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Why This. Doesn't Address the Real Problem with Online Content

The age of clickbait may be ending, but This. offers no solutions as to what comes next.
November 25, 2014, 10:30am

This., a new social network that only lets users share a single link a day, aims to provide an escape from the chaotic vortex of clickbait and hot takes we've all been spiralling down.

By making you think about what you share (This. asks for an explanation as to why the link you're about to post is important) and limiting the amount of sharing, the Atlantic Media-backed This. aims to ensure that only the internet's best content is circulated on any given day.

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But a closer look at This. suggests that it's more likely to be a part of the problem than any kind of a solution. Instead of combatting the viral and click-happy nature of online content, it streamlines the sharing process to a pretty insane degree.

"Shut up and share the links."

This. is beautiful in its simplicity: All links, no discussion. "Shut up and share the links," it seems to say.

On the surface, This. provides a promising solution to the problems that plague online content as it circulates on Facebook and Twitter: daily deluges of re-posts, headlines that read like Tumblr posts, and more. But a site that aims to offer a respite from all of this while only allowing users to share and click content presents a curious paradox.

On one hand, the site's sharing restrictions may indeed raise the overall quality of content that gets shared, mitigating the dumbing-down of online discourse brought on by a million posts all basically offering "22 Ways to Literally Become a Brand, In GIFs." On the other, it does so in part by cutting off avenues for users to actually create a meaningful discourse.

On This., you will share links and you will click links. Nothing else. This. comes across as a bit authoritarian in terms of the demands it places on users. Your only function on the site is to circulate content, and thus, capital in the form of attention and advertising dollars.

Screenshot: This.

Limiting the amount of content shared does little to combat the basic underlying profit model of most online outlets that depend on advertising: shares equal clicks, which mean eyeballs on ads, which means money. In fact, This. damn near perfects how users are supposed to act within this set-up.

Even if, as its Terms of Service suggest, This. eventually includes some kind of commenting or messaging feature (along with ludicrously restrictive limitations on users), the core problem will only be exacerbated—that is, the problem with capital-C Content.

The problem with Content

Perhaps you, like me, are tired of the legions of utterly worthless posts by sites like Upworthy and Buzzfeed that clutter your news feed every day. I might get upset at the number of listicles pandering to a specific breed of people who self-identify as "twentysomethings," but I'm afraid that I can't feel anything anymore.

Even sites that try to aim a little higher in their journalistic ambitions, like Ezra Klein's explainer news site, Vox—which now regularly runs mind-numbing headlines like "24 Maps and Charts that Explain Marijuana"—have succumbed to the clickbait model: Optimize everything for peak virality across social media. This kind of content (what we call "clickbait") is monolithic in function; it circulates.

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To differentiate the content (meaning or message) of a post, article, or comment, from its circulating form, we can use a legal term pulled from any number of social media Terms of Service agreements: Content.

Jodi Dean, a professor of political theory at Hobart and William Smith College, effectively summarized our current predicament with Content:

The fantasy of abundance covers over the way facts and opinions, images and reactions circulate in a massive stream of content, losing their specificity and merging with and into the data flow. Any given message is thus a contribution to this ever-circulating content. […] A contribution need not be understood; it need only be repeated, reproduced, forwarded. Circulation is the context, the condition for the acceptance or rejection of a contribution.

In other words, circulation is more important than substance. Any post, article, message, or comment is merely fodder for what This.'s founders call "The Stream." This is as concise an indictment of clickbait as we're likely to get.

The crux of Dean's argument is that capitalism as it operates online is predicated on communication. The more shares, comments, and tweets, the better. The lowercase-c content of a message or post doesn't really matter. That the feed keeps moving, that Content and capital continue to circulate, is of chief importance.

This. fails to address the central problem with online content because it doesn't seek to disrupt circulation in any significant way

The result, Dean writes, is the overall lowering of online discourse that we encounter whenever we click through to a ViralNova post that we already saw on I Fucking Love Science, which we remember reading on Buzzfeed a couple days ago, which links back to a Gawker article. And every step of the way, advertising revenue accumulates.

This. fails to address the central problem with online content because it doesn't seek to disrupt circulation in any significant way. There is no room to subvert the share-click model. Rather, This. streamlines the process and makes it more palatable to savvy internet types who scoff at Upworthy but still can't quit clicking on all those beautiful links out there in cyberspace.

A way forward

Clickbait is a hack that uses the internet's channels of communication, like social media, for profit. One way to combat this is with spaces that allow users to interact as they please, engage with Content as please, create and distribute information as they please, and refrain from turning them into content-sharing nodes through site design or explicit mandate.

The clickbait economy and This. both treat user communication as potentially dangerous. In the case of clickbait, user communication needs to be corralled and optimized—hacked. In the case of This., it needs to be minimized. The way out of our current clicky situation is to free communication and sharing from the imperatives of capital altogether.

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We need an online space where we can create new aesthetics, generate new ideas, call bullshit, be radical, and, most importantly, play—all outside the profit motive and its compulsion to click and share.

This kind of online space is exactly what we need to be rid of clickbait once and for all, because clickbait is really indicative of a more base structure: that of capital circulating on the internet.

We might call this kind of formation, as media and political theorist Christian Fuchs did in his excellent article "Class and Exploitation on the Internet," a "communist" internet. A communist internet, according to Fuchs, would be a space where users can do more than act in the interest of capital by sharing and clicking links. On a communist internet, we could be ourselves.

On an internet freed from capital, services like This. couldn't exist. They wouldn't need to—Content would finally become less important than content, and we would be the ones to decide how it is produced and shared.

Can anyone honestly say that their idea of a fun time on the internet is forwarding links? So why are we doing it? If you're a social media coordinator, you might not want to think about that one too hard.

Ello seems to be doing a pretty good job of this so far, but it remains to be seen whether it will really catch on or even hold true to its promise of providing an online space that is explicitly anti-capitalist and pro-data privacy.

Regardless, we need more online spaces like Ello—places where we're more than a means to the end of Content circulation, however those that stand to gain, like Atlantic Media, dress it up.