One of the standard suggestions given to “content creators” is to focus on making things you like. Don’t worry what other people think. Just because King Crimson is driving the kids wild with a 17/16 drum beat doesn’t mean the youths won’t respond to other time signatures. Trying too hard to emulate somebody can often come across as derivative and disingenuous. Nobody likes that. There shouldn’t be a formula to success. If something is good – like a high quality baseball field for dead players – they will come.
But recently, I’ve begun to notice one particular way of orienting content that does seem to get a lot of traction. Ironically, the worse something appears to be, the more successful it is.
Before I get into that too much, let me point to an interesting example in my own life. As I mention all the time, I’ve been doing a lot of writing for Cracked.com. They’re a big website, and every article I’ve written has gotten hundreds of comments. It’s been incredibly fun and interesting to scroll through the comments and see just what sort of people feel the need to have their voice heard on an article about the implications of living in a sitcom universe at noon on weekday. Predictably, many of these commenters pop up solely to espouse nonsense or further the discussion, but I’ve started to notice a more negative trend as well.
An article I’ve written about before – the one about movie propaganda – was ripped apart by pissed-off commenters. Apparently this comedy article about Angry Birds was “ridiculous, pretentious, unfounded, hacky, and trite.” One guy suggested I try and criticize Shakespeare instead. But only if I thought I was scholarly enough.
You’d think with comments like that, the thing would crash and burn, right? I mean, who wants to read an article by an author who needs to be “treated for his paranoia?”
*Granted, being forced to watch Angry Birds for money was an out-of-body experience.*
Commenters believed Cracked had betrayed by allowing such filth onto their hallowed servers. From nowhere a Leftist propaganda piece perfectly engineered to brainwash its readers into finding something wrong with their beloved children’s films was unleashed onto an unsuspecting and ill-prepared world.
On the other hand, a more recent article about crimes with goofy twists, received wonderful comments. Commenters were mentioning how it was “classic Cracked,” and that they “hope [I] keep writing.” Just all-around encouraging stuff. Finally, an article on bloody crime you can share with the whole family around the dinner table, right?
Wrong. The difference in the view count between these articles is some 300,000 views. 300,000! Somehow the awful propaganda article that nobody should ever read is significantly more popular than the “classic” article that brings a ray of sunshine into the hearts of all who read it. How? Why?
Well, I’m starting to believe this is because we don’t really want to read anything that makes us feel good. Sure, we like a few stories about puppies who became magicians or magicians who got a real job, but that’s not what really gets us going. We’d much rather read something that makes us feel pure, unadulterated rage.
I’m convinced that Milo Yiannopoulos success had less to do with an affinity for his views or methods and more with hate for his views and methods. Countless people shared his articles because they thought he was “ridiculous.” Comments like, “Hillary Clinton is funded by people who murder homosexuals” seem clearly targeted at getting hate-views. He’s also said, “I hope to offend every reader.” The dude knows that’s how he gets shares. Not by exhaustively seeking out truth but by crafting his comments to offend as many people as possible. That’s how you get shares.
I know people that follow Trump on Twitter just so they can get angry about the things he writes. People watch Bill Maher because he says things that don’t make sense. People just love to hate and to show everybody how much they hate something. That’s basically what social media is now.
And so if that’s the case, what are businesses supposed to do?
I’m not accusing Cracked of trying to profit off these realities, but look at this particular situation from their perspective. Cracked isn’t your kindly Grandmother telling morality tales in the hopes that you’ll become a better person. They’re a business with employees that is constantly finding ways to pay them. They even pay me! They’ve got a mission in mind, sure, but they also need to make money. They’re looking for the best ways to do that.
Advertisers don’t care if their ads pop up on an article about weird crimes or Angry Birds, they just want clicks and sales. Cracked knows this, and tries everything they can to run articles that people will actually read. And whether they intentionally run controversial stuff or not, it’s the edgier stuff that seems to get more shares and notoriety. In a lot of ways that’s becoming almost more important than running things that people like.
So what can we do about this?
My primary suggestion to all you internet trolls out there is to just chill out. Obviously that’s a reductively simple answer, but I think it’s an important to internalize and think about. We’re becoming addicted to anger. This is harmful to us as people and harmful to us as a society. This is how we get a society where our most popular celebrities are people we “love to hate” rather than genuinely good, honest people. It’s not cool or helpful to seek out things that make us angry or further confirm our biases about how stupid the Left or the Right is. Seek out articles and art that are hilarious or heartwarming or inspiring or even challenging. Share those things.
We can share things that are controversial or politically-charged or whatever, but try and share things that are actual opinions that real people have. And provide healthy comment on them. Don’t just pop up and tell people how stupid they are. By changing the things we consume, we’ll change the things that are created.
And no matter what, please read my articles.
Even if you hate them.