Clickbait and Its Discontent

How did clickbait come to dominate our political consciousness, dictate the terms of our elections, and degrade our civilization?
The things you click end up clicking you.

The past weekend was more than just the unraveling of the circus freak campaign of Donald Trump. It was the epitome, or maybe the nadir, of the sideshow style of politics that is in fact the central act in our political theatre. Step right up, folks, and see the Spectacle of Contemptible Things. A sexist billionaire, his lewd remarks, a female nominee against him—the sensation writes itself. All the great anxieties of our hormonal and attention-starved society combined into a perfect seasonal meme. For the newsrooms and the spin doctors, the thought merchants and bloggers, it was a field day. And the right-thinking consumers of America could marvel at the latest object of fixation and therapeutic loathing.

Allow me to describe what really was, or should have been, the biggest scoop last weekend. The Democratic presidential nominee was revealed to be a backroom-scheming handmaiden of Wall Street. She was shown, in no uncertain terms, not only to have lied to the public about her “private positions,” but also to extoll the virtue of lying. She was exposed as a solicitor of money from the same financial crooks who plundered our economy, while praising them for being the best to regulate themselves. She was proved, in other words, to be the mercenary shill and two-faced neoliberal that her campaign has tried so hard to prove she’s not. But none of that matters to our “national conversation,” because a sexist creep had said some nasty things a few years back.

It goes without saying that an inveterate prick like Mr. Trump is unfit to be president. This is, however, all that’s being said. For those of us who think that politics should be about more than shaming bad behavior, last weekend was a horror show of obfuscation. To those who think the next financial crisis won’t be caused by foul language, it was a moment of vanity and cowardice. It was as if the pundit class and its social media commentariat had decided, once and finally, to quit pretending that political discourse were something other than a tabloid echo chamber.

How many manufactured controversies, how many monetized scandals must we endure before we ask ourselves what the hell are we doing when we make the algorithms and formulae of rage cycles a central part of our political awareness?

Like it or not, we all should know the routine. Any given event—a public gaffe, a brutal massacre, a pop culture spectacle, an Internet meme—can be transfigured to a new outrage du jour. Without needing to be asked, the mongers of the chattering class descend, shoehorn in hand, upon the latest catch; before too long the flea market of thought is freshly filled anew. Their handiwork is easy enough to spot: the operatic shirt-rending, the wringing hands and gnashing of teeth; the baited headlines cast at their most lurid and most livid, yelling Click me! Everything must be tuned up to a used car salesman fever pitch. As the outrages proliferate, one is dragged to some wedge or another on a new culture divide. And all the while you are implored, by the doomsayers and preachers, to share if you agree

If history can provide a vantage point for sober retrospection, this election season may well be identified as the moment when outrage clickbait came to reign supreme. The personality cult-campaigns of both big parties may have driven this, but they were built upon a market process that was a long time in the making. A cottage industry of thought-baiters and rage-feeders has grown steadily blog by blog, tweet by breathless tweet. And yet the liberal assumption that the Market of Ideas would yield the best results has been exposed: nuance and complexity hardly can compete with shock and moral panic and tribalist instincts. The Invisible Hand of Clickbait has stuffed a wedge right through the fault lines in our culture; but at the very moment when our discourse is more fragmented than ever, the differences between the tribes are wider than they are deep.

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The spectacle is the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue. It is the self-portrait of power in the epoch of its totalitarian management of the conditions of existence.

—Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (1967).

What I have just described invites its own immediate rebuttal: Of course that is the Way Things Are, and how they’ve always been. Partisan bickering has been around for as long as stodgy old curmudgeons have been there to lament it. Today’s spectacle of viral outrage finds its nearest antecedent in the hucksters of ’90s-era right-wing radio—longtime specialists in the art of pandering to the aggressive and the aggrieved—and in the cable talk-show liberals who emerged soon after basically to mock them. The process was dialectical and mutually reinforcing. Either side could peddle opinions to its own special market niche, reaffirming long-held views and flinging mud in ancient rivalries; the more offensive or absurd or horrifying one side looked, the better for the other. It was both an echo chamber and a scabrous shouting spree, and all the while the studios and stations and network financiers could stack their ever-mounting dollars.

But the modern discourse is distinguished, I think, by the turbulent meeting of two currents: technological progress and economic instability.

If radio and television were the catalysts of media’s hyper-saturation, the Internet is that on speed. It has extended both the reach and the channels of mass media. More than that, social media and mobile networks have upended the traditional modes of content-trafficking, outsourcing to the consumer the simultaneous (and instantaneous) tasks of producer and distributor.

