The Best Article You’ll Read Today (Isn’t This One)

I’m serious.

If this is the best article you’ve read today so far, then I would encourage you to read more. Maybe try this one. That is just what I had open on my desktop, there are a lot more out there.

But who knows which one will be the best to read? That’s a journey you’ll have to take alone, my young apprentice.

You may have noticed—assuming that you at any point in the last three months had access to the Internet—that there’s been an overwhelming surge of a certain type of article headline. The kind that makes whatever the article is talking about sound like it must be up there with finding a cure for all of the world’s diseases.

Things like “You Won’t Believe What Happened When This Person Did This Thing,” or “This Thing That Happened Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity.”

This type of enticing headline style is called “clickbait.” It was recently made legendary by “good-news-spreading” site Upworthy, and has been copied ad nauseum everywhere else. Sometimes it starts to get a little annoying with so many grandiose claims and so much similar wording all over your Facebook newsfeed.

Steve Hind of The Guardian writes in his In Defence of Clickbait: “When readers are lured in, and rewarded for their curiosity by good content, everyone wins.”

Sure. But what if online publishers set up promises on which they can’t deliver?

“Well duh, then no one will share it,” the readers respond.

And it’s true, to some extent. In the Darwinian world of online traffic rankings, only the interesting survive. (Kanye tweets excepted.)

But there are still a couple of repercussions to this kind of model. The first, as you might expect, is that everything becomes impossible to gauge or even take seriously. We can’t just give all of our online content participation trophy-headlines, or the same thing happens that we all felt in second-grade soccer—suddenly no one is special.

In the same way that repeated, unpoliced misuse of “your/you’re” has made even grownups unsure of correct usage, overuse of hyperbole dumbs down the awesomeness of everything.

We’re already reaching a point where having a “purely factual” headline is something only really super-respectable news sources, who already have an audience, can feel confident about. An un-established writer labeling something as “Some Thoughts I’ve Had” rather than “Something Everyone Needs to Know” is immediately dismissed. Because with all of The Most Important within our reach, why would we have time for anything else?

Another thing that irks me about this type of marketing is an assertion like “This Will Be The Best of This Type of Thing You’ll See All Day.”

Sure, there is some potential for really niche topics: a video titled “This Will Be The Best Video of A Llama Singing You See Today” will probably turn out to be accurate.

But did anyone tell these people about the Internet? I can actually go to this thing called YouTube and type in “llama singing” and find other results, which I might be inspired to do after seeing that first video that piqued my interest.

And finally, my biggest concern with clickbait is its tendency to try to predict or even mandate your reaction. Particularly lines like “You’ll Never Guess” or “This Will Make You Cry.”

Who are you, freelance Buzzfeed columnist, to tell me what I will or will not think or feel?

There is, of course, some implicit understanding that titles like this are just a recommendation of your most likely reaction, and meant merely to give you some kind of context for what type of thing you’re about to read or see. It’s better, I suppose, to be aware you’re about to watch a heart-wrenching story, before everyone hears you sobbing in your cubicle.

But that doesn’t keep lines like that from acting as the laugh tracks of the Internet. Sometimes appropriate, but sometimes painfully awkward and misplaced.

Which comes back to that issue of making promises.

Most of us grew up hearing stories like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” and can’t shake the feeling that there’s something wrong with stringing your audience along. Even if they’ll keep believing you every time.

Back when newspapers and magazines had to rely on physical subscriptions, there was no room for bait-and-switch marketing. People got what they paid for, because it was the same thing that they had already gotten to know and learned to trust.

And trust is something that marketing agencies have been trying to replicate for decades, but never mastered.

I grew up with a stellar ability to overdramatize my problems when it was convenient for me. (Think Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.) There were numerous factors that led to my eventual reformation, but one of them was just having a couple of professors who wouldn’t buy what I was selling. After the third “but I was so sick and busy and ran out of printer ink the day that paper was due!” they started calling me on it.

And perhaps it would be helpful to start calling these “best things ever” on their respective crap.

Am I saying that we should all boycott Upworthy? No. Stop reading Buzzfeed? Well, maybe.

But can you imagine what it must be like working at a site like that? Having to scour the world for “the BEST advice for twenty-somethings” and “the CUTEST cat picture EVER.” That’s a lot of unnecessary pressure, spawned from the success of clickbait.

Maybe we can start by presenting things with less ridiculous adjectives in our own sharing, and giving less-paraded things a chance. There’s nothing wrong with reading another article aside from the best one. It can still be good.

I think one of the reasons I like listening to NPR is that they spend so little time on convincing you to care. They don’t introduce a segment about Somalia with “This Story Will Bring You to Tears”…they just start talking about it. It’s up to you, the listener, to engage with the content and react as you see fit.

What a concept.

Maybe we could be people who are thoughtful and humble in the way that we engage with media content and each other. Giving everything a fair shot, but valuing trustworthiness above flashiness.

