Before I begin, I’m aware that what follows likely fits the definition of a “take,” as Awl writer John Herrman calls the endless series of blog posts, online think-pieces and me-too coverage that follow an event like the recent celebrity nude-selfie hack or the Delta Airlines Twitter gaffe. But I found his post fascinating — not so much because of what he said in it, but because of what the phenomenon he is describing can tell us about the disruption of the traditional media landscape.
In his post, Herrman calls the profusion of posts on such news events an “evolutionary defense against attention surplus,” as every media outlet large or small scrambles to cover whatever the trending topic of the day is — regardless of whether they have anything to add in the form of reporting, or analysis, or additional background on the story:
There were dozens more of these stories, all about a single tweet, from virtually every outlet that publishes news. And they served their purpose admirably: They left no attention on the table. They represent “we should have something on this” news impulse stripped to its barest form, left unspoken and carried out as a matter of course. Endless minimalist Takes, obviously duplicative from the producer’s side but not necessarily from the other.
Trying to meet social demand
At one point, Herrman describes the impetus for this explosion of content by saying that writers for almost every media or news site found themselves “under the spell of that horrible force that newspaper columnists feel every week, the one that eventually ruins every last one: the dreadful pull of a guaranteed audience.” In other words, everyone knew that people would be looking for information about the celebrity photo hack, so they bent over backwards to produce some.
What struck me about this description was how similar it is to the model that powered the former “content farm” known as Demand Media — which involved figuring out as quickly as possible what the most popular search terms were likely to be, and then generating or aggregating whatever content it could around those terms, whether it was how to change a snow tire or the meaning of Hanukkah.
Now, the entire internet is a content farm, and the wave everyone is trying to ride is no longer a search or SEO-driven wave but a social one, powered by Twitter and Facebook. But the rationale is the same — if your “take” on a specific event gets clicked on or shared the right way, it could become a massive traffic driver, pushing millions of eyeballs to your site. The only problem is that you have absolutely no way of knowing whether that is actually going to happen or not.
No guarantee of an audience
Unfortunately, Demand Media’s understanding of the new-media landscape was actually spot on: as the name of the company implied, the web has transformed the media ecosystem from a supply-driven model into a demand-driven one. Instead of newspaper editors publishing whatever they deem worthy and ignoring what they don’t (which is what Facebook now does, ironically) it has become a world in which readers flock to whatever captures their attention.
In that sense, the profusion of identical “takes” is a form of clickbait — which, as I tried to argue in a recent post, is also a result of media sites trying to give readers what they seem to want, instead of producing what they think readers should want.
The reality is that no one is guaranteed an audience any more, as Guardian editor Janine Gibson described it in an interview for the New York Times‘ internal “innovation report.” It doesn’t matter what it says on your masthead, or how many centuries you have been publishing, or how many industry accolades your columnist has. All that matters is whether people want to read it or not — and that force is as mercurial a mistress as any newspaper editor ever was, and then some.