This disruption, coupled with the perils of the Great Recession, had greased the wheels of content farms and marketeers to generate some quick and easy bucks. Conveniently enough, there existed a vast and restless populace of networked individuals—equal parts supplier, dealer and user—eager to click along. Many of them are young and overeducated, as well as underemployed. Not a few have spent their formative years online, nursing on the instant fix of Likes or spoiling for a good old-fashioned troll. Add to this the glee of anonymity or the allure of online fame and you have a radical symbiosis of content-spreaders slavering to “join the conversation.”

Taken as a whole, our spectacle is a distributed process of social networks, media outlets, commercial sponsors, data miners, bloggers and consumers who circulate a currency of clicks. The speed and the spread of content, driven by the manic pursuit of profit, propel a market race-to-the-bottom that selects for easily digestible blurbs of outrage and hysteria. Meanwhile, the crises and contradictions of 21st century neoliberalism ensure a sound supply of fusses to be made. Every click, however cheaply earned, keeps the revenue engine running; each link or share is unpaid advertising. Our comments, likes and hashtags tell the data miners and their clients what to capitalize upon—and how best to do it, too.

It is vampire-like, to lift a phrase from Marx: it only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more it sucks.  But while the “labor” here in question is the surplus value of our clicks, the social cost is something more than simply a collective deficit of attention.

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Identity formation is inextricably linked to the urge to consume, and therefore the acceleration of capitalism necessitates an increase in the rate at which individuals assume and shed identities. The internet is one of many late capitalist phenomena that allow for more flexible, rapid, and profitable mechanisms of identity formation.

—Jonah Peretti, co-founder & CEO of BuzzFeed (1996).

The early prophets of the Information Age foretold a far more peachy view of things. They thought the decentralized structure of the Internet would democratize the market and the media: where corporate giants used to hold the reins on information and production, the Web would usher in a global, flattened playing field of self-determined and autonomous creators and exchangers—what the futurist Alvin Toffler called “prosumers.” It was an End of History-type fantasy that Fukuyama would approve, peopled by the sort of atomized and market-friendly Individuals only liberals could dream up.

Ironically, the arrival of prosumerist exchange was no wrench in the gears of capital. Quite the contrary—it made it more efficient. It was only by rebranding and restructuring the means of production and consumption that capital could thrive in a time of crisis.

Speaking of branding, consider the crowning feature of prosumerism: the personal brand. That this term is used today without a shred of irony reveals how totally we’ve submitted to the logic of commodification. But self-branding, in this sense, is not limited to those tools of marketing and self-promotion to potential employers; it is the essential point of every social media. A virtual “identity” is established by the user’s list of Likes and Interests, often measured in units of consumable goods; her activities and interactions, both online and off, are logged in a searchable Timeline; her thoughts are indexed in a stream of hashtags and reposts. The result is a bona fide Panopticon that classifies and sorts its myriad prosumers by their individualized metrics—their unique and personal brands—all the more to maximize the reach of content and advertisement, and to facilitate their spread to followers and friends. How many of us are conscious, as we click away the hours on social media, that what appears to be an idle exercise in gossip or expression is in fact a giant data dump for content farms and tailored ads?

The paradox of prosumerism gets starker and stranger the more you look at it. The usual critique of mass consumer culture is one of concentration and conformity: as power concentrates in an elite of corporate media gatekeepers, they inflict upon us all a drab and uninspired sameness. And yet the horizontal and decentralized structure of the Web did not upset the hierarchies of power; it only made them more diverse and user-friendly. And the more our social lives are “integrated” into the Web, the more gets swallowed up. At the very moment when the voices of prosumers are more amplified than ever, we are more tightly, and effectively, within the stranglehold of capital. We are in fact its cheapest salesmen.

For the market wastes no time to accommodate these prosumer identities, matching their demand with a spectacular array of content catered to their interests. If you aren’t careful, you might mistake this great variety for a thriving cultural discourse. But neither quality nor substance, nor even the range of content is guaranteed: these are governed, rather, by the brute and unrelenting diktat of the market. More specifically, content is engineered to scale. The trick is to minimize the cost (by underpaying writers, say, or foregoing edits altogether) and to maximize the reach—casting out for comments and likes and shares, while baiting algorithmic trends, to achieve optimal clickability.

It is insulting enough to be treated like such a coddled and reactive child. It is dispiriting to know that a few mad blokes are paid handsomely indeed to do it. The worst thing, of course, is that however we react (whether positively or negatively, or just to see what all the fuss is), we only reinforce the market trends that favor scaling over nuance, sensation over substance, quantity at the expense of quality. But if the content farms are merely furnishing the garbage that we feed on, it really works both ways: we only ruminate upon the cud that fills our feeds.

