“Pedro Pascal says not his fault ‘Last of Us’ compared to ‘This Is Us.’” “Jon Stewart eviscerates republican state senator who’s against gun control.” “Hailey Bieber was brutally dragged after she shared a birthday tribute to Justin Bieber amid the latest Selena Gomez drama and it’s all so awkward.”
All these are article headlines are from the few weeks. And all of them are trying to achieve one thing: to draw a reaction. It doesn’t matter what kind: joy, anger, disgust, or inspiration. They all trickle down to create the currency of the internet, engagement — likes, comments, shares, and double-taps. And for the publishers that create them, that’s all that matters.
We are living in the age of — depending on who you ask — the “hot take,” the “reaction economy,” “shock value,” or something else. And if you can’t contribute to the conversation with something from your end, then maybe it isn’t just for you.
For every piece of content, there is an equal and corresponding hot take
For William Davies, social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have created a new economy based on the reactions of users to content. This economy rewards content creators who can generate the most reactions regardless of the content’s accuracy or truthfulness.
“Our public sphere is frequently dominated by events you could call ‘reaction chains’, whereby reactions provoke reactions, which provoke further reactions, and so on” he says. And this focus on reactions has led to a shift in how politicians and other public figures communicate with their audiences, prioritizing emotional appeals and sensationalism over rational discourse.
And now, says Davies, thanks to the spread of smart devices in the last few decades, “a certain concept of public participation — what is now known in the managerial vernacular as ‘engagement’ — is common to events of this sort, and to the way they are framed by the media.”
Simon Maloy, meanwhile, calls it the “hot take” and defines it as “deliberately provocative commentary that is based almost entirely on shallow moralizing.” Hot takes are fun to consume and easy to read, and even easier for audiences and readers react to. But like most things that are cheap to produce and addicting to consume, they contain little to no nutritional value and only provide a moment’s satiation before we feel the need to move on to the next piece of unhealthy pop culture snack.
In the end, “they dampen our taste for more nourishing fare,” says John West. “[They] make the texture and flavor of, say, a solid piece of investigative reporting feel mealy and bland by comparison.” And that’s what junk food does to us. That’s what hot takes do to us.
It’s not just in the media that we see this. Some may even go further to proclaim that it started with advertising and their desire to use heightened emotion to entice consumers to buy. They call it “shock advertising.”
It’s the use of intentional, offensive, controversial and attention-grabbing advertising used to sell a particular product or service. But when a group of researchers sought to find out if shock advertising was losing its “shock” and becoming obsolete and ineffective, they discovered precisely that. But this result, they predict, will also put pressure on marketers to implement alternative methods to capture the attention of their target audience.
We have platforms that are built to harvest reactions
In journalism, this approach been called sensationalism or click-bait. And like shock advertising, most people have grown accustomed to it, and the desired effect may already be waning.
Whether it’s in journalism or advertising, this desire to provoke and inflame people’s emotions and reactions is all about creating engagement. And it’s slowly damaging the same institutions that create these types of content, and most of all, the users who consume them.
In this scenario, the individual is not an autonomous agent with the capacity for reason, says Davies. “Instead, each of us (celebrities included) becomes a junction box in a vast, complex network, receiving, processing and emitting information in a semi-automatic fashion, and in real time.”
He adds, “Information and emotions bounce between these junctions, mutating as they travel, as instantiated in the memes and jokes that spread virally via social media platforms. In this model, each individual reaction is one more item of information thrown back into the network, in search of counter-reactions.”
We find ourselves at this point because the actual design of these platforms and the business models these companies use geared towards keeping users on their platforms for as long as possible. For West, publishing companies have two ways to measure the value of a piece: they look at how much money it costs to produce, and at how much monetizable attention it captures.
They show us the funniest, most sexy, moving, insulting, and entertaining pieces of content available within our social network to lure us even deeper. The more extreme the better, because extreme levels of emotion keep our attention the longest, and our reactions the most engaging.
The effects can be lasting
In 2013, a decade ago, Europe-based research agency SINTEF said that more than 90% of all the data in the world was generated in the previous two years.
And around 150 years from now, the number of digital bits will reach an unimaginable value, “exceeding the number of all atoms on Earth”, says Melvin Vopson, senior lecturer in Physics at the University of Portsmouth.
And the effects of these can be many and pervasive. Sensationalism often involves exaggeration or distortion of facts to attract attention. “Distorted journalistic reports can generate both false hopes and unwarranted fears,” says a study from American College of Physicians–American Society of Internal Medicine.
And because democracies rely on an informed citizenry to debate and decide among policy choices, “sensationalism may threaten effective involvement by desensitizing the public to information about medical science through repetitive cycles of excitement and disappointment.”
Publishers, the media, even politicians will then have the notion that it will be easier to report or speak about superficial topics rather than report deeper analyses of complicated and substantive problems. They can shift the focus away from important issues towards less important or trivial matters, leading to a lack of attention to critical social or political issues.
This, the study says, can drive away readers and viewers looking to consume more content with a focus on important issues
How should we react to the reaction economy?
To combat the hot take, says West, “we need personal experience and real reporting. We need to understand that our metrics are broken and our methods of tracking insufficient. And we need new networks designed to encourage empathy above anger and humanity over avatars.”
At the same time, we need publishers who value truly nourishing content over vapid pieces of fluff. This type of content requires more time, effort, and resources to produce, but it also has the potential to provide readers with a more meaningful and fulfilling experience. By offering a more nuanced and thoughtful perspective on the issues of the day, publishers can help to foster a more informed and engaged citizenry.
Users also need to play a role in patronizing in-depth, nourishing content and rewarding publishers for their efforts. This means actively seeking out high-quality sources of information and being willing to pay for content that is valuable and informative.
By doing so, users can help to create a market for the kind of content they want to see more of, and incentivize publishers to prioritize quality over quantity.
Ultimately, it will take a concerted effort from both publishers and users to shift the tide away from reactionary but vapid content and towards a more substantive and meaningful digital landscape.
Written by Peter Imbong