It’s back. What first emerged as a viral fad in February 2015 has now returned, except this time it’s bigger than ever before. No, I’m not talking about bubble nails, but rather the rekindled love certain corners of the media have for using the phrase ‘dividing the internet’ to describe any web-based debate, controversy, question, or piece of non-news. Having initially entered the collective consciousness with the (sadly) unforgettable dispute over whether a dress belonging to some bride’s mother was either black and blue or white and gold, it has once again entered popular culture, where it becomes more ubiquitous with every passing day.
And the reason why it’s becoming more ubiquitous is that certain manufacturers of popular culture have well and truly learnt their lessons from 2015’s infamous dress. They’ve seen the awesome potential of potentially unending squabbles to lure people to ad-sponsored websites, and they’ve decided that they want a piece of the action for themselves. This is why 2016 has been privy to a steady stream of occasions on which ‘the internet’ has supposedly been ‘divided,’ as if it and the world were harmoniously united up until a couple of years ago. There have been “geeky” Jeopardy champions, rainbow cheese toasties, ambiguous red dots, revealing wedding dresses, painted or shiny legs, and a Bill Murray who may or may not be Tom Hanks.
In all cases, the online disagreements surrounding these people and objects have been more or less genuine, yet at the same time the reporting on them has become almost entirely contrived, as websites actively look for cheap yet effective ways of increasing their traffic. The headline ‘dividing the internet’ has become a ruse for drawing people in, a promise of some toothless contention to which readers can add their two cents’ worth without the fear of giving a demonstrably wrong answer. Yet as disposable and frivolous as it seems, the phenomenon it represents is in fact deceptively significant, insofar as its emptiness counter-intuitively provides a window into how media in the Digital Age works.
To begin with, it’s necessary to remember that most publications in this age employ a business model based around pageviews and advertising revenue. It may be pointing out the obvious, but this is because subscriptions have been on the decline, with the upshot being that a website or online magazine has to produce content that’ll keep their readership and their ad revenue as high as possible. Some have responded to this challenge by mixing their ‘traditional’ content with more material that appeals to a broader audience, while some have focused on this broader audience entirely. Yet in all cases, the drying up of subscription income has provided a very real push to give content a mass appeal, to make it economically productive and efficient. Put simply, content now has to be as inexpensive to source as possible, yet as profitable as possible.
It’s into this context that ‘dividing the internet’ stories enter, specifically as the consummation of the ‘clickbait’ logic the media have been following for many years now. Above all else, these stories reveal how many online publications don’t simply ‘report’ news, but look to generate news using readymade frames that are as cheap as possible yet as profitable as possible. The ‘Dividing the internet’ gambit is just one of those frames, since the stories it forges are maximally cheap and maximally profitable. They’re cheap in the sense that they can be found almost anywhere, in even the most inconsequential wave of social media activity. This is because, human nature as it is, people are liable to be ‘divided’ about anything, from a political speech to the latest episode of The Grand Tour.
As for being profitable, they fulfil this requirement in two senses. The first is that reference to ‘the internet’ means that they effectively refer to ‘everyone,’ since almost everyone is now on the internet. As a result, any article that puts ‘dividing the internet’ in its title is essentially involving and implicating the reader in the story it’s covering, claiming to this reader that the story is fundamentally about him or her. It becomes the perfect clickbait, since such a gambit excites and flatters the public, who are thereby tempted to click on a story so as to read and learn about themselves, even if it’s not really about them at all.
In other words, ‘dividing the internet’ articles show how the media have recently begun trying to pull in the biggest possible audience using content that claims to be relevant to everyone. Yet secondly, such articles are productive for the simple reason that the ‘divisions’ they report are insoluble. Whether it be the color of a handbag or the ‘proper’ way of putting pants on a dog, the disagreements they cover have no principled or objective basis for being settled. Because the questions they ask are almost always a matter of personal perspective or taste, the debates they spark are potentially infinite, and it’s for this reason that they can go viral so quickly and for so long. There’s no right or wrong answer that can suddenly stop them in their tracks, and as such they go on until the buzz surrounding them dies out.
Yet if their buzz soon fizzles out, it can always be reproduced again and again by applying the ‘dividing the internet’ frame to nearly any other event or happening. This is why such ‘divided’ stories are becoming so common, since they’re simply the product of a rudimentary model being reapplied to even the most innocuous of raw material. And even if this model is rudimentary to the point of being insulting, its crudeness reveals what many websites and much media are aiming for when they scout for ‘content.’
And finally, quite apart from being the purest possible expression of clickbait economics, the ‘dividing the internet’ article is also emblematic of much 21st Century media in a second sense. Namely, it disingenuously affirms that the reader herself is central to the story it’s covering, that she’s even an active player in it. This affirmation may be true as far as it goes, yet it’s nonetheless a symbol of how the internet is often sold as a democratic, Utopian space in which everyone has their say, when in practice they have their say largely about issues that have no consequence (beyond a power to shepherd people towards ads). It shows how the drive to appeal to as many people as possible and make them feel ‘engaged’ has ironically contributed to their partial disempowerment. They’ve been promised an opportunity to express and involve themselves in the news, yet in the process they’ve been diverted from expressing and involving themselves where it really matters.