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Nobody wants to be a shill for your brand. But they are happy to share information and content that helps them promote their own identity.

—Jeff Greenspan, chief creative officer of BuzzFeed (2013).

So there are two competing needs that must be met for this to work. In the first place, the preferences and taste of individual users must be pandered to, including niches that make up the “long tail” of the market. Secondly, the peddlers of content must attract the greatest advertising revenue by appealing to the broadest base of likely clickers.

They meet in a happy equilibrium where content is designed to bait the lowest common denominator. The market may make room for specialists and niches, but only insofar as they align with scaling trends. Everyone competes to give the latest hot take on whatever trending topic comes along. (On a slow news day, which really means most, these “issues” can be conjured out of the blue. Some hot new take might be buzzworthy in and of itself.) Provocative headlines are only half the game. Content must be sufficiently digestible, to as many people as possible, so users’ online brands can identify with it—enough to like or share. Otherwise, it must be so offensive or repulsive to elicit the attention, and better yet response, of those in disagreement. And all of this takes place on social network feeds that filter content algorithmically, based on users’ interests and activity. The result is that there is a multiplicity of Internets existing simultaneously, reinforcing users’ views, yet rewarding cross-appealing content that resembles that which came before. Is this why the landscape of our culture’s discourse looks so stale and stultifying? And does this sound to anyone like the basis of an informed republic?

Since information is a commodity, subject to the whims of scalability, our politics are built upon an industry that runs on making people mad. Content thus must gravitate to one or more of several wedge issues about which thoughts are deeply held. Usually this means piggybacking on the latest public backlash, and if you’re lucky enough your content might cause one itself. In any case, the algorithms and the public collude in making sure that only the most lurid topics, and their loudest profiteers, are visible. The product is not meant to be informative; the purpose is to satiate the public’s need to feel informed by pandering the most aggressively—and so, divisively—to users’ online brands.

An entire generation of content farmers, inexpensive spin doctors, and the unpaid clickers they depend on are conditioned to sniff out the cheapest backlash bits, mould them into predetermined narratives, and bicker on about them endlessly.

A few key points can be teased out from all this. The marketplace selects for political content that can sufficiently engage an audience to induce its reproduction. In a hyper-saturated market, this means pandering to vertically specialized tastes or interests; but it also means exploiting generalist trends and viral sensibilities. A sort of Gresham’s Law takes hold that has a cheapening effect on both accounts—with an unpleasant tinge of muckraking—and over time it tends to leave our discourse with the very worst of narcissistic impulses and market-mediocrity.

It is perhaps that mix of individualized fragmentation, with generalist scalability, that keeps our spirited discourse sterile none the less. It helps also to explain why only the most simplistic and market-friendly version of identity politics (the kind that locates consumer culture, or individual success, or interpersonal pathology as the site of “social justice”) predominates. The whole game works by sorting out identities for scalable marketeering. Divisions are sown along the most indexable criteria, all but guaranteeing that the surface will prevail over the substance. The multiplicity of voices and viewpoints can only mask, as much as it ensures, that our politics are reduced to a bumper-sticker sport of outrage and one-upmanship—the hashtaggification of political debate.

It is a sign of capital in decline, where the personal takes over the social, the subjective over the systemic, the cultural over the material; where the great questions of social reorganization are ignored, and drowned out, while we bicker about language and optics. It is the illusion of choice in a smorgasbord of sameness: a thousand little micro-narratives, shouting salty nothings over one another.

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The ruthless unity in the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics….Something is provided for all so that none may escape…the technique is that used for any type of propaganda.

—Adorno & Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944).

If the totalitarian impulse, as Orwell understood it, is premised on the love for Big Brother, that love is deepened and sustained by the uncritical hate of some Big Other. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, that figure is the elusive Emmanuel Goldstein, the enemy of the state whom every prole in Oceania is made to execrate in a daily public ritual. The ritual is both enraging and cathartic, all the better to procure obedience and conformity. But the key insight of Orwell is even subtler: the reversal of the principle (i.e., the sympathy, or even love, of Emmanuel Goldstein) is no insurance against the herd. As the would-be rebel Winston Smith is swiftly to discover, to travel down the left-hand path of Goldstein’s heterodox beliefs is to be lured into a trap set by the Party to contain the proles who’ve gone astray.

