The national shame of college admissions

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The college admissions scandal that unfurled this week has become a national obsession, and with good reason: Virtually everyone in this country needs to deal with college admissions at some point in their lives, whether for themselves or for their children, even if it’s just to look at the entire corrupt process and decline to participate in it.

This scandal has everything: wealthy, recognizable people in high positions using their power to get their oblivious children into universities where it would otherwise be a challenge for them to gain admittance. Plus, so many delicious details about how this scam went down. Here’s my recommended reading on the subject:

  • Deadspin has a good summary of the more hilarious details.
  • Slate posits that sports recruiting is the real college admissions scam. They’re right.
  • The Atlantic explains why it’s significant that the parents chose to lie to their children about their actions, and how that perpetuates the feelings of privilege and the notion of “I earned everything I have” that has become so insidious in our culture.
  • As usual, The Daily podcast has a great rundown of the major issues involved. One of the key insights that’s important to remember: Many of these children likely had a decent chance at getting into schools like USC, which are selective but not as much as the upper echelons of the Ivy League. What these parents wanted was a sure thing.
  • The New York Times highlights the racial disparities inherent in the system. Said one student: “We can put in work from fifth grade to 12th grade, every single day, come in early, leave late, and it’s still not enough. What does it take? You work every day, they still find a way.”
  • From August of 2018, Alia Wong at The Atlantic proposes a radical solution to fix elite-college admissions: Lotteries. This will never happen, but it’s interesting to contemplate.
  • Masha Gessen writes for The New Yorker about how she would cover this event as a foreign correspondent, asking, “Why is such a clearly and unabashedly immoral system legal at all?”

What this scandal reminded me of is how unfair the process is to begin with, even without all the illegal bribes. Wealthy people can legally donate buildings to get their kids into school (for now). They can pay for the best test prep classes available. They help their children participate in sports, unavailable to others, that make it more likely they’ll be admitted.

Even with all these advantages, it still wasn’t enough. These parents wanted guarantees, no matter what the legal and ethical cost. Now, to paraphrase Francis X. Hummel, they are reaping the whirlwind.


Netflix canceled the critically beloved sitcom One Day at a Time this week (Disclosure: I currently work at Amazon and have a friend who was a regular on the show). Shows get canceled all the time, but what was remarkable about this one was the tone-deafness of Netflix’s tweet announcement and the ferocity of the backlash to it. A hashtag meant to try to save the show, #saveodaat, was trending worldwide within an hours.

In an era where the streaming giant is trying to cultivate an aura of “wokeness,” we got to see this week what happens when progressive politics meets business reality. Companies presenting themselves as guardians of diversity and representation are now treading on shifting ground.

At the Washington Post, Ric Sanchez explains how important the show was to him, and why Netflix’s tweet was so painful:

The Latin American experience is not monolithic, and the show was careful to illustrate that. There were Cuban in-jokes I was not familiar with, sure — but there were also story lines relatable to anyone who has been threatened by their abuela, shamed for their Spanish proficiency or walked a well-meaning peer through a microaggression.

These are the small moments in which “One Day at a Time” excelled. Whether you’re Latin American, a single parent, a veteran or part of a working-class family, it felt like the show could take an experience you thought was painfully specific to you and present it to a wider audience with charm and empathy. It helped you see yourself in a new context. […]

Netflix certainly is under no obligation to support a show that’s losing money. It’s a business decision, sure. But to cloak a business decision in the language of inclusiveness is tone-deaf at best and condescending at worst. They’re effectively telling us that we matter — we just don’t matter enough.

James Poniewozik has a similar piece at NYTimes, writing:

I am not a mind reader. Maybe the sentiment is sincere, maybe it’s spin, maybe a little of each. Either way, Netflix is trying to throw away its cake and get credit for having baked it.

Poniewozik also provides some good perspective on Netflix’s claim that “simply not enough people watched.”


Other links from the week:

Space helmets, and other odds and ends

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I had a fun time chatting with the filmmakers of the sci-fi indie film Prospect recently. The film just hit video on demand on March 8, and you can watch our conversation by clicking above or read a transcript at /Film.