Wouldn’t that be just the BEST?

Image via the ever hilarious xkcd.

On Facebook and Narcissism: When Crafting Your Own Self-Image Goes Too Far

I’ve always had an odd relationship with Facebook. I joined as a freshman in college, fresh out of the MySpace era, more concerned with who was in my Top 8 than whether or not I should “like” someone’s status. Back then, you had to have a .edu e-mail address just to join the mighty ‘like’ machine, but eventually everybody and their mother (and, in my case, grandmother) was on Facebook, talking about their lives.

Early on, I discovered the joy of self-referential experimentation in the form of ‘witty’ status updates. I wanted to play with the form of a status update, the way that we often used them, and how they may end up being perceived by others. My magnum opus, if I may be so narcissistic to refer to any status update of mine as such in a post about Facebook, was quite early on in my public online career:

[James Arnold is] off to breakfast. Then off to calculus. Then off to work. Then probably cashing his check and going to lunch. Then preparing for Don Rags, feeling stalkerish?

-James Arnold, Facebook status update, 2006.

Perhaps outdated now–note the bracketed language at the beginning, which Facebook automatically included at the front of each ‘status update’ in that era–the post is indicative of the sort of involvement many in my generation have with social media: we deconstruct, to some degree, but mostly we just play. Facebook had introduced a news feed, and many felt as though it was encouraging people to develop stalker-like tendencies. Similarly, when my brother joined Twitter, we had a conversation entirely built on hashtags. What was once meant to be searchable became a language all on its own.

A few friends recently shared a rather scathing article about Facebook usage. The article, which you can read here, fills out seven ways “to be insufferable” as you fill out that little “What’s on your mind?” box that Facebook really wants you to answer. The examples range from understandably frustrating (“Ugggggghhhhhh”) to the mild (“Finally finished my paper”) all the way to the stuff that keeps me coming back to Facebook (“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. ~Proverbs 3:5-6″; or, in the author’s words, “An unsolicited nugget of wisdom”).

While the article is filled with cynicism (“99% of the people on your Facebook friends list don’t love you”), it makes some good points. We could learn to moderate what we feel the need to put onto our social networks. If we are motivated by how others view us, entirely, then we can end up crafting our own self-image with a lack of authenticity; we’d become disingenuous.

But here’s the deal: everything you do changes the way people view you. You can live every moment consumed by your self image, or you can honestly express yourself. Just like some people are quick to speak and others take their time, so might some people simply have a personality that prefers to share, rather than prefer to reserve.

If you only post those status updates that will definitely endear you to your 800 friends, then you’ve fallen into the exact same trap: you’re catering to an audience, rather than being ‘genuine.’

I don’t think writing with an audience in mind is a bad thing. Neither do I think that writing to no one in particular is necessarily harmful or frustrating or annoying. You aren’t insufferable if the only things you post on Facebook have to do with what you ate that day; you just might be publicly boring.

If we value people, and I really hope we do, then what we find interesting should be broader than just personal intellectual stimulation. Much like we can learn to appreciate ‘pop’ culture in ways that are bigger than mindless consumption (and still entertaining), so should we remember that the people around us are intrinsically valuable; people are made in the image of God, and we should treat them that way. What my friends ate for breakfast might not be interesting–I’m not saying that the article above wasn’t without merit–but their thoughts on what is happening around the world ought to be. If this means I need to have a smaller friends list, just so that it can be digestible, so be it. But the point is simple: Facebook is just one medium where we interact with one another, and we ought to be showing each other grace.

My Facebook status updates may be about me, but I hope yours aren’t.

Can Microsoft Play with the Tech Giants?

Spoiler alert: I think Microsoft is one of the tech giants.

When characterizing the technology wars of our age, I suspect many of us come up with the right wars. We think PC vs. Mac for home computers, we think Google and Apple for smartphones (though Microsoft is coming up in this area rather nicely), we think Google and…Bing? Well, we think Google for search, at least. Google pits itself against Firefox (and Microsoft is trying so hard with Internet Explorer 10) in the realm of web browsers. Tablets are primarily a war between, again, Apple and Google, though others have tried to break in, some with outright failure (HP Touchpad, Blackberry Playbook) and others with some success, and a lot of hope (Microsoft Surface).

Once upon a time, Microsoft was a seemingly undisputed leader in almost everything related to computer software: everything ran Windows, even mobile operating systems. RIM broke in and stole the mobile field, at least for business-minded-consumers, and Apple has kept Microsoft on their toes in the desktop OS arena. The giant from Redmond is getting smaller year by year, or so it seems. Their latest move, which is to introduce a whole new design for everything they make (from Office to Windows, from Xbox to Windows Phone), at times feels desperate, but it also feels intelligent. There’s something here to win hearts over, and something quite powerful.

Why, then, are they left out of technology war articles?

