The trouble with ‘Most viewed’ widgets

The news depresses me. But not in the way you might think.

Certainly there is no shortage of terrible things in the world, but it’s the way the public interacts with news that gets me down.

Rather like the way iPods and Spotify can’t fail to homogenise music in the sense that people are less likely to take a punt on a new CD by a band they’ve barely heard, there’s a feature of news reporting on the internet that propels inane, unpleasant or freakish stories to the top of the tree.

The ‘Most commented’, ‘Most read’ or ‘Most emailed’ bars on news pages drive your viewers towards the most valuable or interesting pages on your site and are baited for the casual WILFer. The more people click the higher they get. Things snowball.

This is human nature – the equivalent of sneaking a News of the World (for the tits and gossip) in between the sheets of your weekly Observer (for the sense of moral superiority and cleansing earnestness).

There’s nothing wrong with this, and it’s something that journalists and editors realise at an early age –you’ll rarely go wrong appealing to baser instincts; morbid curiosity, prejudices, sex, ephemera and crass humour.

So any journalist worth his or her salt recognises this phenomenon and knows how to work it to his or her advantage. Many are the times I’ve spotted a trending topic and dashed off articles accordingly, and there’s even a Google Maps ‘Map of Mayhem’ mash-up on MotorTorque to pander to the ‘bizarre’ aspect of motoring.

My ‘Skoda Goose Smash Terror of IT Manager’ header is one I’m hugely proud of, and it did tens of thousands of hits – viral and search-engine based – in a day because it plays to so many aspects of people’s need for a quick hit of rubbish. It stayed at the top of the ‘Most viewed’ bar for ages, until I had it manually removed.

Various social aggregator sites, most notably Fark, cater exclusively for this kind of news, reflecting and driving its popularity.

But I’ve noticed recently that the ‘Most viewed’ bar is a troubling phenomenon. On my Yahoo homepage and the BBC’s site recently two stories lingered at the top: the former regarding the number of lovers the missing chef Claudia Lawrence is alleged to have had; and another involving a woman trampled to death by a herd of cows. The latter was also at the top of the ‘Most emailed’ widget on the BBC.

It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine the circumstances in which people clicked on – or emailed – these stories, and I find it equally distasteful, disturbing and depressing.

The media is inevitably complicit in these kind of stories (especially those of the strange deaths variety) being so popular and I’ve rolled my eyes more than once at BBC Online’s headlines as they’re so clearly designed to attract this kind of slightly sick attention.

I’ve also noticed than in the case of certain celebrity deaths, sites won’t name the celeb in question in the header, forcing you to click if you want to know who’s snuffed it.

The Grauniad’s problematic Comment Is Free section has turned a kind of lefty bear-baiting into an art form, and it’s increasingly hard to believe it isn’t just designed to piss off its easily-angered community and inspire floods of user-generated content.

To an extent that’s the game these days, and it takes no mean skill in doing well, but the BBC especially rather demeans itself by slyly promoting these stories, once again repeating the bums-on-seats mistakes that is totally at odds with its remit. Entertain, educate and inform? Hardly.

I’m dubious about the news value of the apparently-comical death of the woman killed by the cows, and I’d be surprised to see it afforded any time on the air. As such it’s fairly obvious why stories like this are making it onto the Beeb’s website – hits, pure and simple.

The Beeb certainly isn’t alone in this, in fact pretty much every news site out there will do something similar. But it’s empty traffic, the value of which – monetary or otherwise – is nebulous at best. More to the point it’s fairly unpleasant; death repackaged as entertainment. The sort of thing you expect from Red Tops, not serious news sources.

This might all come off as rather pompous and antediluvian – twas ever thus after all – but the idea that somewhere an online editor is attempting to work the maximum possible traffic from the death of someone’s mother, while someone else is emailing that story to a friend with an accompanying snarky one-liner is pretty sickening, whichever way you look at it.

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