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Useful tragedy beats manipulative clickbait

Thursday, 13 February, 2014

The web was filled with wonder last year when an upstart site called Upworthy garnered 7.8 million pageviews for a story titled “Dustin Hoffman Breaks Down Crying Explaining Something That Every Woman Sadly Already Experienced.” This was then topped with “The Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular,” which racked up 17 million pageviews. The clear and unmistakable message is that manipulative clickbait is a road paved with digital gold. Business plan: Write irresistible headlines + spam the Facebook News Feed.

But then Zuckerberg and Sandberg turned off the big tap and that has been bad bad news for Upworthy, which has experienced a 46 percent traffic decline in just two months. The moral of the story, as Megan McCardle puts it so nicely in her latest Bloomberg column, is: “When you build your business around Facebook, ultimately, it’s Facebook’s business you’re building, not your own.”

The News Long before the fall, however, lots of people had tired of the Upworthy scam, er, strategy, with its incessant drumbeat of banality, which it pawned off in such a way that critics were left feeling like curmudgeons who hated everything positive about our planet. What’s there not to like about good clickbait news? A lot, actually, says Alain de Botton in his new book, The News: A User’s Manual. The philosopher is backing up his thesis with The Philosophers’ Mail, a site that aims to make us think more about the news we consume. Rather delightfully, it borrows from the Daily Mail factory of headline-writing and design.

Why isn’t the news more cheerful?” asks today’s top story, topically. Snippet:

“At the Philosopher’s Mail, we’re not into good news or bad news. We start from a different place. Our primary move in selecting stories is to ask, ‘Would it be helpful to know this?’ This determines whether a story goes in or out. In order to live your life well, you need to deal with negative and positive information. News can very well be helpful when it is talking about appalling events. And it can be extremely unhelpful when the stories it tells us are cheery.”

Instead, de Botton & Co. are serving up useful tragedy and helpful victory. Their stories won’t get as many clicks as Upworthy’s “See Why We Have An Absolutely Ridiculous Standard Of Beauty In Just 37 Seconds” (11.8 million pageviews), but they’re not building their house on Facebook’s land, either.

This just in: “Alain de Botton — why I’ve started my own Mail Online: Media moguls aren’t philosophers. So it’s time for philosophers to become media moguls.”


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