Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Why I (Mostly) Quit Writing on the Internet: Hit-Baiting, Churnalism and Reactionary Bollocks

At the start of the year I said that, at some point in the future, I might write a post here about how I fell out of love with wanting to be a full-time movie critic/"journalist" and why I basically stopped maintaining this blog with anything like the frequency of the first two years. I hadn't bothered to do so to date because that's obviously a very self-indulgent thing to do, even by blogging standards, and - quite honestly - who cares about why I decide to do anything? Yet over the past couple of days, in the run-up to the (in gamer circles) highly anticipated release of Grand Theft Auto V, I've started receiving (not entirely unjustified) negative comments on Twitter and elsewhere about an article I wrote on the game for a reasonably widely-read pop-culture website nearly two years ago - which people are obviously coming across on Google now that the game is a hot topic once again.

Basically, I wrote a self-consciously inflammatory piece about the upcoming game long before any footage or screenshots of it had been released (a fairly douchey thing to do, I know), basically outlining a series of flimsy, uninformed and troll-baiting reasons why it would be terrible. I'll get around to explaining why in a moment, because that's sort of the most important part of this whole saga.

That article, which solicited (arguably deservedly, in this instance) typically morale-boosting comments like "wow. That's the worst article I've ever read", was not entirely motivated by snarky cynicism as I originally conceived it: at first I was genuinely interested in having a reasonable discussion about how I feared growing negative feeling about GTA IV, which (somewhat against the grain of fandom) I like and consider a huge step forward for the series, could lead to developer Rockstar taking a backwards step, just as their best-selling series had started to mature. I worried we'd see something more shallow, less focussed and a return to the kind of knock-about, irreverent shenanigans of earlier games in the series. This was me post-The Dark Knight but before The Dark Knight Rises: when the idea of something being dark and grounded had more currency for me than it does now, trite as it's become. But, if I'm honest, I always knew GTA V would turn out to be a polished, entertaining product and that it'd probably be a great game well worth looking forward to.

The finished game, out this month, may or may not have ended up like I feared, though I'm sure it's a lot of fun regardless. (To be honest, I don't really have time to play games to the extent that I used to and don't really care one way or the other about GTA V.) But the article could have been, in theory, a reasonable piece of commentary saying "I fear [X], but on the other hand [Y]". The troll-baiting snarkyness came from trying to be something I'm not: it came from pressure to attract those all-important "hits" that generate the ad revenue necessary for website owners to make money. Which had just become my problem for the first time.

You see in the run-up to writing that article I had gone from working for the site completely for free - as many young writers, hungry for opportunity are happy/compelled by a penny-pinching industry to do - to being made a sort of sub-editor told that I stood to make X-hundred numbers of pounds per week depending on the number of hits I attracted to the site. At first I attempted to meet this responsibility as I'd always naively imagined it: idealistically commissioning what (I thought) were "worthy" articles about film-making and wider pop-culture (as per the remit of the site). Mostly celebratory, labour-of-love stuff about the wide array of things the site's huge pool of (volunteer) writers were passionate about, from comic books to arthouse movies to sport.

Alas, these things weren't at all compatible with an economic model based around attracting hits via search engines and, for one miserable week, I was spending from 8am to 10pm hunched over the computer with little to show for it - creatively or fiscally. It was an uphill struggle to get good quality work on that site (from people working for free), not made any easier by the fact that new content arrived so fast it tended to push less popular items off the front page within an hour or so of publication - quickly dooming less bombastic pieces to the archive.

In short: "10 Reasons Why [X] Will Suck" is worth more to such a site than something more nuanced and reasonable. If you wonder why online discourse is frequently so antagonistic and perpetually ALL-CAPS shouty, the blame doesn't lie solely with angry readers, hatefully abusing their anonymity: editors encourage articles that solicit this response because they get people talking. Because people share them on Facebook and Tweet about them and thus attract more hits, bringing in more revenue. Navin R. Johnson came to a similar realisation in 'The Jerk'.

