Clickbait Kills Platform Quality

Should you produce digital garbage to feed the algorithm?

Photo taken in Brussels, Belgium by Goetz Heinen on Unsplash

There are internet typists and there are writers.

The first will produce a steady stream of content filler to feed the algorithm at all costs — structure, syntax, vocabulary, and typos be damned. The second, meanwhile, will take the time to think things through, edit, and rewrite to ensure final copy is nothing less than their best work at any given time.

The difference between the two is easy to spot: Internet typists go for quantity while writers go for quality.

No matter how editorially proficient or uncommonly talented you might be, no one pens seven quality 1,500 word personal essays every day, five days a week.

But when your background is content marketing, you can crank out filler with your eyes closed if you’ve mastered the art of saying nothing with as many words as possible just to fill up the page. Because that’s what companies who know nothing about copywriting or marketing pay you for.

And when your background is journalism, you can crank out a steady stream of triple-sourced short news pieces because that’s your job. And you run on curiosity, caffeine, adrenaline, and a certain amount of masochism.

But there’s a huge difference between content writing, news reporting, and essays you pour your heart and guts into.

Filler copy is often presented with a controversial headline designed to hijack your attention.

Click on it and the piece collapses like a soufflé amidst recycled opinions and quotes.

Such pieces aren’t even designed to be read, only skimmed.

In short, those who churn them out expect you to read what’s in bold and ignore the rest. If you do that, you won’t even notice how poorly written they are or that there’s no message within. The one goal here is to secure your engagement rather than make you think.

Because many readers enjoy what’s familiar and can be easily consumed without resistance, such pieces are insanely popular.

Let’s take the listicle, a format devoid of originality with no narrative structure whatsoever that can be read during a trip to the bathroom. And just as promptly forgotten. The listicle serves no purpose other than to update the content stream and thus feed the algorithm.

Unfortunately, the more of those there are on any platform, the harder it gets to identify copy worth reading. Wade through enough copy filler and you might just give up reading altogether in frustration.

This is like opening Netflix. You spend an inordinate amount of time going through everything on offer until you find something worth watching, assuming you actually do. Unless you know exactly what you’re looking for.

And yet, internet typists will be the first ones to expound at length about being writers, as if it were a badge of honor.

Is it, or do they just like the job title?

The greatest gift you can bestow upon another human is attention.

To demand it by any means necessary is disingenuous, but to boast about how this is your job makes a mockery of the craft of writing.

Writing is a craft, one that internet typists sully with their logorrhea. If they had more respect for it, they wouldn’t be so grabby by pushing out a steady stream of garbage bona fide writers can’t possibly compete with.

This, in a nutshell, is the problem of the audience engagement model whereby writers are paid by the click. Or the slap in the face when a piece that has taken a lot of heart to write and received editorial approval bombs because it is too challenging on an intellectual level.

In such a cutthroat economy, no wonder few freelancers abide by stringent editorial standards. Unless you’re a professional, chances are you’ve never come across a style guide or a code of ethics.

Alas, editorial standards do not always translate into a decent pay check and even freelancers have to eat.

Ours is a precarious profession, and solidarity isn’t exactly the byword even though we do far better work when we collaborate. In fact, we often go further than we would have on our own. A diligent (copy) editor will take an average piece and make it shine, crowning it with a catchy but earnest headline. And an editor is just one instrument in the editorial orchestra that makes good writing happen on any platform or in any publication.

When you go it alone, you need to be able to carry out various editorial functions that seem to elude most internet typists. For example, it is quite difficult to edit your own work. There are ways around it, but they are all time-consuming and yet they make a huge difference in the quality of the finished product.

It is much easier to push out garbage rather than your best work when the only goal is to achieve critical mass and a fat bottom line.

But when your craft happens to be your vocation, compromising ethics for clicks isn’t even an option.

At the end of the day, your byline is your reputation.

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

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