It’s Not Clickbait: Being a Writer on the Internet

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I’ve been writing for fun online for over seven years now, and since January that process has turned to one of profit. Well, “profit”. I’m a features writer at Screen Rant, where I discuss everything from the history of Hollywood’s use of yellow-face and anti-East Asian whitewashing to potential directors for the Matrix reboot to advising in favour of the scrapping of IMDb’s ratings system. I love this job and I think I’m pretty good at it. Given my experience as a lowly blogger across multiple platforms, mostly my blog but also elsewhere, and all exclusively unpaid, I’m used to the rhythms of it all. Yet there are some problems that become heightened once you enter the professional realm. You can’t help but notice just how badly it’s all going for everyone around you.

An array of writers I love, all of whom as vastly more talented than me, are having a tough time. Some have lost their jobs, others struggling in an over-saturated freelance market, and even the biggest sites are suffering with the crumbling profit margins and need for every click possible. AdBlock rules and even the most ardent bait can only do so much. My writing job is currently my only source of revenue, and while I am in more fortunate circumstances than others, the shadow of doubt and fear forever lingers overhead.

Whenever I tell people in my day-to-day life that I’m a writer by occupation – an admittance that still gives me a giddy thrill – most of them assume that I am making a fortune. I don’t just mean the kind of money a minimum wage full time position would offer; I’m talking luxury money. One person thought I was close to household name recognition with my three months of work. It can be difficult to quantify the disheartening realities of online journalism to those who still think of the internet as the bastion of profit. I don’t blame them for having inflated assumptions over how many clicks equals a good payout – we’ve all been there – and the majority of reporting on the labour of online content is extremely narrow. You’re either rolling in PewDiePie money or living a Carrie Bradshaw style life of cosmopolitan luxury, fueled by one weekly column that would barely cover her bar tab. The flipside of that is the exploitation, pushed by major power players who think you should be grateful enough for the exposure to not demand basic payment for your work. I’ve done those jobs, always deluding myself into believing that exposure will magically open doors. Sometimes it’s greatly helped me, but other times I can’t help but feel like a sucker.

Too many writers I love are losing their gigs from lack of interest, and that leads to much bemoaning over the current state of the industry. I don’t want to pile on the doom and gloom here, because all things considered, there is still a veritable fountain of incredible cultural criticism out there from an array of diverse voices: RogerEbert.com, Buzzfeed, The Ringer, Pajiba, Variety, IndieWire, Flavorwire, the New Yorker, Women Write About Comics, Black Girl Nerds, and Let’s Play Video Games, to name a mere handful. They all deserve your love and your clicks, but that’s the cruel reality: Clicks are what matter, and doing what you can to attain them is more difficult than a simple snappy headline.

Much has been written about the practice of clickbait. You won’t believe the 26 cat gifs that just can’t even about the Marvel rumours! This arbitrary thing is the worst thing to ever be and you can find out why here! My takes are so hot that the refrigerator is panicking! I’ve done my fair share of eye-rolling over some of the headlines that make their way to my Twitter feed, always under the assumption that the attention-grabbing title plays no part in the process. Surely if people are interested then they’ll click anyway? And then I started looking at my Screen Rant view numbers, and oh how wrong I was. Believe me – the headlines work. General interest on the subject is paramount as well, hence the saturation of all things superheroes, Star Wars and Game of Thrones, but people will click on a big headline, even if it’s only to moan about it. That’s probably why I’ve gotten so snippy about Twitter accounts like @FilmClickbait. I understand the intent, and know it’s more a response to the overwhelming change in the industry rather than the individual writers and editors who create that content, but it can still be tough to swallow. After all, that’s our livelihoods being turned into an example to be made of. Besides, a title is only the beginning of the work, and even the most baity of them can produce articles of great thought and detail. We work within the parameters given to us, and the results can be immensely worthwhile.

It’s obviously frustrating to spend hours on a piece that means a lot to you, only for it to be read by less than a few hundred people. It’s still less tiresome than having your comments sections be bombarded by hate screeds. Being a woman on the internet at any given time is a stressful task, but throw in the apparent authority of being a film critic or writer and suddenly every man who thinks the term “SJW” is of value swarms into your space to inform you that not only are you wrong but you’re a disgusting person for thinking so. How dare you share your opinions like it’s your job or just a basic decency we allow people. I recently tweeted about my disappointment that a woman couldn’t direct Captain Marvel alone, and expanded upon the context of the lack of major opportunities for women in Hollywood. The responses I got were colourful, to say the least. Try being called “cunt” and “feminist bitch” repeatedly and see how that goes. The depressing thing is that it’s not even the worst thing I’ve been called online. It barely scrapes the top 10. Nowadays, I don’t even look at the comments on my articles. It’s not worth it.

Let me reiterate that I love my job. I have immense opportunities, a wonderful editor, great co-workers in the features team, and my day is instantly improved every time I see my name on a piece. It’s a great job but it’s labour, one that carries far more mental, emotional and economic strain than most people seem to believe. A lot of writers are doing incredible work right now, and they could use all the lovely comments, social media shares and clicks they can get (turn off the AdBlock already). Right now, the need for media literacy and a sturdy foundation of cultural criticism is at an all-time high. Support the voices you want to hear because you’ll sorely miss them once they go away.

As for me… Well, you should go read my pieces. Click hard.

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Ceilidh is the co-editor in chief of Bibliodaze, the one who has no idea what she's doing. She talks YA at The Book Lantern and has been known to talk theatre for The Skinny & Female Arts.

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