Hence the reasonable article I originally planned on never appeared. It didn't have a title that would work with Google or anything like enough punchy bullet-points to sustain the casual engagement of the imagined skim-reading public. To be clear: I'm not blaming this on the editor/site owner at all. The article was my idea. I pitched it and I ultimately made it sensationalist crap. But I did so because I was worried about getting enough hits to get paid. Volume of traffic is what counts and not the quality of it. To put it into context, so you don't assume I'm a money-grabbing-shyster who'd do anything for a quick buck, the sort of articles I like to write frequently attracted only a couple of hundred hits each.

These were, quite often, interviews with directors and actors which required hours of preparation, travel up to London, then several more hours transcribing words from a scratchy dictaphone (not fun at all), before then writing and formatting a finished article. And then you get a few hundred hits if you're lucky - at least on the site I wrote for (we're not talking The Guardian here), which was at that time dominated by share-friendly list articles proclaiming the "10 best this" and "100 worst that". In contrast my terrible article on GTA V currently has several hundred thousand views, over a hundred comments and lots of all-important "re-Tweets" and "shares". These are stats which make me sad about the state of online journalism and made me increasingly reluctant to want to devote much more of my life to it, because they actually highlight an existing disincentive to spending the time it takes producing work of quality.

Be honest: if your income was directly linked to how many hits you attracted, would you spend a considerable part of your working week posting an interview with Werner Herzog or Noah Baumbach that ten people care about, or would you spend the equivalent time bashing out a dozen terrible list articles that will each attract several hundred times that of an interview and take minimal time/brain power to write (at least when done badly by me)? It's that question I didn't want to have to answer any more, basically.

Now the circumstances leading up to the creation of my article, which was merely lazy and cynical rather than outright offensive, weren't the only reason I stopped wanting to write in this field on anything like a professional day-to-day basis. I also didn't appreciate being asked to effectively re-type other site's news stories, which - alongside lists - was part of that site's bread and butter in the absence of any actual investigative journalists. The embarrassing and ethically questionable practice I've seen described as "churnalism". Then there was the day, shortly before I left, that I received a mass e-mail asking for submissions from the writing pool for an article about the "top 100 babes" or something similar. Which is gross.

But probably the worst thing I came across was during the London riots. As they unfolded live on TV - as several decades of disenfranchisement of the inner-city poor and ethnic minorities created a sorry, pointlessly destructive spectacle of raw human ugliness - I was horrified (not a word I use here lightly) when one of the site's owners excitedly sent round an e-mail soliciting articles about the best weapons to use on rioters (I seem to remember tear gas was a suggestion), hoping to cash-in quickly on the turmoil. I can imagine the same guy suggesting an article with the title "10 Weapons We're Excited To See Dropped On Damascus!" That I didn't quit writing for them that instant remains a source of shame, but you're always reluctant to burn professional bridges when you're just starting out and I was grateful for many of the opportunities the site had given me in the past. I suppose I'm bridge-burning right now, though I've tried to do so without causing undue embarrassment or offence to anybody involved.

So yeah, I wrote a stupid article about something I didn't care that strongly about in an attempt to impress my boss, earn some money and subsidise dead-end articles about things I actually do care about. It's not something I'm proud of, but at least I stopped doing it very quickly and I haven't done it again since. Now you know why I fell out of love with doing this stuff. I hope it was worth your time! Thanks for reading.


  1. It's a shame, you are one of the best critics I know. x

    1. That's incredibly kind. Thank you. I'm still posting my thoughts on this blog and do a podcast though, so I'm not shutting up for good. Just not really pushing for a "career" any more.

  2. Just saw your GTA V article. Can't say it angered me because i'm not that passionate about the game, however, when I saw the date the article was published I did think you were jumping the gun a bit and that you were being a little harsh. After reading this post though, I have to say I have a lot of respect for you, not only did you admit to doing what you thought was "a fairly douchey thing" ,but you also delved into what I would have considered a very personal moment in your life.

    Much respect man, much respect.

  3. Just saw your GTA V article. Can't say it angered me because i'm not that passionate about the game, however, when I saw the date the article was published I did think you were jumping the gun a bit and that you were being a little harsh. After reading this post though, I have to say I have a lot of respect for you, not only did you admit to doing what you thought was "a fairly douchey thing" ,but you also delved into what I would have considered a very personal moment in your life.

    Much respect man, much respect.

  4. Also sorry for a double post :)