the Cold War than someone who grew up in Los Angeles.
By and large, the modern media has levelled that playing field, and Angelenos and Muscovites alike can watch RT, read The New York Times, and view any number of other sources to make up their minds about an event.
Twenty-two years after Tiananmen and a lifetime away from the journalism of the 1980s, the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square brought not only mainstream news crews, but smaller outlets, freelancers, and even bloggers to the table.
These varied actors were able to challenge the often Orientalist mainstream narrative, and – thanks to social media – share their content with the world.
The same rings true five years later for other movements. It seems highly unlikely that, in the days before the internet, #BlackLivesMatter would have made it to the front page of the New York Times – or, for that matter, that it would’ve happened on such a large scale at all.
It is because of virality, because of the ability of anyone to create and disseminate content or a hashtag that the world was able to stand up in solidarity with the protesters of St Louis.
This is in great contrast to the compelling stereotypes unleashed by the corporate-controlled media following the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The internet’s exhausting range of platforms has allowed us to push back against the colonialism of image and identity that was once forced upon us by the handful of major media companies with special access.
The internet’s original sin?
None of my disagreement with these notions should be taken as implicit support for the virality-seeking profit model – which Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Center for Civic Media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-creator of pop-up advertising, calls “the internet’s original sin” – or for the grabs for content control currently being made by Facebook and Google, among others.
But when anyone says that digital promotion should have a limited role in determining the “seriousness, substance or even style” of journalism, what are the proposers’ alternatives? The argument, when taken to its logical conclusion, would lead to more paywalls, more content sequestered from the broader news-consuming public.
In place of the diverse array of content that can be accessed now, by nearly anyone with a connection, we might see a redivision of resources, a re-opening of the divide that used to exist when only the elite could access or afford – much less influence – anything but their hometown paper. We may see opinions like this one and my rebuttal to it effectively disappear.
On balance, we simply have to understand virality for what it really is: a means through which truly great content and cute cat videos alike have become available to the world, as well as the means by which news organisations now make money.
We must therefore make digital literacy a priority – so as to ensure readers know how to responsibly consume the media that surrounds them – than something to be mocked.
Jillian C York is a writer and activist whose work focuses on the intersection of technology and politics.
Matthew Stender is project strategist for OnlineCensorship.org, a website that allows social media users to report incidents of content takedowns across social media platforms.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.