December 7, 2013

"We Wrote a Heartbreaking and Terrifying Post about Viral Content without Lists or GIFs. Then You Clicked on It, and Magic Happened."

"Sure, you clicked on '8 Reasons Why This Puppy Will Make You Cry and Change Everything.' But what if you didn't cry, and nothing changed?"
Once you've clicked on a few posts that promised to make you cry or change your view of the world forever but didn't deliver, your default assumption will become that when you see something like that, it means somebody's trying to get you to be a part of something artificial.
Yeah, but you've kind of got to give the people who do that kind of virality-by-headline credit for being so terribly transparent. How is anyone even fooled? It's as if your 5-year-old child ran up to you squealing "Ooh, Daddy, look, this is really really cute!" I feel a little embarrassed for these people sometimes. They are adults who've decided to write like a bunch of little girls talking about their little ponies.

I'm pretty sure these headline writers assuage their shame by nurturing their belief that it's all somehow ironic and somehow even edgy and not completely smooshy.

How dumb do you need to be to believe the headline's promise that you'll go all gooey or experience a new charge of hope for humanity? Well, if you're a little slow, then as the above-linked piece predicts, you'll probably eventually learn that it's a come-on, just as you've abandoned any shred of hope that — as it says in the email — you really have won a million dollars and just as, years ago, you were able to remain motionless in your recliner when the late-night TV huckster yelled that you must act now.

I'm more worried that these heavy-handed urgings will dull our response to subtler manipulations. The truly dangerous propaganda isn't about a kitten being cute or a dog welcoming a war veteran. That's the candy of pop culture that might waste our time and do nothing to alleviate our shallowness. We may learn that candy is candy, but that's not much insight at all. Maybe the real trick of places like Buzzfeed and Upworthy is that they get you only so far, far enough to notice and resist/resent sharp pokes in the ribs and to become complacent about your jadedness. And that's what leaves you open and vulnerable to the less obvious propaganda that permeates everything else.


Michael said...

The current administration debased propagada, among other things, by going directly to the blatant lie abetted by the press. All that is left for those who find amusement in searching for propoganda is to parse the NYT for a single named source. Quite an eye opening game.

tim in vermont said...

I admit that this post didn't move me to comment originally, but then I ran into this interview of David Suzuki where he expresses despair over the efforts to fight climate change, and I think that maybe their emphasis on saving cute polar bears, when they are not really endangered by even a significant warming, for example, were severe propaganda mistakes.

I have recently changed my mind to be somewhat more sympathetic to the reality of a threat from global warming, but I have to say that they lost me for many years through bad propaganda.

Henry said...

I called out Upworthy early -- Smugworthy I called it -- and my liberal friends looked askance.

Then my Marxist friend called out Upworthy for stealing other people's content and all was right with the world. Upworthy is theft.

There is now an Upworthy parody generator -- here:

The funniest part is watching the same headshots be used for the different headlines. Homeless Mother of Three or Transgender Eight Year Old? Same person!

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

Back nearly 45 years ago my wife and I hosted two Russian academics in one of the earliest of such exchanges. This because at the time I was rather fluent in Russian. We had a 40 yo professor and one of his students.

Everyone in the group knew who was the KGB handler -- a stunning 23 yo woman with fluent English along as the "translator" -- but what they had not counted on was that Middlebury College earned its reputation as a "language school" for a bunch of very good reasons, not least of which (in the '60s) was its remarkably good Russian department. There were simply too many fluent Russian speakers for the KGB chick to handle, and the exchange students were all housed with scattered American families comfortable in Russian.

One night near the end of the visit I asked the professor what impressed him the most about the USA. His answer shaped my entire political life.

"Our propaganda in Russia is incredibly clumsy and nobody believes it. Here in the USA yours is incredibly subtle and effective and lots of people believe it."

Obama's propaganda (and his entire approach to governance) more closely resembles the 1960s USSR than a traditional American presidency.

Ron said...

Hmmm....these sites are a kind of 'pre-soak' for your brainwashing!

MadisonMan said...

I will not click upworthy links. They're all very same old same old to me.

Ann Althouse said...

"Then my Marxist friend called out Upworthy for stealing other people's content and all was right with the world."

How is it stealing? It's pointing you toward the site deemed worthy of getting upped in the page-rankings of the internet? They're promoting stuff they like and not even embedding.

tim in vermont said...

And why would a "marxist" care about the theft, even if it were stealing?

rhhardin said...

The Jaded Palate is a good name for an Indian restaurant.

Renee said...

I always cringe a little when communities go over overboard with sympathy, if we have one fundraiser for one child with cancer we might be neglecting another who doesn’t have ‘a better story’. It was nice this year to have ‘The One Fund’ after the Marathon Bombing, so victims who were more private or didn’t have a larger social group to fund raise still received needed funds for their recovery.

It is tacky, we  like victims with ‘good stories’. But that is what we do, especially on reality shows. Whether it is America’s Got Talent or America Ninja Warrior, the producers are looking for stories. This story is the entertainment, more then the talent itself.

We all have sob stories, some better then others I guess.

And you wonder why we have hoaxes?

Stories of a returned wallet or a kid standing up to bullies to 'warm your heart', who then becomes a 'celebrity'.

Now we have the ability to spread the mushiness all over the world, over and over.

Moose said...

Whenever these come up on my Facebook feed, I figure I'm just a heartless bastard and don't get what decent people understand...

Renee said...


Myself as well....

But compassion isn't a public spectacle to be shared. I was annoyed that it got out that Pope Francis went viral about him tagging along with the Ministry of Almoners for a few nights.

Popes (including Pope Benedict XVI) had the Ministry of Almoners since the 13th century. In 2012 it served 6000 needy in Rome (yep, before 'Good Pope Francis').

Just as the media made a characture out of Pope Benedict, they are doing the same with Pope Francis. It isn't journalism.

Pope Benedict got the Vatican running completely on solar, but the media would go crazy for Pope Francis love of the environment if he took out the recycling bin to the curb.

Sam L. said...

Link and click bait. Not goin' there.

Henry said...

It's a "corporate rock still sucks" kind of Marxism. The original creator is labor and Upworthy is the soulless capitalist exploiter. As for me, it's the marketing that hurts. There's a talent to writing a good headline and a good lede and Upworthy is poison.