Without drawing too close of an analogy between our world and Oceania, I think a broader point can be made here about the subtleties of power and consensus. Power does not need conformity alone, but will tolerate dissent and competition. And it will tolerate them, all the more to circumscribe and contain them. (Dissent can be manufactured altogether—the bogeyman of Goldstein may not even be real.) The point is made more starkly by the geopolitics of Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which three nightmarish superstates exist in constant war: “a warfare of limited aims between combatants who are unable to destroy one another, have no material cause for fighting and are not divided by any genuine ideological difference.”

Our political culture reproduces that arrangement in miniature. Why else do we perceive that while our partisan squabbles are more feverish than ever, the options there before us are virtually indistinguishable? The differences are heightened to the same degree that they are shallow. It is a narcissism of small differences, as Sigmund Freud once called it, even if those differences are multiplied and magnified. Though new perspectives and dissensions are invented every day, every new thing that is permitted to be said implies that which is not. And left up to a market that rewards the superficial, what is left unsaid is that which challenges the status quo.

The entire spectacle of the 2016 election has shown how rotten and delimiting our discourse has become. To see what I mean, consider the following. Two populist, “insurgent” primary campaigns (one right-wing, one left) threatened to topple their respective party bigwigs and to nominate an “outsider” opposed to the Washington consensus. One succeeded, the other crumbled miserably. Why? There are many reasons, but chief among them, as far as mass and social media were concerned, was that the social democratic platform of Senator Bernie Sanders (premised as it was on the boring task of curbing capital and empire) was hardly as marketable as Hillary Clinton’s brand of bourgeois feminism. In point of fact, Mr. Sanders’ emphasis on capital and class was roundly derided by the courtier press as brocialistic. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has been unafraid to play Ms. Clinton’s game of identity politicking: reactionary trolling is his brand, and a scalable one indeed. And every sensible thing that Mr. Trump has said—on foreign policy, for instance, or neoliberal trade—gets buried in the litany of problematic rot.

Trumpbait has fast become one of two defining features of our political discourse (the other being, naturally, the anatomy of Hillary Clinton), and it serves two competing, but mutually beneficial, ideologies. For one, it reconfirms to liberals the obvious dangers of Trump’s candidacy and the need to fall uncritically in line with Clinton. For another, it vindicates the reactionaries’ anger and the lure of their appointed clown. As was revealed in Clinton’s e-mails, this was very much by design: the Clinton camp was “elevating” Trump, deliberately, before the race began. Every liberal dolt declaiming Trump as some sui generis “threat to democracy” should take a good hard look away from their own navel and straight into a mirror.

By the looks of it, the election has been turned into an apocalyptic struggle of personality and rhetoric. The liberals have given up the antiwar and workers’ causes, in exchange for a neutered “social justice” made by technocratic wonks. Conservatives keep on searching for the limit of new lows, lavishing in “political incorrectness.” And at the end of our charade of moral bullying and frivolity, the rulers can perform their staged election.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the outcome will be frivolous. As I have written elsewhere (e.g., here and here), the outcomes are quite bleak. But I do suspect that something’s terribly amiss when all our Very Serious experts and self-important bloggateurs are profiteering from the lowest-hanging fruit. It is an ideological safety valve of capital in crisis. It allows us to displace and to project our deep anxieties on paper tigers or scapegoats—to sensationalize the present as we sanitize the past—and thus to leave the status quo unscathed. Most of all it sorts us by a crude and falsified division that is designed to muffle genuine critique.

What does it mean for our politics when Ronald Reagan is invoked, as an example of “sane” leadership, by Republicans and Democrats alike? What does it say about our discourse when a principal dispute is not whether—but rather where and how obnoxiously—our president should plague the lives of Muslims? What sort of farce of an election lets the genitalia of its candidates turn out very well to be dispositive? This is a shabby and abortive parody of an adversarial system. We all have been conscripted as cheerleaders in a spirited debate about the table manners of the ruling class.

The last time I wrote about the state of clickbait culture, I offered this analogy:

Imagine one’s frustration in the face of genuine danger, when preempted days before by a crowd of false alarmists, howling “Wolf!” in unison.

At the time, I thought the sturm und drang of content farms and thought merchants would lull us, trigger-happily, into a click-induced sleep of disbelief and disillusion. I was half-right, it turns out; the problem isn’t that we no longer believe, but rather that we do. Distraction is the compliment that virtue pays to vice, and the garbage that you click on ends up clicking you. By way of amendment, allow me to return to (and to paraphrase) George Orwell yet again. If you want a vision of the political future, imagine a mouse clicking on a human brain—forever.

Barcelona, 2016.

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