We discussed how challenging it was to design a good practical space helmet that would also look good on film (of note: many big-budget sci-fi blockbusters, such as the recently-released Captain Marvel, often feature major characters wearing CG helmets). But one thing a good helmet can do is also open up more space for the actors to work in. Here’s production designer Matt Acosta, on how this was made apparent to him in one scene early in the film:

You start to learn how the actors are acting within the helmets and it becomes this other extra level for the actors. And there was this very specific scene where Jay Duplass literally holds a gun up to Pedro’s helmet and puts it against the glass. And it had this completely different threat and weirdness to it because Pedro could like look at the gun and there’s this forced distance between the gun and the character, which in other movies you don’t really have. It was so interesting to see him playing in that space because it’s just a new thing, a new piece that he had to play with.

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Some more interesting links from the week:

The week of upheaval

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Programming note: This update comes a bit late this week. I’m still trying to find the correct balance between waiting until I have time to write a substantive update, vs. being as timely as possible. Thanks for sticking with me as I figure it out.

The Oscars happened this week! I know, it feels like a few years ago already, but as we pass this moment, I wanted to pause and take a moment to reflect on how historic the 91st Academy Awards were. Lots of talented people of color took home awards, including:

  • Ruth E. Carter, who became the first African-American woman to win Best Costume Design (for Black Panther). Her colleague, Hannah Beachler, was the first African-American to take home the prize for Best Production Design.
  • Mahershala Ali, who became the first African-American actor to win for Best Supporting Actor twice.
  • Rami Malek, who became the first Egyptian-American to win Best Actor
  • Asian-Americans Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who won Best Documentary for Free Solo (and were nominated alongside Bing Liu for the excellent Minding the Gap).
    • I was also personally gratified that Domee Shi won an Oscar for her work on Pixar’s animated short, Bao.

And then Green Book won Best Picture.

Green Book’s journey to the Oscars has been a rocky one. The real-life family of one of its protagonists called the film a “symphony of lies.” Its writer was discovered to have made a Trump-supporting anti-Muslim tweet. Yet Green Book soldiered on

And that’s all without even discussing the quality of the film itself. To my mind, Mark Harris wrote the definitive explanation of what’s wrong with the film: 

Green Book is a but also movie, a both sides movie, and in that, it extends a 50-year-plus tradition of movies that tell a story about American racism that has always been irresistibly appealing, on and offscreen, to that portion of white Americans who see themselves as mediators. They’re the reasonable, non-racist people poised halfway between unrepentant, ineducable racists on one side and, on the other, black people who, in this version of the American narrative, almost always have something to learn themselves. The trope was first, most famously and most effectively, deployed in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, in which the redneck cop played by Rod Steiger has much to learn from the intellectually superior Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), but also something to teach him about not letting anger or a desire for vengeance cloud his judgment. Norman Jewison, that film’s director, knew that that brief comeuppance for Poitier was the spoonful of sugar that would make the medicine of an authoritative black man onscreen palatable to an audience that had almost never seen one depicted before. Fifty years ago, the film was a galvanizing moment in Hollywood history in part because it played wildly differently to black and white, to southern and northern, and to older and younger moviegoers. But while crowds cheered Poitier fighting back, Hollywood gave Steiger the Oscar; for the Academy, it was the white character’s journey, and his humanity, in which the stakes of the film resided.

I found Green Book to be a competently made film, but as Harris indicates, it is depressingly retrograde in its treatment of race and, as a result, feels like it was made for a different era. In a year that saw the release of films like BlackkKlansman, Sorry to Bother You, and Black Panther, we’ve seen that tackling racial issues and politics can result in interesting and brilliant work when approached from a unique perspective. Green Book keeps its feet planted firmly in the familiar past.

That’s why Green Book’s win is such a disappointment. It feels like Academy voters grasping for a past that no longer exists and probably never did. In fact, according to a troubling NYTimes piece, Green Book’s evocation of nostalgia is why some people voted for it:

One voter, a studio executive in his 50s, admitted that his support for “Green Book” was rooted in rage. He said he was tired of being told what movies to like and not like. (Much of the public debate about “Green Book” has turned on its handling of racial issues, which some see as woefully retrograde and borderline bigoted.)

