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Today's TMI Media Culture: Baiting Clicks At Women's Expense

Culture

In 1994, at the age of nine, I received my first “serious” diary as a gift from my grandmother. Though I haven’t seen it in ages, I remember the look and feel of it quite well. It had a thick, puffy pink cover, canoodling teddy bears on the front, and an actual lock and key to keep my secrets safe and to myself. Admittedly, the contents were not compelling for anyone beyond grade school, as I primarily divulged current crushes, playground drama, and lunch line gossip.


That diary, and the subsequent journals that followed, played a key role in helping me decide what I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer. And I was focused on achieving my goal, too. After serving as a reporter, then editor, for my high school newspaper, went on to study journalism in college. As a student, I threw myself into classes, reported for the newspaper, served as editor of our collegiate magazine, completed three media internships, and wrote professionally for local, national, and even international publications while completing my degree. After graduating in 2008, I briefly worked as a newspaper reporter, and then shifted into a freelance position, where I’ve remained ever since.

The TMI Media Industry

I’ve now been writing professionally for over 10 years, which may not seem like very long to some of you. But anyone in the media industry will tell you the same thing about last decade: it has seen huge, sweeping changes. I’ve watched countless publications – many I’ve written for – shutter their print editions and move online. I’ve seen outlets flounder (and budgets plummet) as Google changes its algorithms on a whim. And, as someone who covers primarily women’s lifestyle content, I’ve seen a salient shift in the type of content that’s pushed.

Even established media outlets have moved from news and thought pieces to listicles with suggestive titles and image-heavy regurgitations of the same pop culture fodder. Countless new sites appear and disappear attempting to garner a massive audiences--fast; often with images of scantily-clad women, promises to help you "stalk your boyfriend" and the opportunity to read up on "sex positions you will never believe."

CLICKBAIT

(on the Internet) content, especially that of a sensational or provocative nature, whose main purpose is to attract attention and draw visitors to a particular web page.

Add to that all the headlines promising free goodies, from downloads to products, which quickly hijack your screen, magically opening multiple windows replete with flashing pages and invasive pop ups.

“In the advertising world it’s called ‘bait and switch,’ and it’s illegal. Bait-and-switch happens when a store advertises a particular item for sale, but when you try to make a purchase you’re told the item is no longer available, but there is a similar item you can buy, for, of course, more money," writes Larry Burriss of the Murfreesboro Post. "In the Internet world this kind of thing is called ‘clickbait,’ and it happens when a news or other headline tell you one thing, but then never delivers on the promise. It’s not really a scam, because no one is really hurt.”

Perhaps not hurt, but what is the effect of too much clickbait?

I like to say that we live in a “TMI” and “tl;dr” climate of journalism. If a story’s not laden with images and gifs, if it doesn’t feel sexy or raw or tug at your insides, and if it doesn’t teach you something quickly, then good luck with your bounce rate stats. And if the headline isn’t compelling enough to make a reader want to click outside of their social network portal, then good luck getting eyes on your content in the first place.

Media outlets, of course, must cater to what readers want. This results in clickbait – “you’ll never guess what happened next!” – headlines, as well as an increase in stories that reach unprecedented levels of personal divulgence. I’ve seen editors consistently request pitches about deeply private experiences ranging from sexual fetishes to embarrassing feminine hygiene moments to heartbreaking divorce and breakups. I’ve also seen a huge increase in calls for experimental stories that push societal norms and try to create shock value.

It could be a bias because it’s the world I live in, but I’ve found that this type of “TMI” and “shock value” writing is most often found in women’s media. And to be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about it.

On one hand, I think the media world is giving readers exactly what they want more of, otherwise those stories wouldn’t do so well. I also think this “let’s get real and raw” approach can be healthy and empowering, as it shines a light onto parts of female-hood that have otherwise been dark. Stories about sex gone wrong, mental health issues, relationship failures, and more, are chipping away at the unachievable goal of perfect femininity that was been built up in years prior. However, many online publishers are simply trying to fight a losing game.

"Newspapers are losing readers and revenue. Some are shutting down all over North America," writes Jeffrey Dvorkin for PBS. "In the rush to return to the once-rich profit margins of the early 2000s, media organizations are being urged by their shareholders to dispense with expensive ventures like international reporting. Newspapers have closed or been downsized, broadcasters have cut their more expensive (and more labor-intensive) content....This increased competition from media organizations like Buzzfeed, Vice Media and Vox have put renewed pressure on legacy media. Broadcasters especially try to entice their audiences through click-bait."

Digital Exploitation

At the same time, though, I think we’re walking a fine line between empowering female writers and their audiences, and exploitation for a paycheck. As a writer, I’ve personally vowed to not write about anything I’m uncomfortable sharing, and I like to think that other writers have done the same for themselves. If a woman feels 100% OK writing about her forgotten tampon, and if she has an audience who wants to read about it, so be it.

Regardless it cannot be denied that women are one of the main targets when it comes to clickbait. Many female writers report that there is a new uncomfortable reality in which they are being forced to write about topics that make them uncomfortable or face a much smaller list of digital publications they can write for.

One such writer reports that for a full year while employed at a "woman-focused website," she was often told by the managing editor to cover topics of a sexual nature, especially those that put women into a negative light.

"Basically the option was to write the story or get fired," said one editor. "It was weird because the staff was almost all women and I can't imagine they didn't also feel uncomfortable writing some humiliating topics like how to look hot in order to keep the man in your life, but no one said anything. The fact that the top editors were men added a weird dynamic."

Thankfully there has been some pushback towards clickbait, as social sites like Facebook have implemented algorithms that help weed out content-poor pieces that rely on splashy headlines for a usually quickly abandoned click. The system can identify clickbait headlines by utilizing a similar process that classifies spam emails. Facebook then determines those websites with misleading headlines, and ranks them lower in the social network's News Feed.

"What we hope is this will create incentives for publishers to post less clickbait," Adam Mosseri, vice president of product management for News Feed, told Reuters last year. "We tried to be very concrete about what we defined as clickbait."

From an overarching media perspective, however, I think it’s important to find a balance in the type of content we create for women. Sure, there’s no denying that readers indulge in “TMI” stories (think: our obsession with reality TV) and that such content can do some good, but readers want – and need – to read other types of content, too.

We need content that empowers women in the business sphere, content that discusses mental and physical health from an unbiased, matter-of-fact POV instead of an experimental one. And alongside stories that help normalize failure (a good thing), we still need aspirational stories that showcase kickass females dominating their worlds.

I really do think we’re moving there, albeit slowly, and I’m already noticing a shift. I’ve seen an uptick in new media outlets that aim to create the kind of content discussed above, and I’ve also seen existing media outlets trying to find a better balance in the type of stories they’re publishing. Personally, I’ve vowed to participate more actively – both as a writer and reader – in outlets that are creating the type of media I want to see more of. I would encourage anyone reading this to do the same, and to remember that in the online world, we “vote” with our clicks.

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Politics

Do 2020 Presidential Candidates Still Have Rules to Play By?

Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.


When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.

2016: What rules?

Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.

Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.

And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.

And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?

Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.

Digital policies for 2020 and beyond

While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.

Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy

Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:

  • If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
  • While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
  • If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
  • Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
  • Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?

Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.

Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply

The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:

  1. Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
  2. Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
  3. Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
  4. Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
  5. Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
  6. Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
  7. Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
  8. Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.

Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles

Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.