We Wrote a Heartbreaking and Terrifying Post about Viral Content without Lists or GIFs. Then You Clicked on It, and Magic Happened.

They had the formula down, and that was 40 years ago.

As long as people have been publishing, they've been trying to figure out what will make large numbers of people burn with a desire to read the things they're publishing. Like much of the study of human psychology, what we don't yet understand far outweighs what we do understand. But now, with the rise of social media, the search for the perfect formula to make people say both "I have to read that" and then "I have to encourage as many people as I can to also read that" has become an outright frenzy.

Don't worry, this isn't some pretentious "Thus did America descend into the quicksand of triviality, never to return" pronouncement. I'll confess that I watch the number of tweets and Facebook likes all of my posts and articles get, and if a post takes off, I'm pleased. After all, writers want their work to be read by as many people as possible. We do a lot of serious journalism and analysis here at the Prospect, and we understand that much of it will never go viral, but we're no more immune to the desire for eyeballs than anyone else.

But is it getting a little out of hand?

CNN Losing Interest in News

Flickr/Gregor Smith

CNN has been having problems for some time, with anemic ratings and something of an identity crisis. In a world where people can get news of the moment from a million places, just what is the network that pioneered cable news for? Not that the network doesn't still make plenty of money (it does), but unlike Fox and MSNBC, CNN hasn't seemed to have been able to figure out what its model is.

In an interview with Capital New York, CNN chief Jeff Zucker, who has been on the job less than a year, said what the network needs is "more shows and less newscasts," in order to grab "viewers who are watching places like Discovery and History and Nat Geo and A&E." It all adds up to "an attitude and a take."

As easy as this is to mock, I think they should go for it. Because really, would our democracy suffer if, say, we only got one hour a day of Wolf Blitzer's vaguely befuddled "take" on the news instead of the current two hours?

Will Zombie Marco Rubio Win in 2016?

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

If there’s one simple lesson from past presidential elections I wish reporters and pundits could adopt, it’s this: Stop declaring candidacies dead before the primary even starts! Mistakes during the invisible primary can doom a campaign. But they usually don’t.

The Media Need to Do More to Help People Navigate Obamacare

Thanks, Fox Business Channel!

Yesterday, Tim Noah made a point in an MSNBC appearance that I think deserves a lot more attention. Media outlets have been doing lots of reporting on the problems of the Affordable Care Act rollout, but what they haven't done is provided their audiences with practical information that could help them navigate the new system. Of course, most Americans don't have to do anything, since they have employer-provided insurance. But for all the attention we've been paying to the individual market, media outlets haven't done much to be of service. "The New York Times has published the URL for the New York exchange exactly twice," Noah said, "both before October first."

My experience in talking to journalists about the publication of this kind of thing—unsexy yet useful information, whether it's how to navigate a new health law or understanding where candidates stand on issues—is that they often think that addressing it once is enough. When you ask them about it, they'll say, "We did a piece on that three months ago." The problem is that for it to be effective, they have to do it repeatedly or people won't get it. What we have seen is that this information can be found somewhere on news outlets' web sites (here's an example), but it isn't on the evening news broadcast or in the print edition of the paper.

Who Knew Nerd Click Bait Was So Sexy?

Writer Pictures via AP Images

A few weeks ago, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann released the follow-up to their 2009 best-seller Game Change, given the best title their publisher's Department of Inane Clichés could devise (though I'll grant that Double Down: Game Change 2012 was a bit better than Game Change 2: Game Changier would have been). The revelations weren't particularly revelatory, sales have been less than overwhelming, and an HBO film version seems unlikely. The behind-the-scenes campaign account as a journalistic genre is now half a century old, having been initiated by Theodore White's The Making of the President 1960, and it's showing its age. Is it interesting to know what Mitt Romney thought of the ads that were produced for his campaign, or whether one Obama strategist was feuding with another? Sure, if that's your thing. But it's hard to argue that learning the inside dope means you understand what happened in a truly meaningful way.

Insurance Companies Got You Down? Stupid Obamacare!

White House photo by Pete Souza

It has been said many times over the last few years that now that Democrats successfully passed a comprehensive overhaul of American health insurance, they own the health-care system, for good or ill. Every problem anyone has with health care will be blamed on Barack Obama, whether his reform had anything to do with it or not. Your kid got strep throat? It's Obama's fault! Doctor left a sponge in your chest cavity? Stupid Obama! Grandma died after a long illness at the age of 97? Damn you, Obama!

