There are many reasons why I don’t run Emerald City any more, but one of those that makes me glad of it is that I no longer feel any pressure to be a top-ranked web site in my field. Competition is all very well, but what you think you have to do to be successful can sometimes be ugly. Over the past week I have seen a bunch of editorial decisions that have brought this home to me very clearly. Here they are.
- The Guardian ran an article on climate change by Sarah Palin;
- SF Signal published a column by a newbie writer foolish enough to think that she could take down John Scalzi by playing victim politics;
- The Bilerico Project, a supposed LGBTQ web site, ran a post so transphobic it might as well have been penned by Rush Limbaugh or Pat Robertson; and
- The BBC headlined a web post: “Should homosexuals face execution?”
Newspapers such as the Daily Malice do this sort of thing all of the time. They are past masters at evading hate crime legislation by publishing articles that are just subtle enough to evade censure by the authorities (bearing in mind that the UK’s Press Complaints Commission is about as independent of the industry it is supposed to regulate as a glove puppet is of the person with a hand up its arse) but are very clear invitations to the bigoted to foam into paroxysms of hatred and bile. I expect that sort of thing from them, but not from the outlets listed above. So what’s going on?
Pretty clearly it is not editorial policy. The Guardian does not agree with Sarah Palin on climate change. I don’t think anyone at SF Signal believes that John Scalzi is out to prevent young writers from making a career in the business. Nor do I think that anyone on the Bilerico editorial board actually believes that trans people are deluded fools who should have been dealt with more sternly by their parents. And the BBC does not support the death penalty for homosexuality.
What I suspect is happening here is that all four venues have editors who feel under pressure to compete for attention in the blogosphere. They know that controversy is good for boosting your readership numbers, and at some point in the editorial decision-making process common sense goes out of the window and the desperate quest for eyeballs takes over. After all, for a commercial site, the more visitors you get the more advertising revenue you can pull.
The rationale that is always trotted out for this is that the site in question believes in fostering “debate”. Yeah, right. But there’s debate and debate. There’s polite exchange of views, and there’s yelling at each other across the ether. And at some point the whole thing devolves into an analog of bear baiting –- some unfortunate person or group is repeatedly poked with sharp sticks in the hope that it will be goaded into a furious rage and attack its tormentors with extreme violence for the entertainment of the bloodthirsty crowd.
The trouble is that it can be very successful. When the Guardian article went online my Twitter stream quickly filled up with UK people saying things along the lines of, “OMG!!! WTF??? [link]”, so I’m pretty sure the Palin article got some stellar viewing figures, me included because I was dumb enough to click on the link. The other three posts all have huge comment threads. Controversy works.
Up to a point.
Because then you have to deal with the fallout. As far as I know, the first two instances haven’t caused much in the way of lasting outrage, though I suspect the author of the SF Signal article may be rather sad and sorry as a result. I wouldn’t have exposed a contributor to public ridicule by posting something that inept. Elsewhere, however, the Bilerico article has left much of the trans community with the feeling that Bilerico’s editors view trans people as so much worthless trash to be pilloried at will for the entertainment of the masses; and the BBC has been fighting a damage limitation campaign ever since the news of their post hit Twitter.
Competing for attention on the Internet is never easy, and the closer you get to the top of the heap the harder it becomes. But sometimes editors have to sit back and ask themselves, “Do I really want to run that?” Mistakes are all too easy to make (and I’ve made a fair few in my time). Sometimes controversy isn’t worth the trouble it brings in its wake.
Note also that I have not included any links to the articles in question. One of the best ways we can stop the controversy merchants is to not stoke the feeding frenzy. If you must link to something, link to a post that discusses the original post, not to the post itself. That gives people the opportunity to bail before giving the miscreants in question any further boost to their viewing stats.