There’s no need for me to write a takedown of Green Book because Justin Chang already did for the LA Times, calling it the worst Best Picture winner since Crash:

“Green Book,” a slick crowd-pleaser set in the Deep South in 1962, strains to put you in a good mood. Its victory is appalling but far from shocking: From the moment it won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, the first of several key precursors it would pick up en route to Sunday’s Oscars ceremony, the movie was clearly a much more palatable brand of godawful. In telling the story of the brilliant, erudite jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who is chauffeured on his Southern concert tour by a rough-edged Italian-American bouncer named Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), “Green Book” serves up bald-faced clichés and stereotypes with a drollery that almost qualifies as disarming.[…]

I can tell I’ve already annoyed some of you, though if you take more offense at what I’ve written than you do at “Green Book,” there may not be much more to say. Differences in taste are nothing new, but there is something about the anger and defensiveness provoked by this particular picture that makes reasonable disagreement unusually difficult. Maybe “Green Book” really is the movie of the year after all — not the best movie, but the one that best captures the polarization that arises whenever the conversation shifts toward matters of race, privilege and the all-important question of who gets to tell whose story.

There’s very little I disagree with in this piece, but it’s so brutal that it almost made me feel bad for Green Book?

A few more links to consider as we come to the end of a memorable awards season:


A political addendum: We live in extraordinary times. This week, Michael Cohen testified in front of Congress and laid out numerous acts of wrongdoing that the President of the United States has instigated and covered up. The Cohen testimony was gripping television — Shakespearean in its machinations, powerful in its final manifestation — but the one moment that stuck out to me was when Cohen identified his GOP questioners as being on the same dark road that he went down already:

After a relentless battering from Republican lawmakers over his established dishonesty, including lying to Congress, Cohen called them out for carrying President Trump’s water. He pointed to a poster board that a Republican lawmaker had put up with the words “LIAR LIAR PANTS ON FIRE!” next to a supersize photo of Cohen.

“It’s that sort of behavior that I’m responsible for. I’m responsible for your silliness because I did the same thing that you’re doing now for 10 years,” he told the Republican committee members. “I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years.”

Then he warned, more ominously, “The more people that follow Mr. Trump as I did blindly are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.”

The dynamic was striking: a former lackey, trying to warn the present lackeys that they will one day come to regret their decisions. An image of past and present together on one national stage. Sadly, I don’t think the message got through.

A few more things to consider:


And finally, some other odds and ends from the week:

Big Bezos Energy

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Last week, the CEO of my employer, Jeff Bezos, published a lengthy blog post in which he described and offered proof of an apparent extortion attempt by American Media Inc. (AMI) whose aim was to cow him into silence. AMI claimed to have compromising photos of him and threatened to release them if Bezos didn’t make false statements about AMI’s motivations for its coverage of Bezos’s affair:

Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here. If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can? (On that point, numerous people have contacted our investigation team about their similar experiences with AMI, and how they needed to capitulate because, for example, their livelihoods were at stake.)

In the AMI letters I’m making public, you will see the precise details of their extortionate proposal: They will publish the personal photos unless Gavin de Becker and I make the specific false public statement to the press that we “have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”

If we do not agree to affirmatively publicize that specific lie, they say they’ll publish the photos, and quickly. And there’s an associated threat: They’ll keep the photos on hand and publish them in the future if we ever deviate from that lie.

For obvious reasons, I won’t comment much more on the post except to say that it’s worth reading in its entirety. It’s an excellent piece of writing that has reshaped the narrative on this story and dramatically opened up the scope of what’s happening here. It also portends bad things for AMI going forward [As usual, although I’m an employee of Amazon, all opinions expressed on this blog are my own and don’t represent my company].

There’s also a few supplementary pieces that helped me further understand this story. Bloomberg has a piece describing the history of AMI’s lawyer (he used to work for Amazon). The Daily Beast explains how blackmail has been part of AMI’s business model for awhile now. And finally, Scott Galloway has a smart (and surprisingly poignant) take on a bonus podcast episode of Pivot.


