How to lose followers and ruin the media industry: Buffer releases a "Tinder for news"
Social media scheduling tool Buffer is all about using content to improve your personal brand -- which is a fancy way of saying that it's about sharing links at the opportune moment to receive the most attention. So it's no surprise that the company has developed a "Tinder for news" application to recommend content and make it easier to share to Facebook or Twitter without having to read more than the headline. The application is called Daily, and it's the worst thing to happen to social media since Klout decided to reward people for becoming over-sharing online attention whores.
Daily is easy enough to use. All you have to do is sign in to Twitter or Facebook, read whatever headline the company's algorithms have decided to show you, and decide if you want to swipe the linked article to oblivion or share it to your social networks without ever having to read the entire thing. You can elect to actually read the article before deciding its fate, but Daily doesn't encourage it -- the application is slow to load most pages, and the option to read an article is presented in a drab grey instead of the colorful red and green associated with other actions.
Sharing an article without bothering to read it isn't a new phenomenon. Farhad Manjoo wrote in Slate about the decreasing amount of time people spend with online articles, showing that fewer than 50 percent of readers make it halfway through an article before abandoning it. That doesn't stop them from sharing the article -- they still want to show their friends that they read whatever #slatepitch everyone is talking about that day -- but it does show that people worry more about their own perception than an article itself.
Publishers understand this. Headlines have become more provocative and cringe-inducing for a reason: sites like Upworthy proved that people want to share stories with obvious emotional appeal and to spend as little time as possible finding those stories. So it's better to reel them in with an overstated headline than to trust that they'll read an entire article. People aren't looking for something to read -- they're looking for something they can share with their friends to make it seem like they really care about what's happening in the world around them.
Daily makes perfect sense with that in mind. Buffer isn't single-handedly removing thought from social networks, it's just playing into a larger trend that happens to fit its original goal. (It's also capitalizing on Tinder-style applications that allow people to take action on a story, person, and anything else that can be sorted into "yes" and "no" columns, but that's another story entirely.) Yet encouraging thoughtless sharing while claiming to provide a better way to discover the news is just as nauseating as tugging on people's heartstrings to attract pageviews.
This creates a never-ending cycle in which news organizations attempt to optimize for these applications to make people click on their stories while others complain that there isn't any real news anymore. Facebook's product director, Mike Hudack, demonstrated this problem in May when he condemned news organizations for pandering to readers instead of doing "real" journalism, even though his company is at least partly responsible for that shift. As Pando's David Holmes wrote in a post pointing out the problems with Hudack's outspoken diatribe:
There’s nothing inherently 'wrong' with Facebook’s algorithm burying those 'journalistic acts of bravery' in favor of stories people want to click on. Most non-journalists, if greeted by a News Feed full of measured discussions on domestic and foreign policy or investigative reports that reveal appalling social justice, would run for the hills. And this is where the sad reality for both Facebook and news organizations sets in: Unless you give the readers what they think they want, you won’t get clicks or impressions. And then you won’t get advertising dollars.So the blame for changing priorities within the news media lies both with publications and technology companies that reward some stories while damning others, both of which are kept alive by advertising dollars that go where the pageviews are. The blame for people sharing articles without reading them first lies with their waning attention spans and media organizations that take advantage of them to get more pageviews. And can you blame them? This is an audience that cares much more about its own reputation than about the news.
Then what makes Daily so reprehensible to anyone who actually cares about the news? The fact that it relishes in all of these detrimental trends and makes sharing even more mindless than it was before. Its algorithms prioritize certain kinds of content, and if the application ever becomes an important traffic-driver some publication will optimize its stories for those algorithms. It only displays a headline and image, so news organizations that write sleazy headlines will be rewarded more than those that don't. And its entire premise is built on the idea that people should be able to share a story without bothering to read it.
Daily isn't unique in its efforts to give people something to read and share. It's unique in its dogged commitment to incorporating every negative trend in the media industry into one shallow application that is less about news and more about building a reputation based on articles no one is reading. It doesn't just highlight one problem with the media -- it's a confluence of stupidity.
[image adapted from thinkstock]