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.
Dr. Victoria Bateman, an esteemed economist best known for her nude protests for gender equality, uses her body as a form of art that serves to challenge the stigma around women's bodies and women's rights, in the world of economics. In March 2018, Bateman attended the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society in Brighton stark naked with the word "respect" written across her chest and stomach. Unbashful in delivering her message, Bateman was determined to start a conversation.