New York magazine did a cover story on The Matrix this week with tons of articles, many of which are worth reading:

But my favorite piece is the interview by Bilge Ebiri with Chad Stahelski, where they talk about The Matrix’s influence on action films. Here’s Stahelski on filming that lobby sequence:

I remember my first time on camera was in the government lobby sequence, when Carrie-Anne does her wall-up. We had rehearsed it a million times. We had squibs that had to go off. It was all practical effects, so you couldn’t have a cell phone within 300 feet of the stage, because at the time, the frequency of cell phones could set off the electronic squibs. They had over a thousand squibs, and they’re blowing off, and we’re seeing them and just going, “Oh my God.” I had to do a thing where I cartwheel over to an M16 rifle, pick it up with one hand, and then Keanu shoots and goes into the fight or whatever. I remember the setup was a day turnover, so you get one take, and it takes a day to reset, and then you do the second take. I had barely met anybody on set at this point. I’m in the getup, and I’m getting ready to go, and I remember producer Joel Silver walking over to me — I had never met the man before in my life — looking me right in the eye and saying, “Don’t fuck this up.” Basically, don’t miss. And he gave me that little stare. He’s a very intense person. And I was like, Okay. Don’t miss gun. They said there’d be a lot of debris, so I just practiced doing the flip with my eyes closed. And I swear to you, as soon as they yelled action, the first squib went off, and I couldn’t see shit. I just threw myself in there and magically found the gun and grabbed it. I was only 25 and I was like, Don’t miss gun. Don’t miss gun. Don’t miss gun. But after that scene finished, I remember calling everybody back in the States and just going, “Yeah, this is gonna be something different. This is real stuff.”

Amazing stuff that makes you remember why this film still retains such immense power.


If you keep up with the news in the podcasting world, you might have heard that Spotify is acquiring Gimlet Media for $230 million! While I’m happy for all the folks at Gimlet who have labored hard for years producing hundreds of hours of entertainment to get to this point, I’m apprehensive about what it means for the state of podcasting. As usual, Nicholas Quah has a smart take on what all of it means:

[T]he major assumption I’ve been seeing around this deal is that in Gimlet, Spotify is primarily getting a show portfolio to use as the cornerstone of their “original podcast programming,” with which they could push more of its users towards consuming podcasts on its platform. That push may or may not take the form of Gimlet’s shows becoming Spotify exclusives, but I’m pretty comfortable betting it will.

But I also think Gimlet Creative, the company’s advertising division, is another key piece to appraise here. Consider that Spotify’s core competency isn’t content, but distribution, engagement, and monetization — and that monetization, in particular, is both a podcast problem a good deal of people are fixated on and the one that established media platforms (like Spotify, but also Pandora) fancy themselves well-positioned to solve with their existing assets.

For decades now, podcasting has been a meritocratic open standard. Essentially, podcasts are just RSS feeds pointing to hosted mp3 files. Anyone with a podcast could rise from a complete unknown to someone with a minimally popular movie podcast (*ahem*). Podcasts could also monetize at will and take a large portion of the profits.

With massive companies like Spotify getting into the content game, absorbing more profits, and pushing more and more for exclusives on its own platform, I see choppy waters up ahead for the wonderful, open world of podcasts. We’ll see how things play out.


I almost quit watching Netflix’s Russian Doll after two episodes, finding it to be an unpleasant warmed over rehash of the “Repeat Your Day” trope. But after a bunch of people urged me to keep going, I finished the series and was richly rewarded. It’s an incredible work, and seems destined to become one of the great shows of 2019.

While Russian Doll owes a lot to Groundhog Day and No Exit, the piece of work that it most closely resembles for me is Makoto Shinkai’s recent film Your Name, which is about two people connected by apparently-supernatural circumstances that help and teach each other what it means to be a better version of themselves (Your Name was one of my favorite films of 2017).

While I’m hoping to make a video essay about the show’s ending in the near future, I did want to point to Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece about the series at Vulture. He has written what I think is the most thorough reading of the film that I can find so far:

What makes this series stand apart from its predecessors is the way it blends parable, psychodrama, and science fiction while maintaining plausible deniability, so that the story doesn’t fall too neatly or obviously into any of those three categories.

Alan Sepinwall also has an interesting interview with Natasha Lyonne about the series. And Jackson McHenry interviewed the production designer who helped make Nadia’s bathroom “reset point” a reality.


That’s it for this week! There was so much news that happened that I tried a different format where I commented a bit more on each story, rather than focus on one main one. As always, feel free to share your feedback in the comments below.

