Content Wars: On Algorithms, Click-bait and Patronage

Anyone else feeling a bit bemused right now about the recent acquisition of ViralNova for US $100 Million?

Let me explain.

ViralNova is that spider (‘content farm‘) that goes around scooping up so-called viral stories, and aggregates (I’m trying not to say ‘curates’) them on their platform, which is designed for easy ‘sharing’ on other social media sites. As this Motherboard article outlines, they also house serious content management systems, designed to analyse the viral factor.

The thing about this is its scale. We—the little guy or gal—end up with our ‘architect of choice’ being an algorithm, whether we want it or not. Such is its reach and its connections with other social media platforms like Facebook.

Let Google decide

First of all, as a content creator myself, and co-editor of a literary quarterly, I could despair on a daily basis if I thought about where the big money for content is going. Mostly I don’t think about it, because it’s counter-productive, and I like what I do. But when a company gets paid that much to regurgitate for clicks, I feel a bit sad.

Is it helping us? Is it fostering diversity of opinion? Is it a sustainable model for supporting content creators? 

(Of course not. But that’s not their goal.)

thirtyhundredmillionthirty by @libby_ol

Secondly, I’ve been keeping half an eye on the Facebook back end: the algorithms change from week to week, and it’s difficult to stay abreast of the best strategies for biggest reach, if you want to use the platform for spreading a message.

For example, one of the latest things (I’m probably already out of date) is that high engagement from your ‘page-likers’ rewards you by bumping your post to the top of their feeds, and automatically gives you a higher ranking (reward?) the next time you post.

Which is kind of like saying, ‘the popular kids and the squeaky wheels get the most attention’.

Actually, it makes it almost laughable for someone to produce a post that’s not what I term ‘drama for drama’s sake’. I mean, all hail the power of storytelling for engagement and all that, but we don’t need social media for that, we have real life. The internet was going to be the place where we could be heard, no matter how quiet our voice.

Now? Not so much.

(If you’re interested, Joanna Penn has interviewed Jeffrey Kaffer, who talks about how he has used Facebook marketing to good effect—after a lot of experimentation.)

FB helper
How well do you know this person? Facebook ‘helps’ us see interesting content. But how do they define ‘interesting’? Stuff we wouldn’t otherwise see? Or just the stuff our besties post?

Thirdly: in some camps, this debate seems to be headed towards a sharp divide: pulp versus highbrow. Let’s face it, plot-driven story feeds the click-bait machine, and ‘plot’, to some, is synonymous with ‘pulp’.

Yet I’m not sure labelling all other content ‘highbrow’ (as the aforementioned Motherboard article does) is a good way to describe what’s going on. The term ‘highbrow’ is loaded—not necessarily in a good way—and brings to mind terms like curation, literary, esoteric, elite.

But are we therefore thinking that any content that’s not pulp, regurgitated, echo-chamber content is all of a sudden highbrow?

Actually, I think it comes down to clutching at terminology because we’re wanting the same kind of reassurance that simple dichotomies like ‘quantity versus quality’ provide. And we’re looking for the security that ‘highbrow’ institutions like publishing houses once offered: the stamp of approval.

Yes, we have a bit of a digital content curation problem.

Even if we can get away from click-bait, how are we to filter the good stuff from the tripe? Who is doing the filtering? Who is taking responsibility?

Think for a moment about the drama a few years back when a tabloid reported that ‘amateur pubbed’ books with explicit content were readily available for anyone to purchase on Amazon and other platforms, in an ‘epidemic of filth’. In response, Kobo pulled all the indie-pubbed books from their shelves for a short period of time. (Amazon didn’t.)

If Kobo wants to make a stand about their ethics (read/watch Michael Tamblyn’s take), then so be it. They may have dealt with the situation in a less than optimal way (read Orna Ross from the Alliance of Independent Authors here) but, as a company, they may choose whichever moral high ground they like. For some companies, the goal isn’t to get all the customers, but to get the right customers.

