Monday, January 5, 2015

One Amazing Old Trick to Make Millions!

Shocking Top Ten Made Easy!
photo credit
Andrew Marantz in the New Yorker recently profiled young Emerson Spartz, crowning him King of Clickbait. The Spartz new-media company made millions in ad revenue last year, and attracted even more millions in venture capital. At 27, Spartz is widely admired, the article says, he's "inspiring," "awesome," "impressive." One of his investors is quoted as calling him "a Steve Jobs kind of guy...I think his stuff is indicative of where digital media is heading."

If that's true it's heading in the direction of manipulation on the order of Orwellian cubed. And theft. Theft is very old news, and apparently very new media. For that seems to be how the Spartz sites make money. They steal the work of others.

 It's not just that Spartz is a self-righteous Philistine whose idea of how to make a great song is to get 40 people to record vocals, ask thousands of people to pick their favorite, then use the winner. "To me, that’s a trickle in an ocean of possible ways you could improve every song on the radio, he says. "Art is that which science has not yet explained.”

 Or even that his model for success is relentless cynicism, which is admittedly widely shared among those trying to get attention through the Internet. His websites are all about attracting traffic, and learning what content and packaging attracts the most traffic at a given moment.

 It's the same sort of technique that fills my inbox with email appeals for political donations that vary mostly by the subject line and the purported sender. (At least I hope President Obama isn't spending a lot of time drawing boxes for me to check beside the amount of my donation.) The idea is to throw a lot of subject lines out there, see which ones succeed the best, take the top five or so and use them, throw out the rest, and invent another five to test tomorrow. Or more likely, later today.

 Similar techniques are used to test and select photos and copy, including the kind that appear as ads on just about every web site, and contribute to making otherwise substantive sites look and feel like the back pages of tabloid papers and cheap magazines.

 But moron bait (and there's a moron lurking in all of us) is only part of it. There's the content, and where it comes from. One of Spartz Inc.'s sites, called Dose, publishes lists. (Lots of sites do that these days, because as Spartz proclaims, "Lists just hijack the brain's neural circuitry." This is your brain.  This is your brain on the Internet.)

 For example, “23 Photos of People from All Over the World Next to How Much Food They Eat Per Day.” But all Spartz did was slightly repackage this information (as other similar sites had already done.) They didn't do the research, and didn't even link to the guys who did, let alone pay them a fee or a cut of their winnings.

 On Dose, the list got 200,000 page views, very good for advertisers, and very good for Dose. The New Yorker:

 'The Dose post, which received more Facebook shares than its precursors, briefly mentioned D’Aluisio and Menzel (though D’Aluisio’s name was misspelled). But their book, “What I Eat,” went unmentioned, and they certainly did not share in the advertising revenue. “This took us four years and almost a million dollars, all self-funded,” Menzel told me. “We are trying to make that money back by selling the book and licensing the images. But these viral sites—the gee-whiz types that are just trying to attract eyeballs—they don’t pay for licensing. They just grab stuff and hope they don’t get caught."' 

 But when you have no respect at all for content or for authorship, theft is probably not how you think about it. Spartz admits that content is of no interest to him: "We considered making Dose more mission-driven,” he said. “Then I thought, rather than facing that dilemma every day—what’s going to get views versus what’s going to create positive social impact?—it would be simpler to just focus on traffic.” 

 As someone who creates "content" (i.e. writes stuff) on the Internet, I'm waiting for the argument that convinces me that making millions from somebody else's work isn't theft. Sure seems like it to me. Maybe it doesn't occur to them that real people have worked to gather information, judge its value, see patterns, check it, find where it fits in larger contexts, craft it into a story etc. or even a damn list. Because most of their work is done by mindless algorithms.

 But not even that charitable excuse will wash. Spartz himself says why. On earlier sites they featured novel combinations of images, with text that reflected at least a few minutes of online research—but with Dose “we’ve stopped doing that as much because more original lists take more time to put together, and we’ve found that people are no more likely to click on them.” 

 Right--stealing is so quick and easy! Let other people do the creative and actual work. It's been the secret of success for generations of robber barons. How inspiring!

What's really amazing is that Spartz got started at the age of 12 by creating a Harry Potter fan site. He got to meet J.K. Rowling. Does he now think that the way to create a Harry Potter saga is to propose alternative plot points, and choose what happens by vote? Not that plot is the only factor in the saga's success--there's characters and their characteristics, descriptions, inventions, pacing, chapter order, chapter content, sentence rhythms, right down to the individual words. Not to mention the values, morality and emotion within it all. Got algorithms for that? And if you did, do you really think the whole Potter thing would have happened, including inspiring a 12 year old in Chicago to create a fan site?

 And how do you suppose Jo Rowling feels about somebody appropriating somebody else's creative work--say, Harry Potter? Maybe let her lawyers answer that for you, although she's been known to show up in court herself to defend her intellectual property.

 The New Yorker article mentions an internal study at the New York Times lamenting that their Internet site isn't creating these viral blizzards. What's scary about this memo is that journalism in its various forms and functions is talked about only in the argot that Spartz and his ilk own. When you define what you are doing by the premises and terminology of those whose mission sees yours as irrelevant, and they're out to destroy you or just suck you dry, you've pretty much lost already.

 The New Yorker article ends with Spartz' ultimate solution: “The lines between advertising and content are blurring,” he said. “Right now, if you go to any Web site, it will know where you live, your shopping history, and it will use that to give you the best ad. I can’t wait to start doing that with content. It could take a few months, a few years—but I am motivated to get started on it right now, because I know I’ll kill it.”

 I'm guessing that Marantz, with some old media skills, didn't end the piece with "kill it" by accident.

 Spartz begins his canned speeches by proclaiming that he wants to change the world. Apparently he is doing so. He's helping to make it worse.

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