I’ve been doing this professional writing thing for about nine months now, which may not seem like a lengthy period of time but it’s offered me a kind of detailed education in pop culture journalism that mere spectatorship could never produce. People treat you differently when they discover that you get paid to have opinions on the internet: Often they assume you consider yourself a mighty, untouchable authority on every subject and thus should be attacked for your elitism, while many see you as a cog in the establishment machine working overtime to quash the beleaguered underdogs of geek culture through criticism. I’ve faced accusations of being paid off from Marvel, of hating Ben Affleck’s kids, of having a liberal feminist agenda (well, that one’s true), and of secretly hating pop culture. A lot of the time, I’m just subjected to weird or hostile insults on Twitter. Most of this doesn’t bother me because it’s noise I can mute or a spectacle I can laugh at. You get dishearteningly used to creepy comments and dogpiles, and as aggravating as it can be for such behaviour to be viewed as an expected hazard of the occupation by the outside world, it’s something I’ve learned to live with.
However, the one insult that always sticks is one that’s not even that nasty. I get called a ‘cunt’ regularly by Twitter bullies, but that feels like less of a slight against my work than when someone calls it ‘clickbait’. You never really get over the tedious slog of spending hours researching a piece, writing it up, double and triple checking it, following editor’s orders and seeing it published, only for people who didn’t read it to call it ‘clickbait’. Then again, that’s only mildly less aggravating than someone claiming they did read it and still insisting it’s clickbait.
The most obvious example of this is, of course, the Twitter account @FilmClickBait. Admittedly, I previously found the account quite entertaining as a succinct response to yes/no questions posed in article titles, but it quickly sank into a kind of smugness I found discomfiting, long before I started writing professionally myself. The account started to become intensely dismissive of the work of countless writers and only seemed emboldened by a fan-base that took every tweet for gospel, even when they were blatantly wrong.
Last week, the account got angry at one of its favourite targets, Screen Rant, a website I write for, once again reminding me why it made me so uncomfortable. One of the things you immediately learn upon beginning your career as a professional writer is that it’s an increasingly tough field to make your name in, both as an individual writer and as a team member for a website. Competition is fierce and social media, where so many of those precious clicks originate from, stacks the odds against you. You can do everything right and still only have a thousand people read your achingly researched piece. The things you used to scorn quickly reveal themselves to have specific reasoning behind them. I can point to my own statistics as proof that a catchy title will bring in the readers, but I wouldn’t say that constitutes clickbait. Making something clickable is not offering a bait and switch for readers. There are topics that will always be popular - when in doubt, write about Batman - but every piece is still a spin of the wheel that offers no guarantees.
FilmClickBait, as well as the supposed anti-clickbait mentality that it has fostered, seems rooted in a fundamental refusal to understand the cold hard economics of our business. Online journalism is not doing great right now, as evidenced by the nonsensical ‘pivot to video’ so many sites are doing, at the cost of countless wonderful writers. It’s easy to forget someone is making their living on those articles that get brays of laughter from a snarky tweet, and believe me, this is not a field that offers the kind of money that so many people insist it does (oh if only Marvel were offering those regular anti-DC shill cheques).
Those catchy article titles that bother FilmClickBait so much are not the be all and end all of an article. Using myself as an example, for Screen Rant, I wrote a piece entitled ‘How Much Did Inhumans Cost To Make?’ I’m sure someone reading this piece saw that sentence and rolled their eyes, but I wrote it for many reasons. For one, it was actually quite hard to find definite numbers on how much Marvel and ABC’s latest series cost, which isn’t unusual with TV shows but it’s usually easier to find solid numbers through a quick google than it was here. I found some local numbers on how much the production was estimated to cost and included them but also contextualised why Marvel and ABC would want this show to be so pricey. I went into detail about the failed IMAX premiere for the series, I talked about the strength of the Marvel brand in the TV world, and I looked into the possibility of the estimated budget being wrong due to quotes given by the pilot’s director. If you wanted to just know how much it cost, the number was there, and then you could leave, but if you wanted to know more, that was there too. It wasn’t just a post about a budget; it was a quick dive into one of the most powerful studios in the world and one way their business was going a tad awry. I was quite proud of that piece, as short as it was.
I’m sure that read to some of you as self-aggrandizing, but it’s hard not to take slams about clickbait personally from an account whose smarm dismisses the hard work of thousands of people, many of whom write without by-lines just to get a foothold in a crowded industry and all of whom love pop culture enough to want to put up with the perils of the field. A study found that 59% of all links shared on social media were never actually clicked on, so watching arrogant displays of dismissal like that stings all the more. Those people cheering on FilmClickBait probably weren’t going to click on the link in the first place.
I’ve so little time for hollow snark disguised as nobility. Our entertainment culture has many problems, but I struggle to see editors helping to make their teams’ pieces SEO friendly as one of them, particularly when the rabble-rousing entitlement of geek culture, based in a hatred of even the mildest spoilers and an insistence of true intellectual prowess, has taken form in this seemingly benign form. There’s no graciousness in snark, no matter how much you try to disguise it as a public service.
Knowing FilmClickBait, I’m sure they may link to this piece and offer a pithy summary of what they deem to be its point. Their readers will laugh at it, retweet his comment and probably not click on the piece itself. That’s probably for the best. Otherwise, they might learn something.