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Awesome. For advertising’s sake

20 February 2015

THE NEW YORKER last month ran an astonishing piece that needs proper consideration. It appears to be about the internet, but is really about the future of ad-supported journalism everywhere. It is a glimpse of an apocalypse, and it makes me want to headline this piece: "You've heard of people who are famous for being famous? Meet the guy who writes stories that are famous for being viral (and nothing else)."

The story, by Andrew Marantz, follows Emerson Spartz, who built the world's biggest Harry Potter fan-site when he was 12, and has since then gone on to build site after site aimed at the restless clicking fingers of teenagers.

He is nearly 30 now. He has raised $8 million from venture capitalists to build a future for the web, and he has advice for those who would follow him: "'Try to change every comma to a period"; "Use lists whenever possible. Lists just hijack the brain's neural circuitry"; "The more awesome you are, the more emotion you create, the more viral it is."

What makes Spartz interesting is that he brings to the web the sensibility of a commercial television company, which is rather different from that of a traditional journalistic enterprise. Both make their way, financially, by selling readers to advertisers rather than selling news to readers, as journalists pretend to themselves that they do.

But print journalism has constraints of branding, which television weakens and the web dissolved entirely. A newspaper has a personality, which is to say that there are some stories that will never appear in it because they would clash too much with the others already there. This is less true of television: you cannot tell by visual clues, when you hop between channels, which channel is bringing you a particular show. On the web, it isn't true at all.

Spartz's properties have no coherent branding. No one, it seems, goes to them directly. They reach his web pages through Facebook because their friends have posted links there. And the pages themselves exist only to display the advertisements that surround their content. As part of this flexibility, the sites that he runs change their name and appearance constantly: "On the day I arrived, the company was in the process of reconceiving its flagship site. In the morning, it was named Brainwreck.com ('The #2 Most Addicting Site'); by the afternoon, it had been re-branded as Dose.com ('Your Daily Dose of Amazing'). The new design, Spartz explained, had a more 'premium' feel, with cleaner lines and more muted colors."

This premium feel is used to display the stories, or "lists", as they are known: "This Dad Decided to Embarrass His Son in the Most Elaborate Way Possible. LOL"; "Bacon-Wrapped Onion Rings Are Perfect for Appetizers, Burgers, and Life"; 'The 21 Most Unusual Horses That Make Even Unicorns Seem Basic".

When the site was known as "Brainwreck", each one of these "reflected at least a few minutes of online research", but analysis revealed that more original lists took more time to put together, and people were no more likely to click on them. Since the only point of these headlines is to get people to click, and the only point of the stories you click to is to get people to linger in front of the ads, efficiency dictates that it all be stolen, or assembled from elsewhere.

This is obviously distressing for someone who likes language, and believes that journalism is an honourable craft, as I do. But it is more widely threatening, too. In Spartz's world, nothing in any of their stories makes any difference to any reader's life except to influence what they next will buy. Whether Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia may change at any moment, and the new truth will always have been true - but neither makes any difference to the reader at all.

Parts of the press already approach this condition: consider the front-page health stories in the Daily Express, such as the recent splash "Grapes fight memory loss".

This is undoubtedly the most profitable way to run newspapers or websites today. It is predicated on an audience who have no decisions to make that matter, and, in that sense, it is profoundly undemocratic. What this web is building, in fact, is the creature whom the novelist William Gibson imagined watching the celebrity television of the future: "A vicious, lazy, profoundly ignorant, perpetually hungry organism craving the warm god-flesh of the anointed. . .

"It's covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth . . . no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote."

The question for the rest of us is how to make a living selling something that cannot be used to help build Gibson's monster.

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