August 30, 2014

ALERT: You Are What You Click

Thank you for clicking on this brief (and hopefully engaging) alert. It's time we all got on the same page when it comes to clicking.

First, a quick story: I recently made a sarcastic comment online, in response to a story published by The National Post. The heading (designed to get your full attention with the words "killer" and "stunned") was:

Video shows killer whale flipping a sea lion 20 feet into the air in front of stunned Alaska boat crew.

It infuriated me that this major daily newspaper was repackaging and spreading a viral video. Why? First of all, it wasn't news and it wasn't original. It wasn't even enlightening. This is what orcas do when they hunt, it's perfectly normal behaviour for this large predator. But also because I know the value of clicks.

Advertising space on the Internet is valued according to its "click-ability"; the more that people click on a story or post, the more valuable it becomes, in terms of advertising revenue. This was a bad-quality video which had already gone viral, and it was obviously trading on the trending of orcas in the news, from the massive push to get SeaWorld closed for its cruel treatment of these ocean dwellers. This was a money grab, completely relying on our own stupid addiction to sensationalism. They knew that thousands of people would "click" on this story (whether we read it or not is irrelevant) and thus add to the paper's value to advertisers. It's all about the money, honey.

My comment was immediately attacked by several readers who thought I was pure evil for questioning the newsworthiness of the story. You can click on the link for all comments; as you can see from the excerpt below, the final tally was 20 "likes" for me, 24 "likes" for my antagonist, who even took the time to Google me for more ammunition. Other readers agreed with me, but all in all, I was surprised and a bit alarmed by the swift and aggressive reaction to an otherwise innocuous comment, addressed more to the newspaper's editors than to its readers.

Today I watched a very thoughtful TED.COM talk by Sally Kohn, who is newsworthy and enlightening. She explains further that, with the simple act of clicking, we consumers are now shaping the media and determining the future of our own culture. This is so true, and most people just don't understand it or believe it (or want to). I've often reminded my niece and nephews, to discourage them from filling their beautiful minds with trashy TV or junky fiction - You are what you consume. Garbage in, garbage out. 

George Orwell wasn't far off: Big Brother is not the government, though, or any human overlord. Big Brother is Big Data. It's watching us, and no one even knows what it's doing, not even its creators. There is evidence of this in the stock market (where computers are programmed to automatically buy and sell stocks faster than the blink of an eye) and in the world of marketing and media, where machines are collecting information on our "clicks" and using them to program and manipulate our viewing habits, in subtle and absolutely invisible ways.

There's no hiding, then. You are what you click. And if the statistics are correct (over 90% of Internet use is for viewing porn), we're not a very enlightened group to begin with. Are you an active clicker? Well, it's time to be a more responsible one.


  1. Good post, Lorrie. The reaction to your comment at NP should be startling, but isn't. It's just sad. Thanks for sharing the Sally Kohn Ted talk. It's a keeper!

  2. You're absolutely right, Nancy. And it's sad that it's sad. Thanks for weighing in on the topic.


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