Clickbait and switch

“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

 

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that more than half a century ago, when he could have had no idea how right he would become. Imagine Dr King’s frustration with the quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions if he was alive today.

The Internet generally, and social media more specifically, has completely reduced our attention spans, and our capacity to engage in the hard, solid thinking he was commending.

In a recent media lecture, journalist Waleed Aly admitted the two primary motivators for the creation of online news content is (a) speed and (b) shareability, and that both of these things are destroying the quality of contemporary journalism.

That makes sense. These days journalists have to produce stories at warp speed to keep up with our voracious desire for the ‘latest’ news. As Aly admits, this means journalists aren’t interested in a story that could take weeks or even days to research and write. It means our newsfeeds are full of pretty much the same content regurgitated by every news outlet and every journalist.

In other words, it’s the mindless repetition of received and already accepted ideas. There’s nothing challenging or stretching or even intriguing about it. Everyone sings from the same song sheet because no one has the time to write a new song.

But secondly, Aly says content has to be shareable. A detailed examination of a political candidate’s taxation policy won’t get shared. Neither will a complex argument about immigration policy. Online readers love gossip, lists, quizzes, memes, celebrities, emotive stories and simple solutions to complex problems.

And it’s killing journalism.

I’d want to suggest it’s killing the transfer of all complex ideas, whether by journalists or not.

Christians find themselves reading and sharing simplistic lists (“the 5 reasons why young people are leaving your church” has guaranteed virality) or signing on to clickactivist advocacy strategies (“Every time you click here a bag of rice will be sent to Cambodia”).

That’s because they’re simplistic, pre-digested responses to the overwhelming obstacles we face in the Information Age. There’s soooooo much information available to us we just want someone to give us an executive summary, a link to click, a Venn diagram to analyse, a questionnaire to complete.

It’s a kind of Christian clickbait and switch – propose a solution, draw eyeballs, but not offer anything much of any consequence. If only the seemingly insurmountable problems besetting the church and the world could be overcome so easily.

The danger with all this is that once we’ve signed a pledge to end child soldiering in the Congo, or clicked a link to express outrage about a particular injustice, we can be tempted to think we’ve done our bit to address the issue.

In a recent podcast Malcolm Gladwell spoke about the insidious nature of “moral licensing”. This is the situation where you do one good thing about a moral situation and then think that gives you the license not to have to worry about it again. For example, if you participate in a peace march you feel you’ve done your bit and don’t need to remain wedded to the cause of ending war any longer.

Even worse, says Gladwell, doing something moral for the betterment of others is actually more likely to lead you to justify immoral actions later down the line. You kind of pat yourself on the back for doing the right thing and then turn around and act in direct opposition to the thing you did rather than working for meaningful social change. Gladwell shows how sexism and racism can remain entrenched among people who once voted for a black man or a woman to be president. They think their one good deed has given them the moral license to remain racist or sexist.

As Christians we really need to be conscious of the temptations of speed and shareability. I think they’re killing our capacity for meaningful discourse, and for developing long-lasting godly responses to the challenges we face.

Alfred North Whitehead once quipped, “Simple solutions seldom are. It takes a very unusual mind to undertake analysis of the obvious.”

Is it too much to ask for the Christian community to converse slowly and respectfully, to engage with voices from a variety of perspectives, to mull ideas intentionally and deliberately, and to come up with complex but effective, biblical responses to the challenges of our day?

 

It’s gotta be better than just reading click-bait like, “The 10 reasons Jesus would get fired if he was your pastor”.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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8 thoughts on “Clickbait and switch

  1. Thank you so much for this Mike. I feel so frustrated about this. There’s so much rubbish and trivia everywhere. It’s exhausting. It makes me want to retreat to my cave although a little voice is also urging me to write. Your article is timely. Thanks again.

  2. Helpful thoughts

  3. There are links to Waleed Aly’s lecture and Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast in the blog. They are both really worth your time to engage with. Are Christians shaping the culture around them or simply being shaped by the way online communication has changed things?

  4. Ha – this is so interesting – I was just recently having a conversation with a friend and asked him about his position on Christian Existentialism of the Kirkegaardian variety (he’s a lecturer at Morling conincedentally and focuses on theological philosophy).

    The topic of constant media saturation came up and he commented:

    “I think if we remeber that Kierkegaard’s obsession with individuation and responsibility is about finding genuine faith, vis a vis the false individuation offered by normalising social institutions such as the state Church, then I think his relentless deconstruction of a false individuality is something might be helpful in our society of ‘individuals.’ His repudiation of aesthetics–understood in its pre mock-Hegelian sublation into religion as flight from boredom–is also pertinent in a society of smartphones and streaming media”

    Being a complete novice and needing to read his thoughts with a thesaurus on hand, I asked:

    “I really resonate with his obsession with authenticity. I think it could speak greatly to the ways we often live in the west. It’s a challenge to church people to examine their lives in a way that is much less abstract than is so often the case in churches.

    You mention false individuality; would you agree that in our current society, the smart phone and constant media streaming in many ways serves as another normalising institution? So whilst we may be much more alone and have the appearance of making our own decisions, we are actually not making individual choices at all, rather selections from a set of socially curated options set before us?”

    What we ended up agreeing was that social media/constant media saturation, “as a part of a whole world-system, obscures or perverts important aspects of reality such that we are drawn to live within a set of false boundaries, and become blind to our blindness.”

    I think this addition to what you are saying – not only are our attention spans shorter and our paradigms so much more tightly constrained, but it strips us of any authenticity and makes us so completely consumed in groupthink that we can’t even see the contradictions and myopia in what we engage with. We talk about “conversations” but are almost completely unable to have an actual authentic conversation.

  5. ps – I think I have a little bit if a man crush on Waleed Aly! 🙂
    I don’t have a TV but whenever I’ve seen snippets of him online, or read his essays/columns I find it hard to criticise what he says!

  6. I’m not disagreeing with you in any way, but there’s a touch of irony in your article about the problems of shareability while having a ‘Share This’ call to action at the bottom of the screen.

  7. We need a few things before we can do ‘deep dialogue’. The first is openness. I find it a challenge to both have and to find a mind willing to concede and learn something. Often the deepest thinkers in my pool of friends are the ones with the most entrenched ideas. This leads less to dialogue and more to diatribe. And I’m equally guilty.

  8. Good article Mike. We really do need to give ourselves time to think things through, and the internet seems like a hard place to do that. I have to confess though, I did look for a ‘like’ button at the end of your piece- I’m glad there wasn’t one

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