Do you read things on the internet? Here’s how to not be a terrible person while reading things on the internet.

If I'm lucky, I can get a job writing for Chipotle bags.

If I’m lucky, I can get a job writing for Chipotle bags.

Whether you know it or not, every single click you make to read an article from Facebook dictates the job functions of millions of Americans. I’m not exaggerating. What I’m talking about is the principle of “trending” and how online news organizations utilize that information to assign stories to writers or pick up advertisers. I am a writer, and I fucking hate “trending,” but it is only one aspect of the job that is made despicable by you despicable online readers, so please allow me to give you some lessons and behind-the-scenes information, so you can make informed decisions about how you’re going to ruin my life.

1. Read one non-trending article every single day.

Do this, and then post that article on Facebook for others to click on and read. By non-trending, I mean any article that is simply interesting and timeless. It might be a cultural piece about a long-dead artist who isn’t making news but matters, or it might be a longform piece on the three separate inventors of the extreme pogo stick, but it should be something that holds your interest and is not particularly trendy. It should say something with depth and examine a moment or a people in our culture, but it shouldn’t be an infographic or a collection of cat guffaws, because we all know those are just one click away from being forever-trends, and they don’t need the help. Try Smithsonian or Network Awesome for a good start. The New York Times still publishes some of these pieces, and so does GQ and Esquire, but they’re snuggled in some trendy shit.

The reason I want you to do this is because you will, in effect, begin changing the conversation. Have you noticed that most online magazines don’t really have a solid and definite audience? That most of them are vying for the same readership, so they tend to rehash or add onto existing articles that hit big in the viral space? Sure, people are reframing the articles, getting new sources, and maybe this is interesting, but do you really need every single online magazine telling you something slightly different on a full twenty-four-hour news cycle? Is that what you want filling your head? More importantly, is that really what you want me writing?

The second you start something trending, I know that’s the only thing I will be able to write about for one, maybe two, weeks. It’s unfathomably boring and simultaneously nerve-wracking to try to outthink other writers for an original thought amid a shit-ton of similar voices, and editors who came of age in the digital space have been led to believe trending pieces are the only articles they can publish, because we have proven them right with our incessant clicking. They also believe if you miss the two-day window for publishing the piece, then there’s no merit in it anymore. I would like for this not to be true. I would like quality writing to trump fast writing, but it fucking won’t if you keep clicking on the same article over and fucking over, or if you’re always on the hunt for the new, best thing.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a barrage of Ferguson articles. I’m saying that most of them are just aggregations of source articles and don’t need to be written in the first place. Think pieces are driving me crazy, and there’s more and more pressure for everyone to be the next Roxane Gay, but most of us won’t, and most of us just don’t have anything new to say, so we would be better off championing some other stories. Is the Queens Center Mall campaign for a living wage no longer newsworthy because the first effort failed in 2011? What if it was an interesting read with rich descriptions of the mall and the people and what they went on to do next after the initial failure, a story of people who fight for rights, fail, then regroup and carry on, a human story? Sound good? Sorry! That will never get published online, unless it’s on a personal blog. That story you won’t read. You will only read the stories Facebook and other tech companies deem mews (that’s a cat pun) in the little hyperlinked window to the right of your news feed.

2. Do not comment on a story if you’ve only read the title.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: titles are rewritten to be click-bait. We’ve stumbled into a feedback loop again, convincing editors that titles must be provocative or controversial to get reads. But what about thoughtful arguments with informed sources and a lilted sway of opinion? Don’t worry; I fall for it, too. I overlook many a great article for ones with inflammatory language that might fuel up my confirmation bias, but I’m really trying not to do that anymore. It’s difficult, however, when you’re bombarded with trending pieces.

What I’m trying to say about titles is that even if the article is thoughtful as I stated above, the writer has no say in the title treatment. There is nothing more disheartening than writing a piece close to your heart, hoping this one might be the one with the right information to make people think, and then realizing the title has been rephrased into a question, where the obvious answer is likely to get people fucking angry. “Are Republican Cats Responsible for the Debt Ceiling?” Nobody even knows why exactly they’re angry when they read that title, but they definitely know they have an opinion, and they’re going to write that opinion in the comments, whether or not they have read the article.

Occasionally, I step in and try to reorient the comments to a direction that dissects the information in the article I wrote, but in this space, public opinion trumps the writer’s intentions, and then I start thinking that the piece could have been published with just the title and lorem ipsum babble, and nobody would have known the difference. You have rendered me a non-person in the comments section, even as my sad little 60-word bio and headshot smiles, waiting for you to take a potshot. I tried. I really did. But you just couldn’t get past the fucking title. Which brings me to…

3. Before you read the article, read the byline—twice—to remind yourself a human being wrote this for you.

If you’ve never worked as a writer or editor, I’m going to explain the process to you. You get out of bed and pretend you matter and do hours of unpaid research to find any story or angle or trending piece that might catch an editor’s eye. Sometimes you work with a regular editor and can pitch them directly and get an email back filled with criticisms and exclamation points so the two elements even one another out, because you will never, never-ever, be able to speak to this editor on the phone, and neither of you will know when the other is being a dick, so you must tread lightly with your punctuation. Most times, you don’t have an editor you work with regularly, and you will send off at least 5 carefully worded email pitches into space and never actually expect a response. This is fine. It’s almost preferable to the exclamation points. When you do get a hit and an assignment—and I am also an editor, so I’m speaking from both sides of this—your draft will be torn apart to suit the editor’s needs, because she really just needs your words, not you. I’m pretty forgiving of the editors who do this to my pieces, because I get it. You’ve got deadlines, and you need to meet someone else’s trendy demands. But sometimes the editing can go over the edge.

I once rewrote one of my blog posts—a really personal piece—to suit the needs of a publication. I had to do 3 major revision drafts in a single day, and when the piece went up, there was a click bait headline, and details about my life had been changed, along with the general impetus behind the piece. These thoughts weren’t mine, but they were under my byline, and then I got thousands of comments, tweets, and emails from strangers who personally ridiculed me for not including a specific fact, for being whiny, for offering a shallow analysis of something. But if I look at the draft I wrote, not the editor’s draft, all of these things would have been addressed in full. Essentially, she hung me out to dry for the sake of some clicks and to meet an arbitrary word count. I agreed to it all for only $100, so maybe I’m the dick. But writers need money. We need name recognition to get book deals. We have zero say over what’s published under our names, but we hope it’s good!

So look at that byline and think about the shit this person had to overcome to get this article where it is, so you could waste your workday reading it. Imagine she’s recovering from the flu, her grandfather is dying, she just got her period, her cat is sick and she doesn’t have money to get it to the vet because she doesn’t even have money to get a checkup herself, her landlord is gouging her for rent because of inflating market prices, construction people are replacing all the pipes in her building and telling her she’s been drinking poison water for a year, and she’s still going to meet that damn early-morning deadline, because this article will be meaningless to editors if it’s not turned in by that 24-hour window. Imagine that, and then read the whole damn article. And then if you like it, send her a goddamn email to let her know she’s a fucking person, because she probably will have forgotten by the next news cycle.


One response to “Do you read things on the internet? Here’s how to not be a terrible person while reading things on the internet.

  1. God damn it! Son of bitch! You need some solid, no bullshit, straight up… Get Happy. I want more pieces from a place a balance and higher thinking than whoa… You write the pieces of our broken society from a place modestly beyond the breaking point, and I’ll continue to read.

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