Culture 08 January 2017
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."
(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."
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.
6 Min Read
I live the pain and stress of being black in America every day: I am a black woman, the mother of a black son, sister to black men, and aunt to my black nephews. I remember what it was like as a young girl to be afraid to go to Howard Beach for fear of being chased out. I know what it's like to walk on Liberty Avenue and be called "nigger" and being so young that I didn't understand what the word meant, I had to ask my mother. I know too well that feeling in the pit of your stomach when a police car pulls up behind you and even though you know you haven't done anything wrong you fear that your life may be in danger from what should be a simple encounter. Like all African Americans, I am tired of this burden.
African Americans have a long history of having to fight for our humanity in America. We have had to fight for freedom, we have had to fight for equality, and we have had to fight for our lives. The fight continues to go on. I have often quoted that line from the character Sophia in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, "All my life I had to fight." When I say this to my white counterparts it can sometimes be uncomfortable because it's clear that they just don't get it. They view it as melodramatic. But it's not. It's part of the black experience, and it is the part of the black experience that black people don't want.
I have often quoted that line from the character Sophia in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, "All my life I had to fight."
While I was out yesterday, passing out PPE and talking to people, a woman asked me, "What is it going to take for this to change?" I told her that I think peaceful protesting is a good start. But it's just the start. We can't elect the same people for the past 20-30 years, some in the same positions, and then talk about how nothing has changed in the past 30 years.
This injustice, inequality, and inequity will not spontaneously disappear. It will take bold, outspoken, and fearless leadership to eradicate the systemic racism in our country. We must address the violence at the hands of a police force paid to serve and protect us. We must address the recurring experience of black people being passed over for a promotion and then being asked to train the white person who was hired. We must address the inequities in contract opportunities available to black businesses who are repeatedly deemed to lack the capacity. We must address the disparity in the quality of education provided to black students. We must address the right to a living wage, health care, and sick pay.
While we like to regard the system as broken, I've come to believe the system is working exactly as it was meant to for the people who are benefiting from it. We need a new system. One that works for all of us. I am running to become the mayor of New York City because I can't assume there's another person who has the courage to do the work that needs to be done to create a fair and just city.
We can't elect the same people for the past 20-30 years, some in the same positions, and then talk about how nothing has changed in the past 30 years.
There are some things we may not be able to change in people, but at this moment I think that whether you are black, white, purple, or yellow we all should be looking internally to see what is one thing that you can do to change this dynamic. Here's where we can start:
If we want change, we need a total reform of police departments throughout this country. That is going to require taking a hard look at our requirements to become a police officer, our disciplinary procedures when civilian complaints are filed, and a review of what and how we police. No one deserves to lose their life based upon the accusation of carrying counterfeit cash. We also need to hold police officers accountable for their actions. While it is their duty to protect and serve they should not be above the law. Even at this very moment, police officers are overstepping their boundaries.
If we want change, we have to build a sense of camaraderie between the police and community. A sense of working together and creating positive experiences. We have to be honest about the fact that we haven't allowed that to happen because we have utilized our police department as a revenue-generating entity. We are more concerned with cops writing tickets than protecting and serving. Even during these moments of protest we are witness to the differences made when the police supported the protesters and stood hand in hand with them or took a knee. It resulted in less violence and more peaceful protest. People felt heard; people felt respected; people felt like they mattered.
While we like to regard the system as broken, I've come to believe the system is working exactly as it was meant to for the people who are benefiting from it. We need a new system.
If we want change, we have to be willing to clean house. And that means that some of you are going to have to step up to the plate and take roles of leadership. In my city alone, there are 35 city council seats that are term-limited in 2021. There are some that aren't termed but maybe their term should be up. Step up to the plate and run. If nothing else it will let our elected officials see that they need to stop being comfortable and do more. We don't need you out in the street taking selfies or reporting the problems to us. We need solutions. We need you in a room implementing policies that will ensure that these things don't continue to happen.
If we want change, we need to support grassroots candidates that are not in corporate pockets, who are not taking PAC money, and who really want to make a difference to their community. We need candidates that know first-hand and can relate to the experiences that many of us are going through.
We are at a pivotal moment. It is inspiring to see people from all races and backgrounds in the streets protesting, standing up for justice, and wanting to see change. We must seize this moment, but we must also be mindful that change requires more.
People often ask me why I decided to run for office? I am running for me. I am running for the little girl that was called nigger on Liberty Avenue. For the woman who has been pulled over for no reason. For my nephew who was consistently stopped during the era of stop and frisk. I am running for your son, your brother, and your nephew. I am running so that the next generation will never have to say, "All my life I had to fight." Because although we won't stop until we see justice and changes that address inequality and inequity effectively, this fight is exhausting.