by Hugh Gilmore
Eh? Who is Emerson Spartz? You probably haven’t heard about him if you read columns like this. Here we speak quietly and politely of books and ideas and soon-to-be-quaint-notions such as thinking, pondering, and philosophizing.
Spartz is one of those behind-the-scenes Masters of the Universe who is possibly America’s leading Internet eyeball grabber. I read about him in an article in the Jan. 5 New Yorker magazine written by Andrew Marantz. Spartz’s business card names him as CEO of Chicago-based Spartz Media. He is an Internet-media entrepreneur whose specialty is meme aggregation and the analysis of Internet virology. (Interpretation: collecting cute, weird, or funny ideas and images and experimenting with how to make them popular on the Internet.)
It took me a while to “get” this business, but about halfway through the article I managed to achieve a eureka! capture moment. Spartz is one of the guys who put little captivating pictorial blocks at the bottom of an article you’ve just read, together with goofy, irresistible captions, such as “Nine Celebrities who are Incredibly Shorter than People Imagine”; or, “Seven Reasons You Should Never Eat Avocados.”
These tempting little tidbits are called “clickbait,” and they have been placed before you as a kind of potato chip that you’ll click on, thinking, “What the heck, I’ll just eat one. Hmm, just how short is Sylvester Stallone?” You click. That takes you to a page filled with memes or wanna-be memes.
“Memes” are ideas, concepts, “aha! moments” that illustrate a kind of truth, “tricks,” techniques,” oddities, and so on, but essentially, they’re mental. (Wikipedia has an entry devoted to memes, if you’re curious.) The web being the intensely visual medium it is, Internet memes are best expressed via images or video.
The most popular among them become widespread so quickly they are said to have “gone viral,” i.e., spread quickly among the population like a virus. If they’ve gone viral long enough, they stick around and become part of our culture. That’s when they truly become memes in the strictest sense.
Mr. Spartz is a genius at scouring the Internet, finding interesting factoids that others have posted, and appropriating them, too often without crediting their sources. His first site was Mugglenet – the first Harry Potter website. Another arose in 2009 when Spartz and his wife, Gaby Montero, launched GivesMeHope.com, a blog site they refer as: “Chicken Soup for the Soul – the 21st Century, Twitter-style version.” It is filled with reader-submitted stories of hope and inspiration. All of them short. His latest site is Dose.com (“Your Daily Dose of Amazing”). Another one is OMGfacts.com
Cumulatively, they are responsible for the ton of crap your friends can’t resist forwarding to you. I’ll take a peek at OMG right now and read off for you five current headlines. Here we go: (1) “There Are Only Five People Still Alive Who Were Born in The 1800s,” (2) “11 Facts That Could Save Your Life Someday,” (3) 16 Ridiculous But True Facts That Will Make People Think You’re A Liar,” (4) 15 Things Your Can Do With Silica Gel Packets” and (5) “If You Have A Fear of Clowns Do Not Look At These Photos.”
If you click No. 5, for example, the collection of clown photos with brief captions contains embedded ads for Epson PrecisionCore printers, Sprint, Xfinity, a movie on the A&E network, Astra-Zeneca, Peco, ShoeBuy, FaceBook and Twitter. Similar bunches of ads accompany all of their “blogsite” pages. Lots of income for Spartz Media there.
Well, why not? The quickest time-proven method of making money from a blogsite is to attract advertisers. And the ad men, as always, have wanted maximum exposure to browsers – expressed as eyeballs, hits, clicks, page views, followers, or dozens of other terms I haven’t heard of yet.
Marantz’s New Yorker article quickly became controversial when it turned into a “pure journalism” vs. junky journalism debate. After all, the Spartz defenders say, only a small part of any given newspaper or magazine is devoted to journalism in its loftiest sense. Most of a newspaper’s content consists of ads, comics, funnies, sports results, gossip, entertainment listings and so on. Spartz says, to paraphrase, “Skip the editorials and get to the fun stuff.” They get more hits.
Furthermore, Spartz’s penchant for luring eyeballs by offering them amusing oddities has its long-ago predecessors in such people as the cartoonist Hatlo’s “They’ll do it every time” and Robert Ripley’s “Believe it or Not” cartoons, radio shows and TV programs. There’s nothing new about freak shows. The Internet just gets bigger results, more quickly, too, and no one has to leave home. Or, if they do, they can take the show with them now.
So, I am not offended by those clickbaits. They’re fun enough. And we’ve all heard of Free Will, haven’t we?
But I am offended by another aspect of the interview with Emerson Spartz – the expansion of his success into thinking that what he is doing is important, even “world-changing.” In several places he is quoted as saying that the only content that matters is the content that gets people to click. And therefore, in corporate think, the “best” content is the most popular content. Short is better. Short and simple, better yet – more clicks that way.
I mind this trend because I believe that a limitless succession of short clicks adds up to a wasted, brainless life. You can swim in a pool of trivia only so long before it coats you. It took centuries for human culture to evolve the ability to understand a complex written thought. The ability to think long and hard about a subject is a learned skill and must be practiced to be retained. The current click-click-click, quick-quick-quick path to meaningless factoids is debilitating. It erodes our hard-won cultural ability to comprehend and appreciate the beauty and complexity of the world and of human artistic achievement.
Hugh Gilmore is the author of “Malcolm’s Wine,” a noir bibliomystery and “Scenes from a Bookshop,” a collection or rare book shop stories. His upcoming memoir: “My Three Suicides: A Success Story,” will be launched on Feb. 27 with a reading/signing and party.