When the bleeding won’t stop

This week saw another massive wave of media layoffs. Vice is cutting 10 percent. McClatchy offered buyouts to 450 employees. And Machinima is shutting down entirely. In all, it’s estimated that over 2,100 people lost their media jobs in the past two weeks.

There are many possible explanations for why digital media is experiencing its moment of reckoning. It’s now a business that is past its growth period and already in retrenchment. Some people blame the big tech companies, which have absorbed the overwhelmingly vast majority of growth in the ad business. Others think it’s the fact that a huge portion of digital media outfits today were launched using venture capital. Still others think it’s vulture capitalists. Most likely it’s some combination of these things. Add into the mix that supply of “things for our eyeballs to look at” has dramatically eclipsed demand and it’s clear that the forces conspiring against digital media are formidable.

Whatever got us here, in a column for The New York Times, Farhad Manjoo argues that the layoffs at Buzzfeed are “devastating for democracy,” writing:

Consider: We are in the midst of a persistent global information war. We live our lives on technologies that sow distrust and fakery, that admit little room for nuance and complication, that slice us up into ignorant and bleating tribes. It is an era that should be ripe for journalists and for the business of journalism — a profession that, though it errs often, is the best way we know of inoculating ourselves against the suffocating deluge of rumor and mendacity. […]

The need for journalism has never been greater, but the economics surrounding it have never been more brutal. For awhile it seemed like folks like Buzzfeed could lead the way, but now that it’s clear that they’re just trying to figure it out too. Manjoo continues:

So where does that leave media? Bereft. It is the rare publication that can survive on subscriptions, and the rarer one that will be saved by billionaires. Digital media needs a way to profitably serve the masses. If even BuzzFeed couldn’t hack that, we are well and truly hosed.

I once dreamed of a career in digital media. The idea of being able to write about what you love and make money doing it is an intoxicating one. But at this moment, it’s looking like the only people who are able to successfully make a living at it will be, more or less, the people who are currently making a living at it. The barriers to entry are growing ever greater and the entry points are shrinking. Margaret Sullivan wrote about this phenomenon awhile back, when another digital media company was announcing layoffs:

With the tragic demise of local newspapers, places like Mic have become the entry point into the craft for a lot of young journalists. What’s more, their newsrooms have been admirably diverse, a diversity that their journalism has admirably reflected. As they go under, such entry points disappear. And the journalists who have been through this ugly process — sometimes more than once — burn out.

As a society, I hope we’re able to figure out how to make this work. We need the accountability.


Which Fyre Festival documentary should you watch? Probably neither.

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In the history of cinema there have been numerous twin movies: movies that have come out at the same time that are about the same thing. Volcano and Dante’s Peak. Armageddon and Deep Impact. A Bug’s Life and Antz. And now, two dueling documentaries about the Fyre festival on Netflix and Hulu: Fyre directed by Chris Smith on Netflix, and Fyre Fraud directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason on Hulu. They both dropped this week, and I want to tell you about which one you should watch.

Let’s talk about what’s similar about both films. They are both enthralling retellings of all the components that went into the Fyre Festival. In fact, both of them cover many of the same story beats and even use the same footage at times. They’re both competently made and they each run about 90 minutes.

Fyre on Netflix is a better shot film. Aesthetically, it just looks more pleasing to the eye with nice use of lighting and skillful situating of interviewees in interesting and dynamic backgrounds. It does a better job capturing the moment-by-moment existential dread of the lead up to the festival, as well as how the planning all went wrong. Also, in my opinion, the quality of the b-roll and footage they got is more compelling, and some of it is extremely damning. There are moments in Fyre that will be talked about and meme-ified for years to come.

Fyre Fraud on Hulu casts its net much wider and tries to assess the culture of influencers and social media that led to something like Fyre Festival even taking place. A lot of it is interesting and great modern context for the festival, but I also found the Hulu documentary much more irritating stylistically. It often used a computer text-to-speech program to read important documents, plus a bunch of stock footage? It was very distracting and I think it took away from the storytelling.

Both documentaries are competent overall and they’re almost complementary in how they illuminate the facts behind this incident. They also each have some pretty serious ethical issues.

