World Without Mind–Chartbeat

Poor Franklin Foer.  What did he think journalism was?  The pact between the journalist and the reader is a sycophantic one.  “What does the reader want?” is the guiding idea, and has been since the newspaper’s inception.  Not “what does he need?” Detorus that have happened at various junctiures were little more than window dressing, as I will articulate below.  If the reader wants his or her suppositions confirmed, for those oh-so-nebulous reasons locked deep in the unconscious, that Saddam Hussein is a global menace, it’s not going to matter that the objective evidence to the contrary is out there for the grasping.

This takes us to page 138 of Foer’s book, World Without Mind, and a little trot around the seamy mind of that other Facebook guy, Chris Hughes.  “Chris had learned the science of virality from a site called Upworthy…Upworthy didn’t produce much of anything original.  It plucked videos and graphics from around the Web, usually obscure stuff, then gave them headlines that made them appealing to the widest audience…psychologists had discovered that a state of unquenchable curiosity could be cultivated [italics mine–dw]…Upworthy designed headlines to make readers feel an almost primal hunger for information just outside their grasp.  It pioneered a style–with it called the ‘curiosity gap’–that explicitly teased readers, withholding just enough information to titillate the reader into going further.  Classic example: ‘9 out of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-blowiing Fact.’  Six million readers couldn’t contain themselves and followed that link. (The mind-blowing fact: income inequality is far worse than most Americans think.)”  Of course saturation soon set in and Upworthy and their imitators had to find other ways of attracting eyeballs.  I  believe it is safe to say that they are managing to stay one step ahead of the hapless information consumer.  It wasn’t long before even the Washington Post and, yes, The New Republic were practicing their versions of this technique.  Foer calls this form of journalism “snackable content”–charts, lists, videos, quick stuff that appealed to the bored at work crowd.  The presentation had to be Fast and Fun.  Are you getting nauseated yet?  I didn’t think so.  “Clicks would rain down upon us if only we could get over ourselves and post the same short clips from The Daily Show as everyone else, framed by an appealing headline and perhaps a conscience-salving paragraph or two of analysis.”  That serious stuff that had a vogue from the 1940s to the 1970s? The kind wherein journalists would attempt to write the news without partisan bias?  When was that ever anything but a “conscience-salving paragraph or two” to put a veneer of respectability upon a sow’s belly?  The internet has just hastened the trajectory towards the tawdry.  You know you want it.  “That myth (that journalism was fundamentally a public-spirited enterprise) is in the process of being shredded.” is how Foer himself puts it.

Back to World Without Mind:  “One of the emblems of the new era hung over my life at the New Republic.  It dogged me across my day.  Every time I sat down to work, I surreptitiously peeked at it–and I did so as I woke up in the morning, then a few minutes later when I brushed my teeth, and again later in the day as I stood at the urinal…my master was called Chartbeat, a site that provides editors, writers, and their bosses with a real-time accounting of Web traffic, showing the flickering readership of each and every article.  The site pretty clearly implied that journalism is a competition, a popularity contest.  The site’s needle made us feel as if our magazine were a car, showing us either sputtering up the hill of a poor traffic day or cruising to a satisfying number.”  Foer relates that Chartbeat has taken hold in virtually every magazine, newspaper, and blog.  Not mine.  “Chartbeat has come to hover over the newsroom”, in Foer’s words.   They even have telescreens set up in all the offices in all the publications of note showing Chartbeat’s statistics.  But this is democracy, isn’t it?  It’s just that the pretense that there is something else involved in the liberal project, the quest for truth one might call it, is all gone now.  Our way of life is based in the popularity contest, and it’s merely being baldly acknowledged.  I ask the reader to think on the consequences of this phenomenon, and relate it to events of the past few years and decades.

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