A Wave of Rubbish: Holding Content to a Higher Standard

There's a wonderful moment at the end of Pretty Woman. For anyone who's not seen it, Richard Gere is a corporate raider after his latest target, a ship-building company. Towards the end, in a moment of anagnorisis, he realises his life has been spent creating a company which creates nothing but money, contributing nothing to the world but the destruction of other businesses.

In an act of peripety, he then destroys the aim he's been working towards through the film, and instead embarks on a new enterprise to join with the business he wanted to destroy, to build ships for the US Navy.

Whilst it's not an exact metaphor, something similar needs to occur in the world of content creation. Whether it's for the web, the radio or TV, there's a cancer in the creative industries at the moment. We need to do better, and it means growing up.

This One Weird Trick Will Make You More Stupid

There's a problem with people on the internet - we have the attention span of a five year old (almost none), combined with the self restraint of a teenager (none whatsoever).

We can add to this a modern formulation of Goodhart's law:

Any metric will be inflated without delivering benefit when used to measure business performance

This neatly explains quite a lot. As rational, adult human beings, we know that these things are bad for us. However, the lizard part of our brain craves the dopamine hit these things provide. The anticipation of something in the future, combined with an easy way to get it creates a cycle that content providers are only too eager to cater for.

The problem is, whilst people know reading a great book is better in every sense than clicking on yet another item on the Daily Mail Sidebar of Shame, they're going to do the latter if given the option and a good copywriter.

This is only exacerbated by data analysis that tells the publishers exactly what to write to get the most eyeballs, to distract you a moment longer, and to feed you yet another morsel of ultimately unsatisfying, unfulfilling rubbish. After all, they're paid on ad views, so they're going to do their best to keep you reading. They have no interest in informing or educating you; in giving you a fair or balanced story.

Instead, they play on outrage, shame, fear, scandal and salaciousness. They trigger the most base emotions to keep you coming back.

Saying No to Bad Work

I build things for the web. Whether it's a timeline of the history of humanity, or a look at the history of space exploration, I try and make these things as good as I can at the time. Certainly, if I were to go back and re-do them now, there's places they could be improved. However, I refuse to put something on the web that I'm not happy to put my name to; that I believe would make the web worse for being there.

As developers, designers, art directors, conversion specialists, user experience experts and generally the people who craft the web, we have a responsibility to do better. We can choose to make things which we know people will devour but which are ultimately terrible, or we can choose to hold ourselves to a higher standard.

When this really goes wrong, it goes spectacularly wrong. Witness the uproar over Vox's article on Daniel Holtzclaw, and the chaos that ensued. Quoting from Vox's internal investigation:

In the case of the Holtzclaw story, an unacceptably low number of the editors who read it prior to its publication appeared to understand the true severity of its problems. Editors who fail to understand at the outset why a story like this one ought to be considered sensitive or controversial are failing at a core job skill.

The drive to do better has to come at every level of our industry, and the implementation of that will require that we take a long, hard look at ourselves. We might not like what we see looking back. What we've become is not a pretty thing.

We need to decide what we want to leave as our legacy. As Linds Redding said:

It turns out I didn't actually like my old life nearly as much as I thought I did. I know this now because I occasionally catch up with my old colleagues and work-mates. They fall over each other to enthusiastically show me the latest project they're working on. Ask my opinion. Proudly show off their technical prowess (which is not inconsiderable.) I find myself glazing over but politely listen as they brag about who's had the least sleep and the most takeaway food. "I haven't seen my wife since January, I can't feel my legs any more and I think I have scurvy but another three weeks and we'll be done. It's got to be done by then The client's going on holiday. What do I think?"

What do I think?

I think you're all fucking mad. Deranged. So disengaged from reality it's not even funny. It's a fucking TV commercial. Nobody give a shit.

...and later on in the same piece:

It wasn't really important. Or of any consequence at all really. How could it be. We were just shifting product. Our product, and the clients. Just meeting the quota. Feeding the beast as I called it on my more cynical days.

So was it worth it?

Well of course not. It turns out it was just advertising. There was no higher calling. No ultimate prize.

It's the same for creating the torrent of crap we've unleashed on the web. You're not doing anything of value. You're not creating anything anyone cares about. It's a colossal waste of our time and talents as an industry, and an abuse of psychology and the public at large.

We've conspired to knowing make people more angry and stupid, and then we're surprised at the result being people thinking:

  • Donald Trump should lead America
  • Vaccines are bad for you
  • Crime is steadily rising
  • The UK budget goes more to foreign aid and Jobseekers' Allowance than pensions
  • Carrots give you good eyesight
  • People in the Middle Ages believed the Earth was flat
  • You only use 10% of your brain
  • Glass is a liquid

...and so on. It's shameful, and we should do better. Just because we can make a quick buck appealing to people's inner instant gratification monkey doesn't mean we should.

We have a responsibility to help people to not do things that are going to be harmful to them. We can choose to be Eat or Leon or McDonalds. We can be Cambridge or Oxford MIT, or we can be Trump University. We can be Jane Austin or Oscar Wilde or E L James. We can be Wikipedia or the BBC's website or Fox News' website or Buzzfeed.

Towards a Better Web

I can't affect much in the world of TV or radio. I can't affect the world of the web much either to be honest, but what I can do is control what I work on. And call for others to do the same. So here's an idea: we as creatives and engineers and people across the creative world should not work on anything that is that is disingenuous, that will make a reader less informed or more ignorant. Instead, we should make things that matter, that educate, that are free of bias.

Is Your Mother Proud of You?

I call this the Malibu Principle: asking of the work you're about to do, would your mother be proud of it?

If the answer is no, you probably shouldn't make it.

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