A few years ago, the geniuses over at Buzzfeed and Upworthy figured out that the key to endless clicks and ad revenue was presenting widely available information in the form of numbered lists. You remember the obnoxious headlines — “8 Reasons Why Beyonce Really Runs the World”; “7 Times Beyonce Actually Ran the World”; “6 Brands of Gum Beyonce Chews When Actually Running the World”. The traffic-generating formula was so powerful that within a few years, literally hundreds of copycat sites had popped up with the sole purpose of creating lists and getting clicks.
Needless to say, the influx of new list blogs saturated the advertising market, forcing media outlets to get creative in driving new traffic to their sites. So the same blogs that once thrived off of compiling kitten pictures and 90s trivia did what traditional media outlets have been doing for decades — they began selling controversy in the forms of race, gender, and scientific and political misinformation.
If you doubt what I’m saying is true, I encourage you to go on Archive.org and visit the aforementioned Buzzfeed.com as it was seen on December 31st, 2010. The then goofy entertainment site capped off the year with articles such as “The Thirty Most Important Dogs of 2010” and “The 40 Best Mug Shots of 2010”, cementing its place as a fun, mindless blog amidst more serious media outlets. Count how many articles you see on the front page that refer to sexism or racism. Now, go to today’s home page of Buzzfeed.com, and count how many serious articles on the front page mention sexism or racism. (It doesn’t matter what day you decide to do this, I guarantee the results will be the same).
Incredible, right? How did the Internet’s favorite cat meme aggregator go from such a fun, irreverent blog to a serious site dedicated to social commentary? And how did people not even notice?
The truth is that sites like Buzzfeed never had a backbone in the first place. These blogs, like newspapers and television newscasts before them, exist only to provide as large of a platform possible for advertisers, who in turn provide the funding for such media outlets to exist. When the list-article format began failing, blogs had to resort to the time-tested technique of drawing upon people’s most primal fears and instincts. In 2016, that technique is working like a charm.
The amount of “news” stories we see in 2016 attempting to stir racial and gender controversy is appalling. Issues this powerful have divided the human race for generations and left people with mental scars that can take a lifetime to heal. Yet media outlets treat these issues no differently than they do cute cats, constantly thinking of new ways to exploit them for more clicks and advertising revenue.
Across the world, hundreds of millions of social media fanatics are dancing to the music these media outlets create, fighting with one another under the false belief that link shares and Tweets hold any real power. As the Internet approaches its third wave — a period which will undoubtedly be defined by real-world, real-time applications such as Uber — my concern is that people will let modern-day media infiltrate their lives on an even deeper level, controlling more of their time and energy and preventing any real change from happening.
People may ask you what your thoughts are on the Hilary Clinton email scandal, the Donald Trump wall, or the latest news story that deals with gender equality or sexual orientation. The truth is your opinion is absolutely meaningless unless you’re prepared to do something about it. Most of the time, that means leaving the digital world and making an impact on a physical level.
So if you are truly outraged about a sensitive topic, direct your energy to making a real change. Volunteer at a nonprofit organization dedicated to your cause. Contact your local town hall about teaching a free class on a topic you’re passionate about. Or simply go outside and hold the door for somebody with a smile. By doing so, you’ll be making a far greater impact than had you simply shared a blog link online.