OK, so maybe it won't be quite as bad as that, but pretty close. Here's an instructive case in exactly how this plays out

Why Lara Logan Won't Lose Her Job

In case you haven't heard, CBS News is in a bit (but only a bit) of hot water over a story 60 Minutes recently aired about the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. It centered on a breathless account from a security contractor, who just happened to have written a book about it being published by a conservative imprint of a publishing house owned by CBS (that's synergy, baby). He told of the harrowing events of that night, including his own heroism and the spinelessness of the big shots who sit in their cushy offices while men of action like him do what must be done and get hung out to dry. The only problem was, he appears to be a liar who fabricated much of what 60 Minutes relayed in the story, which was reported by Lara Logan.

After insisting for weeks that everything in their story checked out, CBS finally conceded that the contractor, one Dylan Davies, was lying to them and through them to their audience. On Sunday night, Logan delivered an extraordinarily half-assed on-air apology, full of passive verbs and obfuscations plainly intended to minimize the whole thing; most critically, it gave no indication that CBS is going to make any effort to figure out why it happened. So who's going to be punished for this enormous screw-up? I'll tell you who: Nobody.

Twitter Is Neither Our Salvation Nor Our Doom

If you aren't following that guy, your life is obviously devoid of meaning.

A pop quiz: Twitter is A) a world-transforming communication medium that connects us to one another in ways that redefine what it means to be human; B) an idiotic time-waster that is the enemy of genuine thought and meaning; C) both; D) neither.

What do you think? Sometimes I feel like people who write about it have to take either position A or position B, without entertaining the possibility that the answer is C, or maybe something else: used in a way that suits you, it can be quite handy and entertaining, but it could also disappear tomorrow and life as we know it would continue.

Two Days until Brief Explosion of Christie Mania

Flickr/Bob Jagendorf

Only two states, New Jersey and Virginia, hold their gubernatorial elections in odd years, and since there's generally a dearth of other political news at that time, Washington-based reporters usually decide that whoever got elected in Virginia is suddenly a national figure with a future as a presidential or at least vice-presidential candidate. They say this because they have become familiar with the Virginia race and therefore perceive it as important, and because Virginia is a swing state, which is supposed to mean that someone who got elected there might also appeal to voters elsewhere. This year, however, the Virginia race features two candidates no one much likes: Ken Cuccinelli, who seems like he might launch a campaign to reintroduce witch trials to the commonwealth if he became governor, and Terry McAuliffe, an almost comically smarmy operator whose most profound talent lies in separating people from their money. Obviously, neither of those two is ever going to be president, so that leaves reporters with the other race up in the Garden State.

So when Chris Christie wins that race easily, as he will, we'll be treated to a brief but overwhelming deluge of stories about Christie's 2016 presidential candidacy. He certainly sounds like he's ready to start running, and it's safe to say the press corps would love it if he did.

Double Down to Dullsville

I suppose we should be pleased that every couple of months, a book, that old-fashioned communication form in which ideas are related at considerable length, is able to captivate official Washington for a moment or two. A while back it was Mark Leibovich's This Town, which cast a jaundiced eye on the incestuous world of press and politics in the capital, and the latest is Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's Double Down: Game Change 2012, which won't be officially released until tomorrow but already stands at #8 on Amazon.

I haven't read Double Down, but if it's anything like the authors' previous work, there'll be no jaundice to be found. As in Game Change, their best-selling account of the 2008 election, the authors show themselves to be aficionados of the scoop for scoop's sake, giving us the inside skinny from campaign operatives with scores to settle but avoiding saying anything interesting about what it all means. That's perfectly fine—if you're interested in politics, reading about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering is entertaining enough, much like finding out from People magazine how Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo got along on the set of The Avengers. But from early reports, Double Down isn't exactly delivering the spice, perhaps because it lacks a central character quite as compelling as Sarah Palin was to the authors' previous installment.

How's about You and Him Fight?

White House photo by Pete Souza

Hillary Clinton has about a year and a half before she needs to make the final decision on whether she'll run for president in 2016. Between now and then, and after she becomes an actual candidate (if she does), we're going to be seeing an awful lot of stories that read as though an editor said to a reporter, "Give me a story about Hillary turning her back on Barack, and the two camps sniping at each other," and the reporter replied, "Well, I haven't seen much evidence of that, but I'll see what I can come up with." That gets you stuff like a piece in today's Washington Post, under the headline, "In the Clintons' talk of brokering compromise, an implicit rebuke of Obama years." Let's get to the stinging barbs Hillary and Bill are aiming at the President:

Boob Jam: Keeping Abreast of a Changing Gaming World

The debate over depictions of women in video games has basically boiled down to “big boobs bad, small boobs good!” A few developers hope to change that.

