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Monetizing your disdain

In The New York Times, Taffy Brodesser-Akner has a great profile of Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s extremely even-handed and as revealing about the writer as the subject. This portion caught my eye.

A gynecologist and obstetrician in San Francisco named Jen Gunter, who also writes a column on reproductive health for The Times, has criticized Goop in about 30 blog posts on her website since 2015. A post she wrote last May — an open letter that she signed on behalf of “Science” — generated more than 800,000 page views. She was angry about all the bad advice she had seen from Goop in the last few years. She was angry that her own patients were worried they’d given themselves breast cancer by wearing underwire bras, thanks to an article by an osteopath who cited a much-debunked book published in 1995. Gunter cited many of Goop’s greatest hits: “Tampons are not vaginal death sticks, vegetables with lectins are not killing us, vaginas don’t need steaming, Epstein Barr virus (E.B.V.) does not cause every thyroid disease and for [expletive] sake no one needs to know their latex farmer; what they need to know is that the only thing between them and H.I.V. or gonorrhea is a few millimeters of latex, so glove that [expletive] up.”

But something strange happened. Each of these pronouncements set off a series of blog posts and articles and tweets that linked directly to the site, driving up traffic. At Harvard, G.P. called these moments “cultural firestorms.” “I can monetize those eyeballs,” she told the students. Goop had learned to do a special kind of dark art: to corral the vitriol of the internet and the ever-present shall we call it cultural ambivalence about G.P. herself and turn them into cash. It’s never clickbait, she told the class. “It’s a cultural firestorm when it’s about a woman’s vagina.” The room was silent. She then cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled, “VAGINA! VAGINA! VAGINA!” as if she were yodeling.

It reminded me of this piece by Matt Singer about why you shouldn’t share bad articles:

Look, I get it. When someone writes something bad it pisses me off too. And my first instinct is to share it with a “Can you believe someone was paid to write this junk?” tweet. In an ideal world, sharing and decrying these pieces would have their intended effect. Alas, we do not live in an ideal world. When we share a piece of stupidity or racism on social media hundreds of times, and people click on it hundreds of thousands of times, we’ve given the writer exactly what they wanted (or, at the very least, have in no way punished them for doing something bad). The old truism about how there’s no such thing as bad publicity? That’s never been truer than in on the internet circa 2018.

Like I said, I’ve been just as guilty of this as anyone. But I’m trying, Ringo; I’m trying real hard to be a shepherd. Instead of amplifying the bad, I’m sharing the good. They’re not always the sexiest articles, and they rarely get shared far enough to make a positive impact on their traffic (some other time we’ll have to talk about how retweets and likes have become psychological currency, and another incentive to share bad articles). But at least I’m not helping spread the crap in the world. Instead of treating these articles like spoiled milk, we should look at them like a fire: The quickest way of stopping one is by depriving it of oxygen.

People derive great pleasure from sharing and denouncing bad articles but, in a very tangible and financial way, the people behind those bad articles benefit from having them shared. Next time you want to get angry at something, just think about not talking about it. Ironically, it’s the best way to send a message.