The Myth Of The Hate Click

The Myth Of The Hate Click

There’s nothing more annoying than other people making assumptions about your motives and speaking about them with authority. I get why people do it, we all have expectations and it’s easy to assume other people are responsible for living up to them. But that’s on us.

When my Tumblr became popular I started getting messages and comments that accused the new content of “not being what this blog is about” which is hilarious in light of the reality — it was my blog, it’s only intention, ever, was to be whatever I wanted it to be. The reader’s expectations were their own responsibility, not mine to live up to. I heard Rob Zombie talk about his horror movies on a podcast once and he was like, “I love it when people tell me they don’t like my movies because I get to say ‘Good. I didn’t make it for you.'”

Working at Thought Catalog, the most annoying assumption is that hate clicks are our bread and butter, that offensive articles make us all rich and we don’t actually care about discourse or people. That publishing articles with hateful opinions is a good business strategy, or something that’s specifically, somehow, beneficial.

A few examples of this:

“But maybe I don’t need a statement from an editor to understand Thought Catalog’s motivation. The answer is sitting in plain sight on McInnes’ article on the left-hand side of the screen: 14,700 shares. By the time this piece airs, that number will probably have doubled. The silence from top Thought Catalog editorial staff speaks volumes: They want the controversy because they profit from it. Thought Catalog just wants clickbait, the more violent the rhetoric, the better." -Samantha Allen, The Daily Dot

“Advertisement money through clicks…The more troll worthy the article, the more article clicks, and advertisers do not care about the integrity of the publication.” -Comment on Thought Catalog

“Reading something purely for love is no longer a scalable business model; it’s simply too easy to gin up hate.” -Daniel D’Addario discussing Thought Catalog on Salon

“Thought Catalog thrives on the clicks of debate-hungry (see: troll-loving) readers.” -Jeffrey Ellinger, published by Thought Catalog

Are these expectations close to reality? Do “more troll-worthy articles” bring in more reads?

For comparison, here are our three most popular articles last month (rounded to nearest 100k):

6 Facebook Statuses That Need To Stop Right Now — 7,600,000 reads

14 Things All Healthy Couples Do — 3,400,000 million reads

17 Things To Expect When You Date A Girl Who’s Used To Being On Her Own — 2,600,000 million reads

Nothing hateful, nothing trolly, just fun, positive, relatable reads. Sure, it’s not high-level philosophical discourse, nothing that’s going to cure cancer — something which already upsets pretentious types — , but objectively not the kind of content that fits the hate click theory.

If the hate-click theory were true, here are the articles people argue are our bread and butter: (rounded to nearest thousand)

Transphobia Is Perfectly Natural — 140,000 reads

Ferguson Looks Like A Rap Video — 27,000 reads

Which Black Teen Murderer Are You? — 8,300 reads

Samantha Allen argued that “more violent rhetoric is better” (meaning, performs better), but that is simply incorrect. It’s a narrative that sounds good, but it’s not based on any real numbers or analysis. To speak candidly, even at 140k reads an individual article like that doesn’t really matter. It’s like someone accusing you of doing something “for the money” and then pulling a $20 out of your pocket as proof. Sure, hate clicks exist, but they aren’t the powerhouse vehicle people pretend they are.

The disparity between the articles people argue “bring in readers” and the ones that actually do are in the millions range, so why does anyone make this argument? Those articles traffic in media and social justice types, but that’s a small group of people. Most people aren’t media and social justice people. Most people prefer sincerity to outrage. People share hate clicks in quick bursts, but positive articles trend higher and higher for weeks sometimes surfacing again months later and trending that whole cycle again. Hated articles have never spread that way for us.

For example, here is what it looks like when an article is genuinely bringing in a lot of readers, when it is spreading throughout the internet:

An old article from August that is spreading because people sincerely want to read and share it.
An old article from August that is still spreading because people sincerely want to read and share it.

Here is what it looks like when people “hate click” an article:

A satirical response to a WaPo article Media Twitter was hate-sharing with each other.
A satirical response to a WaPo article a small group of people hate-linked to.

Offensive articles are also just such a small part of what we do, not only in terms of what brings in reads, but in terms of the actual number of articles we publish. Gavin McInnes published 40 articles with us over the course of a year. Sometimes we publish twice that number in a day. People in our submissions box will send us risque essays on topics other publications wouldn’t cover, but maybe at a 200:1 ratio with which people send us articles about trying to find love and figure out who they are and what they want in life. Any way you look at it, it’s a very small part of what Thought Catalog does. The same summer a single article prompted Gawker to call Thought Catalog a “White Supremacist Publication,” The New York Times said we were part of the “Nice Internet.”