Few things fan the fire in video-game culture quite like boobs.

It started with Lara Croft in Tomb Raider.

Facebook Is Watching You

There's an old saying in media that if you're getting something for free, then you are the product. When you listen to commercial radio, the advertisers are the customers, and you're the product that the station sells to their customers. But if you're the company selling those eyeballs or ears, it's best to convince the humans attached to them that you care deeply about them and have their best interests at heart. So I'm wondering exactly how Facebook thinks it could persuade its billion users that this is anything less than horrifying:

Facebook Inc. is testing technology that would greatly expand the scope of data that it collects about its users, the head of the company’s analytics group said Tuesday.

The social network may start collecting data on minute user interactions with its content, such as how long a user's cursor hovers over a certain part of its website, or whether a user's newsfeed is visible at a given moment on the screen of his or her mobile phone, Facebook analytics chief Ken Rudin said Tuesday during an interview.

I guess this isn't too surprising, since Facebook is legendarily disdainful of its users' privacy. But wow. Tracking your cursor movements? That is a whole new level of creepy. And what are the users getting in return for allowing their real-time movements to be monitored in this way? Absolutely nothing, it appears. Facebook is getting information that allows it to sell more ads and make more money. But you? Nada.

I'm reading Dave Eggers' The Circle, and while I'm only about halfway through (and things are obviously about to take a turn for the sinister), I had a different reaction to one important part of the book than Lee Konstantinou did. Lee talks about Eggers seeming uncertain and unsure about what the problem with The Circle (a kind of mashup of Facebook and Google, with some Twitter and PayPal thrown in) is and what it represents, but the ambiguity strikes me as intentional and even compelling, despite the fact that Eggers' satire isn't exactly subtle. When The Circle's personnel make presentations about new products they're planning (for instance, cheap, lollipop-shaped cameras that will become ubiquitous and record every moment of existence on Earth), they're almost persuasive in their enthusiasm that this will be a wonderful thing for humanity, even as what they're proposing is also horrifying.

Maybe my opinion about this will change once I finish the book, but it seems to me that Eggers is trying to capture the fact that it's no accident that these companies are so successful. For instance, Gmail really is a great email system. So yeah, it reads your emails and pushes advertising at you based on the content. But you can ignore that, right? And people love what Facebook offers them. It seems to me that most of the time when one of these behemoths rolled out a service people rejected, it wasn't because it was too invasive but because the benefits weren't attractive enough.

So you'd think people won't want Facebook wants to track their cursor movements unless they're getting something in return. But I'm sure the company will come up with something to tell them. Just wait until they debut the software that uses your computer's camera to track your eye movements and monitor your heart rate.

The "War of the Worlds" Myth

Wikimedia Commons/Henrique Alvim Correa

Seventy-five years ago today, the CBS radio network aired Orson Welles' radio dramatization of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Welles took Wells' book and transformed it into a series of radio news reports, duplicating in form and presentation what people would hear if Martians were actually invading Earth. As you probably know, mass panic ensued, with millions of Americans running screaming through the streets, having heart attacks, and generally believing that the world was coming to an end.

It's a great story; the only problem is, it didn't actually happen that way. Not that there weren't some people who flipped out, because there were a few. All indications were that those who believed it was real were socially isolated and highly suggestible for one reason or another. But there was no mass panic, nobody firing their guns at passing clouds, nobody committing suicide rather than be scooped up by the alien invaders. So why has this tale persisted?

Another Phony Obamacare Victim Story

NBC News' Obamacare victim, who it turns out is not actually a victim.

In the last couple of decades, a particular technique of news story construction has become so common that I'm sure you barely notice it as something distinctive. It's the use of a device sometimes referred to as the "exemplar," in which a policy issue is explained through the profile of one individual, whose tale usually begins and ends the story. It's ubiquitous on television news, but print reporters do it all the time as well.

As the Affordable Care Act approaches full implementation, we're seeing a lot of exemplar stories, and I've been noticing one particular type: the story of the person who seems to be getting screwed. If it were true that most Americans were indeed being made worse off by the law, that would be a good thing; we'd learn their stories and get a sense of the human cost of the law. The trouble is that in the real world, there are many more people being helped by the law than hurt by it, and even those who claim to be hurt by it aren't really being hurt at all.

To see how misleading some of these exemplar stories can be, let's take this piece from last night's NBC Nightly News, which uses an exemplar named Deborah Caballaro (sorry if I've misspelled her name), a self-employed realtor from Los Angeles who buys insurance on the individual market: