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Running in Traffic

Since reading it a few months ago, I’ve thought a lot about this New Yorker profile of entrepreneur Emerson Spartz, who founded the popular Harry Potter site MuggleNet as a teen and now owns Spartz Inc, a Chicago-based media company which specializes in websites like OMGFacts and Dose that are designed to maximize web traffic, particularly through social media. The success of Mugglenet and these sites has earned Spartz a reputation as an expert at “viral media,” and the article mentions people thinking of him as a Steve Jobs type. He repeats throughout the article (and in various speeches that I ended up watching of him online after going down this article rabbithole) that he wants to “change the world” with virality and sees it as a “human superpower.”

Spartz’s websites make use of many of the viral media cliches that run rampant now, particularly in the headline department, where adjectives like “amazing” and phrases like “you won’t believe what happens next” are used to lure in clicks from Facebook. This process has been reduced to a science at Spartz Inc, where headlines are generated using algorithms to find the ones that generate the most traffic. What happens after readers arrive at the site doesn’t seem to matter much to Spartz — once an article has been clicked on, it’s done its job. This is evidenced by the actual “content” on websites like OMGFacts, which is usually written like it’s geared towards second-graders, or is sometimes even lifted wholesale from other sources.

In the article, Emerson is mostly portrayed as an unfeeling automaton, someone who is skilled at manipulating numbers and conning readers into clicks, but lacks any real-world insight. The most damning moment in this regard is an anecdote the author relays when a Katy Perry song plays in their car.

A Katy Perry song was playing on the radio. “Art is that which science has not yet explained,” he said. “Imagine that the vocals are mediocre in an otherwise amazing song. What if you could have forty people record different vocals, and then test it by asking thousands of people, ‘Which one is best?’ To me, that’s a trickle in an ocean of possible ways you could improve every song on the radio.”

It’s an absurd concept, but one that Spartz (presumably) delivers with a straight face. The idea is the chief conceit of virality: popular equals good. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that someone with that mindset would view art in such obviously reductive terms.

Spartz’s ideas as presented in the article may seem silly, but they are really just the natural evolution of this viral traffic-based logic that currently dominates all content creation. It’s no secret that most websites now are using some metric of page views or engagements to measure their traffic, which they try to maximize with “click-bait” type content. The scarier part to me is that this viral logic is infiltrating the way everyone thinks. I know when I post something on Twitter or Facebook, I can’t help but evaluate its “quality” based on the replies/likes/favorites/retweets it gets. It is natural to want to be popular and liked, but the literal quantification of thoughts is a new thing the internet has brought.

The effects that has on what has become every day communication disturbs me. One obvious trend I noticed quickly on social media was that my most popular posts were invariably ones where I was stating an agreed-upon opinion shared by most of my friends, e.g. about gay marriage or republicans being stupid or our campus cafeteria food being gross. Particularly in college, I got very into crafting these Facebook posts and evaluating them based on their response. I got especially hooked on the feeling I got when one of my posts got a big (for my standards) response, feeling like I had the virality superpower Spartz described.

The flip side of that feeling, though, was the sense of defeat when I posted something that got minimal or no response, which made me feel like nobody cared or that I sucked at writing or something. This happened most frequently when I posted something kind of esoteric or weird, or something that wasn’t quite in step with what my friends think. The message sent by the very structure of Facebook was clear: stop writing those posts and get back to giving the audience what they want.

So even on the most micro scale imaginable (Facebook posts), the prospect of having an “audience” for my opinions was swaying how I communicated online. It made me more likely to conform to what people expected of me, and less likely to “rock the boat” with any dissenting opinions. This realization was a big part of why I mostly stopped posting on Facebook: I felt like the site was making me a worse thinker.

If this happens even on social media posts, obviously the effect only increases when it comes to writing actual essays. One of my bigger challenges writing blogs is how to weigh writing in my own style and voice about what I think I have a unique perspective on with the need to have people actually, you know, read what I write. True to the Facebook form, my most “viral” posts have always had a universality to them: they were either easily digestible lists or “hot takes” about artists I disliked. What I’ve found never gets any traffic are the pieces that mean the most to me: the quiet appreciation of artists I love or the personal reflections on what music has meant to me. Just like social media, there is a clear pull to conform, to post the stuff that people will actually read.

Thinking about writing in this traffic-generating way leads down a dangerous path from an artistic standpoint. Because what people do want to read, seemingly, is junk. It’s Taylor Swift thinkpieces, celebrity gossip, and random photo-listicles. This lowest common denominator appeal to everyone’s base instincts may not have been so objectionable as random entertainment, but it’s disturbing that it’s the foundation of seemingly every website now. It’s like these sites are parents who keep giving their kids candy because they ask for it and aren’t feeding them actual meals. That’s the problem with all these page-view obsessed sites: they’re sugary and provide a short-term rush, but in the long-run aren’t fulfilling and might even make you feel sick (I’ll stop with the candy metaphor now).

Kaleb Horton, a writer I admire, wrote an article at Bitter Empire about writing outside the news cycle, which mirrors a lot of my feelings as a small-time blogger. Mostly, that trying to do things “the right way” is often very thankless and frustrating in a context where you’re battling for eyeballs with a myriad of articles about hot-button topics that naturally hook people in. There doesn’t seem to be much space anymore for just quiet considerations, reasoned opinions, or personal voice. Writing has been reduced to a game of viral traffic-chasing where everyone loses.

I recognize that I don’t have any authority as a music writer, and a blog where I write longer pieces about random stuff I like or dislike is never going to set the internet on fire. But it’s a pretty depressing feeling to write about a band like Sarge that I truly believe is great and deserves more listeners, and at the end feel like I would have been better off writing about Nicki Minaj’s butt or whoever Drake is dating right now. It becomes hard to resist the temptation to go down Spartz Avenue and start contemplating what I could do to get more attention: maybe I need to write a really controversial “take,” or talk about Taylor Swift, or start writing those “THIS IS THE GREATEST THING YOU’LL EVER READ IN YOUR LIFE” headlines.

I’m not going to do those things, mostly because I’m stubborn and I’ve decided I’d rather languish in obscurity than play this game of traffic chasing. But I think about all the potentially great voices in writing that are lost, either because they give up when they can’t hook readers in, or because they end up writing for some site that uses their talent to churn out junk food traffic generators.

Spartz claims he wants to “change the world,” but a world entirely based around virality is a dystopia. It encourages conformity, pandering to lowest common denominator, and produces content that doesn’t challenge readers or make them think. And if you don’t participate in this traffic game, you’re left feeling like an outsider. “The customer is always right” might be a reasonable stance in the world of customer service, but it shouldn’t be an ethos.

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