The Hulu documentary has an interview with serial entrepreneur and scam artist Billy MacFarland, the man who created the Fyre Festival. That said, it doesn’t hold back on portraying MacFarland as a scam artist. It delves deep into his other businesses and does a better job of explaining not only the depth of his deception, but also the societal circumstances that would allow him to pull of a fraud of this scale. Despite all that, the MacFarland interview itself is pretty useless. MacFarland is almost completely unapologetic, and there is pretty much no self-reflection going on there. If you want the interview as a way to confirm that his lying is indeed pathological, then the Hulu documentary will deliver that, but many of the shots of MacFarland are just of him sitting silently, looking awkwardly down at the floor, refusing to say anything.

The problem is, the filmmakers behind Fyre Fraud paid Billy MacFarland for his interview. Just how much he was paid has not been confirmed, but MacFarland claims it was $250,000. The filmmakers have stated that it was “much lower” than that but they have not shared what the actual number was. So when you’re watching the Hulu documentary, you are, in some small way, helping to enrich the guy who put on the Fyre Festival. And that feels pretty gross.

What’s clear from these movies is that there was a massive human cost to Fyre Festival, beyond just a bunch of millennials having a bad camping weekend. Investors were defrauded but the most heartbreaking thing is all the people who worked on the festival itself. Locals who spent time building the tents, as well as those who worked on the festival that tried to salvage the situation. The festival created a ton of human misery and to be in some way supporting the mastermind behind it doesn’t feel good.

But if that sounds bad, just wait! There’s more!

The Netflix documentary, Fyre, is co-produced by Vice and Jerry Media, the latter of which is a company that helped market the original festival. In that movie’s telling of the story, the people from Jerry Media, who sit for on-camera interviews, were duped by this con-man. They had no idea that the festival was going to be such a disaster, and when they were cashing those marketing checks and enticing people to fly to the festival, they were just doing their jobs. For a variety of reasons, some of which are covered in the Hulu documentary, this strains credulity.

More galling is the fact that at no point during the course of the entire documentary prior to the credits is it even disclosed that the subjects of the documentary are producers on the film. Jerry Media was even named as part of the class action lawsuit against the festival. The fact that the Netflix documentary omits details like this is honestly pretty insane and I’m shocked they aren’t catching more flack for it. It also makes you wonder what other facts they’re leaving out.

So, both movies are in some ways ethically compromised and if you really want to know which documentary to watch and still feel like a good person, the answer is probably neither of them. Don’t support anything about any of what’s going on in trying to market this grift to you. But if you have to watch one, watch the Netflix one. It’s a better film, and at least you’re not helping Billy MacFarland out in any way – just the marketing people who helped perpetrate one of the biggest disasters in music festival history.


Some more links from the week:

What is clickbait, anyway?

Over the weekend, a Twitter user named Dakota Lopez posted a list of the websites that were most frequently called out by a Twitter account called FilmClickbait:

FilmClickbait quote tweets out headlines from film news websites and blogs, usually revealing the information that is teased. Here’s an example:

I have some thoughts on all this, but here are a few caveats before I proceed:

    Coming in sixth on that list is slashfilm.com, a site I used to write for regularly and that I currently still host a weekly podcast for.
    I have not verified Lopez’s methodology or his final counts, but nothing about the list strikes me as implausible.
    I can’t comment on whether there’s anything “disproportionately malicious” happening, but it seems possible that the sites that rank highest simply traffic more frequently in what FilmClickbait deems clickbait.

Here is the problem with FilmClickbait’s entire modus operandi: There is no widely understood definition of clickbait, and if there is one, it’s not one that seems to match FilmClickbait’s.

In 2014, Ben Smith wrote a piece for Buzzfeed (a site that would know or thing or two about clickbait) explaining why the site no longer used “clickbait.” In it, he defines clickbait as headlines that fundamentally mislead the reader about what the article is about. When Buzzfeed used to do this, they’d generate short term engagement, but they’d destroy user trust. So they stopped:

If your goal — as is ours at BuzzFeed — is to deliver the reader something so new, funny, revelatory, or delightful that they feel compelled to share it, you have to do work that delivers on the headline’s promise, and more. This is a very high bar. It’s one thing to enjoy reading something, and quite another to make the active choice to share it with your friends. This is a core fact of sharing and the social web of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and other platforms.