Take this article, over at The Economist. After describing the technology war as a Game of Thrones-esque battlefield, they have this to say about Microsoft:

And there is an ancient empire to contend with, too: Microsoft, which recently launched its first tablet computer, is trying hard to get back into the game, having been profitably preoccupied with PC software. But it is the battle between the big four that will have the greatest impact in future on the way people find information, consume content and purchase all kinds of stuff, and on who takes their money in return.

The article talks primarily about Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. While the focus is on content management and our intake of information, it still seems odd to include Amazon and Facebook. Don’t get me wrong: I use both of these services, and there are lots of things I love about each. Amazon single-handedly changed the way I shop online, and Facebook helps me keep in touch with people from all over the world. Amazon may have the power to strong-arm something in the future (they’ve got a market for a digital library rivaling Apple, and probably has a stronger movie catalog), but Facebook is a social media website, like Myspace or Google+. Granted, Facebook is doing extremely well; it’s so ubiquitous at this point, it’s shocking to find people who aren’t on it. My Grandma uses Facebook, for instance.

But Facebook is hardly a tech giant, any more than Tumblr or Twitter. Whether you’re posting pictures of your kids, reblogging an endless sea of memes, or microblogging just about anything you want, the web is a wide place with plenty of outlets for your information. Facebook is hardly unique on that front, even if it is the most populated. It does what it does well, and maybe even better than anyone else, but the main complaint with Google+ (as an example) is how empty it is.

So why does Facebook get included in the Great Tech Wars story, and Microsoft barely gets a mention? It’s an odd shift from the days of the Mac vs. PC commercials. Microsoft, in the eyes of many, was stagnating. No one really liked Windows Mobile, even if people are willing to admit that they love the new Windows Phone platform, save for a ‘lack of apps.’ Then there was that whole Vista debacle, which goes to show how much of an impact a poor launch can have on the long-standing value of a platform. Vista was actually a solid operating system, once it got through the first service pack. But, of course, Vista is one of the most hated editions of Windows.

But are Vista and Windows Mobile really enough to damage Microsoft as a contender in the world of tech? Is it now just an ancient empire, vying for years gone by?

In short, yes. Well, sort of.

Microsoft damaged itself, but it wowed the world with Windows 7. The shift from Vista to 7 was grand, in a lot of ways, and it really has paid off. But damage was done, and Apple worked their way in. Suddenly a stylish decision from Microsoft was surprising. Read any review of Windows Phone 7 when it was first released, or even the initial impressions of Windows 8, and you’ll find a tone of surprise: Microsoft did something cool. And this mentality has stuck: the iPhone is a symbol of ‘cool,’ an Android phone is a symbol of ‘not following the sheep who love Apple products,’ and Windows Phones are just ‘surprisingly cool,’ but mean little to many observers.

And so Microsoft has to fight an uphill battle that I’m not really sure they even should have to fight. They’re striving for perceptions, even though reality says they still hold the majority of desktop OSes, particularly in schools and businesses. The trick now is convincing users that they can run with the cool tech of today, with tablets and smartphones and peripherals. They’ve done that with Windows Phone, and most people who have used the platform agree on that front. The risk is on their home desktop, Windows 8. Time will tell if it will land Microsoft in a place of success or having to fight yet another battle.

But know this: the ancient empire is hardly squashed. It’s not even missing, it’s just not lit up quite as bright.

Image via Microsoft.

Which walls do you prefer?

This past week or two I’ve had the fun of playing with my new Google Nexus 7 tablet. I can now read all of my books and news feeds without having to either remain in bed or drag my laptop to the deck. What impressed me even more was how simple the setup process was, and the environment that was established for me. I’m a pretty heavy Google user already, so I went ahead and linked up my Google account when I placed my order. When my tablet arrived, I started it up, verified my account, and instantly all of my apps, e-mail, music, and books were synchronized to my device. There was a handy widget on the home screen directing me to what I have, and where I could go to get more (that is, the Google Play Store). All of this gave me a few moments of pause and reminded me that as much as we say we hate them, we still love walled gardens. Continue reading Which walls do you prefer?

The Grad Student Unplugs: The Internet vs. My Homework

After one semester as a graduate student, I realized while the internet could be my servant, but it was rapidly becoming my master. Having instant access to unlimited YouTube videos, LA Times stories, my school’s library archive, and a news feed of everything my friends were thinking – it all beckoned me with a promise that I never had to be bored. Lacking will-power, I would find myself watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer until 4 A.M. or wondering why I was Liking my friend’s Facebooked baby pictures instead of writing the economics report for which I thought I had opened my MacBook. Continue reading The Grad Student Unplugs: The Internet vs. My Homework

More Cell Phones than Humans in the US

Apparently, there are now more cell phones than humans in the United States. Frankly, I was a bit surprised. I suppose I shouldn’t be, what with many people in business carrying a phone for their job in addition to their personal phone. I guess I’m just surprised because I still know some people who go without a cell phone, which means that the business types more than make up for those who don’t even have one. Continue reading More Cell Phones than Humans in the US