(I’ll continue to use them, partly because I respect their right to hold company values and to stand by them—and to ‘learn as they grow’ in an ever-changing industry—and partly because, for an author, limiting your ‘products’ to being sold exclusively on one platform (like Amazon) isn’t a great idea in the longer term.)

So, as David Gaughran asksHow do you come to a consensus about what’s objectionable and what isn’t?

Well, we can’t leave it to the search engines.

Although these days Google and Yahoo are basically in the ads businesses, they are historically grounded in net neutrality and, unlike the media (TV, radio) broadcasters of old, they don’t carry the responsibility of ‘filtering for our families’, for example (which is a sort of 1950s construct in itself). They do provide free tools for people who want to filter search results, understand privacy, and for content management. Which is great … if you know how to use them.

But in reality it’s us—the user—who has to step up, take responsibility, and Do the Filtering.

So … circling back, then, to ViralNova, and the only thing I can say is that I may be dismayed about this kind of regurgitation-click-bait as it pertains to the quality of our content, but I think there are solutions.

And it’s going to come down to the way we view the value of content.

The ‘subscription’ model didn’t work very well when it became a thing a few years back (certainly not for magazines), because loyal readers expected their web content to be free, and they sure didn’t like being hit with a paywall … without being consulted.

New York Review of Books Paywall
New York Review of Books paywall screenshot

But it seems attitudes are shifting, and people are starting to realise that ‘curated’ content is a handy, time-saving thing, if you trust the provider. (I was a little surprised to see that in 2013, 25% of newspaper publishers reported an increase in traffic when they introduced a paywall, where only 30% reported a drop.)

In the past couple of years we’ve seen the launch of platforms like Patreon and of course various crowd-funding platforms, which allow people to pay creators per project, with the artist providing tasty kick-backs for the patron. And then there’s the reverse paywall, which is a similar concept.

Making money through a crowd funding platform appears to be largely proportional to how willing and able you (as creator) are to engage with your patrons. Either way (Facebook, Patreon, whatever), the creator MUST engage … if their goal is to gain followers/likers and perhaps even turn that into cash.

But when a creator is busy with the task of engaging, are they able to find time to create?

Thing is, most content creators I know will continue to do what they do, regardless of whether or not they’re ‘seen’ … or whether you pay them to create. Because being driven and able to produce good content isn’t a gift bestowed from above. The writers and artists I know work hard and regularly … they’re disciplined, and they do the work.

Yes, some might have less time to create if they’re working two day jobs or if they’re wrangling kids, and some might not have an aptitude for engaging and sharing their work.

But, in general, people who create content do it because they love it, and they often develop solid networks of people who share the same care for their craft. Online and (gasp!) off.

Those networks provide endorsement and the stamp of ‘quality’ … as defined by that particular network. Which might be ‘highbrow’, or it might be a niche market of readers who love unicorn alternate reality fiction.

But most content creators worth their weight know their ‘customers’ aren’t the entire world. Most know there’s wisdom in niche-ing.

Because—believe it or not—not everyone’s shooting for ‘viral’, just as not every artist believes their work can only be good if they’re poor and living in a garret. There’s value in working to foster a context and a community that suits us and our ideas, and there’s value in taking the time to do it.

Whether we decide to support a particular content creator with our voice and/or our wallet is up to us, but it’s the act of support itself that brings about a solid economy of connection.

How we find those creators, however … well, that’s the trick.

Do we read the algorithm’s recommended click-bait? Or do we ask someone we admire who they’re reading at the moment … and, in turn, let others know about those creators whose words and content move us?

N.B. The week after I posted this, MamaMia magazine (big publication) changed their platform to get rid of clickbait in response to readers’ requests.


Here are a few content-makers I know: DBIidaJillJo. Kaye. MeganStefanoSusan. I could go on, but there’s a start.

And don’t forget to sign up for my mailing list for news about upcoming projects and find out about more excellent people who are doing excellent things. (Like Sam and Antonio.)


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