Clickbait is Dehumanizing Writing

What to do about the unstoppable growth of the online garbage patch?

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Photo by Gary Chan on Unsplash

The internet has empowered a trash vortex.

In an attention-based economy, shock and awe is one way to get noticed even though some practitioners seem to have misconstrued the idea. Instead of delivering words that read like a punch in the gut and a heartfelt confirmation of our shared humanness, their take is pure schlock and aw.

Rather than humanize universal issues, they use thoughtless headlines hijack our attention and garner clicks by causing a strong emotional reaction.

No topic is off-limits, not even the most difficult aspects of a woman’s reality like abortion or rape that demand careful treatment in print. When we do not approach those topics with the sensitivity and care they deserve, the potential for causing distress and reactivating trauma in vulnerable women is high.

Journalists know they have a duty of care toward their audience and they abide by a strict code of conduct. Although it varies from one organization and one country to the next, the gist is always the same: accuracy, human decency, harm limitation. What’s more, no piece gets published before going through at least one round of careful editing to ensure work meets editorial standards.

Depending on the mission statement of the publication you write for and their target audience, said standards can differ.

Alas, the above is seldom common knowledge among those who fancy themselves as writers simply because they’re typing on the internet.

Those we write for or seek to reach should always be at the forefront of our mind.

Writing is service, not self-serving. If we aren’t committed to informing, educating, or entertaining those who do us the courtesy of reading our work, what are we writing for?

Despite claiming honesty and authenticity as guiding principles, some online copy is just wordy ego massage. Because America worships celebrity and money, anyone who goes after both with barefaced greed can succeed.

In a country where capitalism and individualism trump fellow feeling, we can’t help but admire those who pursue material success at all cost. This happens regardless of whether they contribute anything to society.

Unfortunately, it is society that foots the bill. The more we humor those grabby writers by feasting at the overflowing trough of stultifying clickbait, the less enlightened we all get.

And the more disconnected, too. Clickbait is seldom revelatory and unlikely to spark epiphanies among readers. Instead, it uses native storytelling to push personal branding or a product and teaches us nothing.

If pandering to the lowest common denominator is a quick way to line one’s pockets, it isn’t a viable long-term editorial strategy.

And it is no way to become a respected professional either.

There’s a difference between spinning human predicaments for clicks and offering insight.

You can generally spot said difference in the headline, which reflects the rest of the piece. A clickbaity title never bodes well so proceed at your peril. Then again, if you’re curious to a fault and the hopeful, open-minded type, you might still click and read.

And emerge a few minutes later incandescent with rage at having wasted precious time feeding your mind junk food. This kind of copy is easy to identify as it rehashes clichés and recycled opinions without furthering our understanding of what it means to be a human in the world.

Beside embodying the kind of writing we should avoid consuming and producing, it adds zero value.

If writers weren’t grabby, clickbait probably wouldn’t exist. But when your survival depends on the audience engagement model, you must feed the algorithm. The temptation to monetize everything from an ingrown nail to their inner monologue while they’re on the toilet to what they did on vacation in the most attention-grabbing way possible is irresistible to some.

If your sole motivation for writing is popularity and profit, quantity and critical mass are all that matters, never quality.

Some copy is all about those who write it. Human dignity and ethics aren’t even on their radar; they only care about getting paid, not who might read their words.

And if another human gets distraught as a result of such shoddy editorial practices, how will anyone even know?

Words and their impact on others matter.

Creating work that is the fruit of daring to think out loud and differently in a world of copycats and clones isn’t for everyone.

But this is what writers do.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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