The best way to ensure your readers won’t choose to share a story or a post is to trick them. Anyone who has spent the last 20 years online knows the specific disgust that comes with a headline that doesn’t deliver on its promise. It’s the kind of taste you get in your mouth from a glistening but spoiled peach. The publisher got the page view, and ComScore doesn’t record your flash of anger. But you’re hardly going to subject your friends to this experience. (Maybe your enemies.)

Smith even went on to provide tips on how to write good headlines:

Great headlines, meanwhile, tell you a lot about what you’re going to read, and persuade you to click because you know you’ll find a story that will satisfy your interest. The lists that BuzzFeed has long been known for are, as list titles tend to be, extremely direct; “31 Genius Hacks For Your Elementary School Art Class” is just that. As my colleague Ryan Broderick puts it, the goal is often, in fact, to “blow away the curiosity gap.” One of his recent headlines: “A 5-Year-Old Girl Raised Enough Money To Take Her Father Who Has Terminal Cancer To Disney World.”

When you look over Filmclickbait’s targets, there are certainly pieces that fall within the standard definition of clickbait. But there are at least as many pieces that simply don’t adhere to Filmclickbait’s version of a good headline.

Take today as an example. Many websites are writing about Game of Thrones final season premiere date:

Nothing in the headline that is being linked to is misleading. It simply doesn’t include the most crucial piece of information that is teased. And while some (many?) might find it annoying to click through to the actual article, it’s important to ask other questions beyond whether that info is in the tweet/headline itself: Does the article provide important context? Does it provide insights and information that you might not otherwise have known?

If no, then eventually readers will decide on their own that your website is not worth reading or sharing, and the laws of Darwin will eliminate the publication from the pool of going concerns. But if yes, then value is still being delivered to the reader. I don’t understand how that could be called clickbait, or if it can be, I don’t understand why that distinction is important because literally every publication does it.

Here’s a screenshot from today’s New York Times about U.S. tensions with Iran. It reads: “Pentagon Officials Fear Bolton’s Actions Increase Risk of Clash with Iran”

It would be ludicrous for a clickbait-like account to simply quote tweet this article and flippantly write, “He asked for military options to strike Iran!” Why? Because the article itself might contain other information that is important to know about! Simply because the headline doesn’t contain all the relevant information doesn’t make it a bad or clickbait-y headline. And sure, pop culture ephemera doesn’t have the weighty importance of national security, but the same concept applies.

I wholeheartedly believe that there are websites that act in bad faith. But by refusing to distinguish between actively misleading headlines and headlines that simply don’t (can’t?) include all the possible relevant information, FilmClickbait throws the baby out with the bathwater. It provides a skewed perspective on what “clickbait” and bad headline writing even is. That’s arguably an equal disservice to the fan community as the prevalence of actual clickbait.


A few interesting things from the web recently:

I’m tired

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The end of 2018 is upon us. The government is on the verge of shutdown. The stock market is collapsing. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, one of the last “adults in the room,” has resigned, an ominous sign for the days ahead. It’s all just par for the course in a year that has felt, for many of us, totally exhausting.

2018 has taught me many things about myself, but one of them is that it is totally acceptable to set limits on your own intake of media and (bad) news. Sometimes, self-care means stepping away, disconnecting, and recognizing that keeping up with every minor political development, every outrage, every hot topic, every meme can actually be exhausting and damaging.

There is often no nobility to be found in subjecting yourself to things that will only serve to deaden you inside and tire you out for the battles you need to fight. It’s important to optimize your intake so that you strike a balance that works best for you. But above all: think about what you put into your mind, and what that in turn causes you to put out into the world.

On that note, this year has also taught me that there’s virtue in silence. I built much of my online persona on expressing my opinions loudly and strongly, but frequently this year we’ve seen that there are other voices that need to be heard who’ve often been drowned out by louder voices around them.

There’ve been many moments when I’ve seen folks celebrating the breakthrough of bold new talent, or a song/film/show that has resonated with them deeply. A much earlier version of me might’ve thought to share my disagreement, but there is no inherent virtue in simply sharing an opinion. Sometimes it’s best to just hear what others have to say. There’s nothing wrong in letting people have a moment over something. If you don’t agree, there’s a million other things to pay attention to.

As we enter the new year, I hope you’ll consider what is necessary for self care, and when to amplify the voices of those who might not have one as big as yours.


Some other interesting things from the week: