Having housed all the world’s homeless and fed the world’s hungry, Slate wound up an outrage fastball that broke the sound barrier on Wednesday.
“Spooning Is the Worst,” reads the headline. “It’s uncomfortable, it’s sexist, and it has to stop.”
Yes, spooning. Yes, like the spooning that you’re thinking of. Yes, like hugging, but sleeping at the same time. Yes, like the very nice thing people do to keep warm when they like each other a lot.
We’d prove that this article is a real thing, but for reasons we’ll explain in a second, we’re not linking to it.
“Big spoons are manly and will take care of you (provided you let them use you to take care of themselves); little spoons are fragile, passive creatures that need to be held and kept safe,” he writes. “This, of course, is fundamentally a sexist arrangement.”
As you know, this is a stupid thought only an intentionally provocative person would think, and the Internet let the author (whose name we’re also not printing, because we’re not rewarding this kind of thing) know exactly that. At some level, you’ve got to admire the guts: this guy had to have known that no person with real problems on this Earth shared this thought, and yet he spent hours of his human life writing about it before disseminating it on a big media platform with his face next to it.
But it’s still profoundly stupid. And he knows it. And he printed it anyway.
It’s not his fault, though.
If you think you’ve seen more of these recently—stories with no grounding in reality that 99 percent of the planet would never agree with and exist solely to get you to click and see if you’re not having a very swift stroke—well, you have. If you think standards for what is an acceptable story in respected news publications on the web have gotten lower in a chase for clicks, you’re right.
The Internet has quietly cemented its economy on saying the most extreme thing imaginable as loud as possible, and that economy is seeping into the dialogue of life and politics.
And here’s the thing: The people publishing stuff like this know that’s what’s happening. They know how to fix it. But they’re waiting in line, first, for the lottery that is the Era of the New Media Payday.
You’re not going nuts. The Internet is getting objectively deliberately confrontational and subjectively worse. But there’s a way to fix it.
Here’s how to see the promise of a consumer-focused Internet fulfilled—one that feels like an open town hall for good ideas and not a persistent paddlin’ for literally doing nothing while you sleep.
Stop measuring success by how many people click on your stuff. Start measuring success by how many people appreciate it.
The biggest metric for spending advertising dollars on the Internet is still unique visitors—or raw, unspecified eyeballs. Have you read this far in the story? Good. Doesn’t matter to the people supplying the beautiful banner and display ads that bedeck this website. What matters is that you clicked at all. What matters is the headline, and the headline alone.
In fact, odds are you haven’t read this far. Most people stay at a website for 15 seconds, then bolt. But, again, it doesn’t matter.
Because the metric is messed up. The metric rewards Spooning Is Sexist.
Tony Haile, the CEO of Chartbeat—the kings of metrics on the Web—tried to warn us about this last year.
“The click had some unfortunate side effects. It flooded the web with spam, linkbait, painful design, and tricks that treated users like lab rats. Where TV asked for your undivided attention, the web didn’t care as long as you went click, click, click,” he wrote in Time. “In 20 years, everything else about the web has been transformed, but the click remains unchanged, we live on the click web.”
Advertisers have wised up a little bit. There are now party tricks like branded content—wherein advertisers pay for stories that are sort of about their product, but are also about, say, travel or sports—and advertisers sometimes take into account unique visitors within specific demographics, based on age, race, and location.
But none of it matters without a baseline of fresh, delicious, unique visitors.
If this sounds like a dumb-as-rocks, old-as-dirt idea, it’s because it is. But nobody has done anything about it yet.
The reason stories like Spooning Is For Sexist Monsters and Dolphins Are Dangerous Animals That Could Rape You And Kill Your Baby are now being printed with a straight face by serious and prestigious publications boils down to this simple formula, presented by former SLAM Magazine Editor-in-Chief Ryan Jones.
“Vox runs a ridiculous essay on idiots living like it’s 1887. Slate runs an obvious essay on why they’re idiots. Only one gets clicked on twice,” he wrote.
That Vox story, written by a woman who retrofitted everything in her life to model the Victorian Era—wherein women couldn’t vote, get a divorce, or own property because they were themselves considered property of their husbands by the state—is a real one. So is, verbatim, that headline about dolphins raping you and killing your baby. That was in Business Insider.
Now you’re interested, aren’t you? You kind of want to see how stupid the sideshow can get, right?
Of course, the Vox article doesn’t include the stuff about how Millennial Victorian Woman pines for a pre-suffrage environment. That would require them to ship out a reporter to suburban Seattle, where she lives, which costs more money than a first-person piece. It would also take a reporter away from filing two more posts with equally crazy-assed headlines on them.
And it would prevent Salon, Deadspin, Gawker, Slate, The Daily Mail, Jezebel, The Observer, and even some guy on Reddit from doing all the work for them. That, in turn, would prevent Vox from getting mountains of traffic from those referrers, effectively running a correction for them.
And without the mountains of traffic, it would prevent Vox from receiving $200 million from Comcast for their brand that “attracts Millennials.”
What it’s really doing, of course, is pissing off Millennials.
It’s a step back from what journalism is supposed to be.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are better metrics. But people who buy and sell ads have to change the way they think about this—and newsrooms need to let them know how important it is. Otherwise, journalism on the Web is really just shouting and advertising.
What’s the solution? Tony Haile told me last year it’s, in part, a measurement called “Time on Site.” He’s been cooking up a formula for it ever since, trying to measure how long someone spends on an article.
It’s harder than it sounds: Any measurement would have to track users as they tab away to different websites, or ones who’ve left their computer open as they went to pick their kids up from school—but haven’t yet clicked that little red X.
“The only metric that matters, what we in this room are obsessed with, is attention,” he told The Columbia Journalism Review in March.
He’s been working on a tool to perfect it, but it’s a little bit of that. Toss in some Return Visitors instead of Unique Visitors, too.
“Twenty years from now, the journalist that wants to investigate the corrupt politician actually has the means to do so. As in: There is enough money to invest in that person to do that job,” he told CJR.
Basically, use the stats that prove people want to be there, and want to be associated with the stories that are on the page, first and foremost. Newsrooms should include star talent in on these meetings with advertisers, too, so they can see the humans behind them.
There needs to be a shift in how the Internet values itself in order for the best journalism, art, and science to be the most prized things on it. The good thing is, advertisers don’t have to change their taste; they just have to be open to better data, and they have to be presented with it.
Brands want to be associated with beloved things, not hated things. Happy people buy stuff.
People who are feverishly nodding along in agreement with “spooning is sexist” don’t buy anything. Those people do not exist.People reading about sexist spooning are not considering your revolutionary thought. They are hate-reading your stories, and they are wondering when the Internet became the failure that it is proving to be.