I think hate clicks could be a good strategy, but not in the straightforward way people think works for Thought Catalog. Hate clicks, consistent hate clicks, only work long term when they’re snarky instead of sincere, when the reader feels righteous about their click. I think Gawker is a good example of this. Most Gawker/Jezebel/Valleywag articles are negative and they are a hate read in the sense that outrage is the arousal emotion that causes someone to click, but the reader also feels good about themselves because the narrative of these blogs is that “we” the readers are better than “them” the subjects of the articles. We aren’t reading someone’s sincere thoughts, we’re reading someone else eviscerate them.

What’s happening is people can’t see another reason why anyone would listen to someone they vehemently disagree with. It’s uncommon. Traditionally people only publish content they judge to be “good” (and by “good” they mean familiar). Traditionally a publication runs like McSweeney’s or The New York Times or even Gawker and Jezebel. Few, select writers are chosen. Their work is edited. The publication has one “voice” all their writer’s aim to mimic and their writers and readers are a homogenous group, at least ideologically.

I think the backlash against Thought Catalog and its “all thinking is relevant” mantra really occurs because people are scared that the legitimacy of their own thoughts is threatened when it’s not the only one being presented. For all the journalists who have worked to become reporters and editors — now anyone can write and have a readership. They aren’t special anymore. What they would like to see be the most popular content on the internet, what they judge to be good, sites like McSweeney’s and The New York Times — aren’t. They are esteemed and they have a great reputation but at the end of the day, are those the things people most want to consume? (No).

The real issue is that people don’t want opinions they disagree with to be published. They don’t want writing that they don’t judge to be good to be published. They want their meal to come to them prepackaged and maybe even spooned directly into their mouth. Honestly, that’s fair. It’s why I watch blockbusters instead of student films. But there are more than enough websites like this in existence, a new, more open one isn’t taking anything away from you. Not everyone has to do the same thing.

Publishing articles people hate isn’t fun. They don’t bring in as much traffic as other kinds of articles. If I ever have to talk to the writers about it they’re genuinely not fun to work with (invariably: is there a male producer I can talk to about this?). They make everyone stressed out. The traffic payoff doesn’t justify it, but it is part of the site’s values. I want people to express themselves and we want people to get better — to be nicer and more understanding of each other.

I think saying that is going to be a big laugh for a lot of people, like, “how can you say you want people to be nice when you let assholes have a voice?” And the answer is pretty simple — because people don’t disappear just because you don’t let them speak. Jezebel has been making fun of those they judge to be misogynists and assholes forever, do they think the population of them has decreased as a result?

The best way, in my estimation, to actually help people is through dialogue. To put people in conversation with each other instead of making fun of them, instead of silencing them, instead of driving them away from any conversation that might change their mind.

As my friend Chelsea said, “I fear hate most when it gets to fester unchecked. All of the ‘decent people’ who are closet bigots. I love seeing them expose themselves. Honestly if every ignorant acquaintance on Facebook could write an article that exposed them to their employers, I would be all for it.”

Let people publish their views. Give them feedback. Write a response. Anything is more helpful to the cause than “pretend it doesn’t exist” or to wedge people even further apart by mocking their views instead of engaging them.

A few more thoughts I think are helpful here:

“If Republicans are talking only with Republicans, if Democrats are talking primarily with Democrats, if members of the religious right speak mostly to each other, and if radical feminists talk largely to radical feminists, there is a potential for the development of different forms of extremism, and for profound mutual misunderstandings with individuals outside the group.” –Cass Sunstein

“The plain truth is that banning the expression of hate is probably creating MORE frustrated, angry levels of hate — not less. With few outlets to express it, it builds up… My point is simple: Some people hate gays, transexuals, blacks, whites, Asians, etc. Pick it. Hate doesn’t disappear because we stop publishing posts about it. It gets worse.” –A (now deleted?) comment on Washington Post’s opinion piece

“It is easy to criticize a sensationalist talk show for, say, giving a neo-Nazi a platform to voice hateful rhetoric. But by exposing these sorts of people rather than censoring them, these shows reveal the underlying inconsistencies in their doctrines. Instead of appearing frightening, these people’s platitudes appear as inane as they really are.” –Douglas Rushkoff

If we want people to agree with us, or at least see our perspective, we have to do the work of convincing them. We can’t shame people into being more loving. We can’t hate people into agreeing with us. We can listen, we can provide them the catharsis of being heard. We can expose ourselves to the vulnerability of being human and explain where we come from. This is the only way we as a community of people can get better, by being honest about what the problem is and not being too-good for the solution. It’s not pretty or easy or quick — we’re probably not even aware of the seeds we plant in people that take years to blossom into new ideas and ways of thinking, but this is the only way people really change. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

About the author

Chrissy Stockton