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Stop Feeding the Click Bait

Photograph by Getty Images

It started with Katie Hopkins for me. I heard about her for the first time maybe six months ago. She’s a British columnist and reality TV star who has made a name for herself by being, well … awful. This is a woman who has publicly proclaimed she limits who her children play with based on first names and who has most recently made headlines for intentionally gaining 50 pounds — purely to prove that losing the weight would be easy, and that overweight people are simply too lazy to try.

She has been quoted as saying, “I hate fat people for making me do this.”

Like I said, awful.

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I don’t remember how exactly I came across Katie. She had done or said something that wound up in my newsfeed, and then when I mentioned her on my Facebook page, the comments came pouring in. People hated her, but more importantly — they were able to quote just about every horrific thing she had ever said.

I remember being fascinated by the whole thing. This woman had shot to fame by intentionally being as controversial as possible. She has 242,000 followers on Twitter, and there is a single Facebook page dedicated to hating her that consists of 62,000 people.

62,000 people who hate her so much, that they actively participate in seeking out everything she writes and says in order to tear it apart.

I’ve got news for you: That brand she has created? It’s one most publications would probably love to be a part of. They don’t care that she’s popular because she’s hated. All they care about is the fact that quoting her, or publishing anything she has written, is going to mean tens of thousands of people flocking to their space. And more clicks mean more advertising dollars, which is really what it all comes down to.

Do we really live in a world where people are rewarded for being insensitive, crass and just plain awful?

Katie Hopkins certainly isn’t the only person in the world who has figured this equation out. Most recently, I was introduced to Matt Walsh, a polarizing figure who seems to have built his way to fame by being similarly inflammatory. He has a fan page on Facebook with 250,000 followers and his blog posts get hundreds (if not thousands) of comments. The crazy thing is, half the people who follow him and comment on his material seem to hate him; they are there purely to argue with the points he makes.

But they keep coming back, perhaps even more loyal than the fans who actually like him. And I have to believe that Matt Walsh knows that. That he is even OK with it, because he has figured out how to support his family and bring loads of money in, simply by pissing people off.

The idea of click bait isn’t a new one. Plenty of publications and news sources have figured out that publishing inflammatory material actually increases readership. You know that old adage, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity”? Well, that’s kind of the concept here. As long as you can get people talking, even if they are talking about how much they hate you or what you’ve just said, you’re doing it right.

Or at least, you’re making the most money possible.

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of click bait, but perhaps more so now that I actually make my living as a writer. I often find myself watching trends and paying attention to what goes viral and wondering, “Is that really what it takes?”

Do we really live in a world where people are rewarded for being insensitive, crass and just plain awful?

When did we become a generation of people drawn to the macabre, rather than the uplifting?

You see it with the mommy topics all the time. Bring up breastfeeding, vaccinations or circumcision and you have publication gold. Not because you have written something truly insightful that people want to learn from, but because you have opened the floodgates for Internet warfare — and there are plenty of people who simply can’t resist the challenge to engage.

What does it say about us that the most popular content being produced on any given day is the content that has intentionally been manufactured to be controversial? Why are we more likely to click on stories about starlets hitting rock bottom than we are about kids doing amazing and inspirational things? When did we become a generation of people drawn to the macabre, rather than the uplifting?

We’re falling victim to our own morbid curiosities, and media outlets are taking full advantage of that by producing content they know will get people riled up. I’m just as guilty as anyone else, and I have been known to get drawn into my fair share of Internet arguments, but I have to wonder – what’s the point?

And isn’t it possible there are better ways for us to spend our time and creative energies?

I’m all for people using whatever outlets they can find to express themselves, and I am even all about respectful discussions between opposing parties on any number of important issues. What I just can’t get behind, however, is the idea of being inflammatory with intention — with the explicit goal of bringing forth as many clicks as possible, taking advantage of the fact that people can’t seem to resist the topics and positions that have been manufactured purely to get them riled up.

I wonder how many people realize that intention is there, though? How many people get that if something is truly getting their blood boiling, it was probably written or produced with the intention of doing just that. And by engaging with it, you aren’t changing minds — you are simply feeding into the machine that has been operating on controversy for years now.

What if we just stopped engaging, and paid more attention to the headlines that we allow to draw us in?

As a writer, as a mother, and as a woman, I want to do better. I want to be mindful of the power I have over my own mood and attitude; the choice I have to simply not click on something that I know is going to piss me off. I also want to be genuine in the content that I put out into the world, and to focus more on writing pieces that are humorous, uplifting and real in their intent, as opposed to being laced with controversy in an attempt to draw forth more clicks.

But is it possible to be successful in this world anymore without that controversy?

I want to challenge those of you who spend your time ingesting content online to pay closer attention to what you are actively engaging in. For these polarizing figures who have made a name pissing people just like you and me off, what would happen if you hid their pages and ignored their content when it pops up in your feeds? What would it look like, instead, if you intentionally sought out news pieces that reflected more reasonable views and encouraged respectful discourse?

And what if you spent just as much time commenting on the stories that made you smile, as you did on the ones that had you seeing red?

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The idea of click bait isn’t a new one, but it has come about specifically because of how we seem to be drawn to it. So what if we just stopped engaging, and paid more attention to the headlines that we allow to draw us in? Is it possible that the idea of click bait could change as well, and that the Katie Hopkinses and Matt Walshes of the world could find themselves suddenly without the rabid audiences they have relied on to shoot themselves to fame?

I’m sure it’s not quite as simple as that. But … what if it could be?

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