By Matthew DeMello
Photo courtesy of William Hook.
You’ve seen them a hundred times before:
“She Went to Belize to Find Her Long Lost Poodle, But What She Found Instead Changed The Way She Saw Education Reform Forever…”
“What Happens When You Cross a Tollbooth Operator with an LGBT Activist? Only We Can Tell You…”
“Looks Like Just Your Average Jar of Pickles, Right? Think Again!”
Clickbait headlines. They may have officially replaced memes as exemplary of everything flat, annoying, and tangential about the internet. Even where they are implemented with the absolute best of intentions they come off with an air of self-centered desperation that paves the road to digital hell (read: my Facebook feed).
As Editorial Director here at BreakThru Radio, I fully understand the appeal of even the most dignified new media outlets to slightly oversell their stories for the sake of clicks. But as of now, the word “clickbait” in most journalistic circles tends to only refer to headlines and I would submit that the idea should transcend titles and be considered in assessing the value of news content at large.
Perhaps the best, most recent example of what I mean by clickbait in terms of content occurred two weeks ago when Vox (a publication I normally respect and frequent for all kinds of news and opinion) published an article titled “Did Tony Soprano die at the end of The Sopranos? David Chase finally answers the question he wants fans to stop asking”.
If by some chance you haven’t heard about this controversy already, let me spare you a few thousand words of reading. In it, Vox contributor Martha P. Nochimson recounts getting a cup of coffee with The Sopranos creator David Chase, bugging him about the intentionally polarizing and widely-discussed ending of his epochal HBO series to the point where he angrily grumbles that Tony Soprano is not, in fact, dead. His exact words were, according to Nochimson, “No. No he isn’t.” (Chase himself doesn’t remember the conversation, but doesn’t deny that it happened.)
Before I continue, though, I should give a slight caveat here. I’ve only seen maybe two seasons of the show. I was in middle school when the series began and I’ve only had access to HBO for about two years of my life (I just got rid of it after my most recent move last week) and elected to spend those years engrossing myself in a show whose ending hasn’t already been ruined by all of the internet: Game of Thrones.
As a steadfast devotee of many shows that owe a clear debt to The Sopranos (i.e. Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and the like), I’ve been waiting for the hysteria over the show’s mysterious conclusion to blow over in order to fully appreciate Chase’s vision. As a testament to both the show’s power and just how annoying the Digital Age can be, I still don’t think we’ve gotten there yet and the show ended seven years ago.
So my heart goes out to Chase in all this. For all his acclaim and for everything he has to be proud of for such an obvious achievement in changing a medium for the better and forever, there’s no way to “spoil” The Sopranos for anyone. Though in all reality, that was probably the point of such an abrupt and indefinite ending–to give everyone something to talk about that didn’t take away the heart of what’s best about the show.
Vox and Nochimson probably think that they were being enlightening or clever in drawing attention to this innocuous exchange in order to make a greater point about the show that was plainly obvious since it aired, whether or not you saw it or elected to participate in the inevitable debates over it in the years following. Others on the internet came to their defense, such as The Verge did in calling out smug critics on Twitter like @SavedYouAClick who boiled down the piece to the bare bones of what Chase said to a simple “No”.
In her response, Nicky Patel of The Verge makes something of a point about the tweet being misleading (which is a little like complaining that the CliffsNotes version of Ulysses isn’t comprehensive enough). But, in the process, she unjustifiably acclaims the original Vox story as a “terrific” analysis and admits the Vox piece was written by her “friends” at the site. More importantly, Patel decries that Nochimson’s piece was an “experience” that was “stolen” from readers everywhere by @SavedYouAClick.
The Vox article is not an experience, at least not a worthwhile one. It’s clickbait at its most shameless in that it falsely advertises itself as an original and unique analysis. You could either read the 5,000-plus words Nochimson printed on how Chase proved that series finales should not be the end-all-be-all of interpreting a showrunner’s creative vision. Or you could just use roughly the same amount of brain power needed for a college sophomore to figure out that Moby Dick isn’t necessarily about a giant white whale to come to the exact same conclusion.
And you don’t even neet to have watched a single episode of the show to do so, which is the shame of all the press that surrounds Chase and his stupefying creation.
Either way, no one who remotely cares about the show clicked on the Vox article because they wanted to know what Nochimson thinks about it, since her thoughts aren’t very insightful anyway. Readers clicked because they wanted to know what Chase thinks of his ending, and whether they found out from @SavedYouAClick, Vox, The Verge, or the hundreds of other sites that ran tangential stories on the exchange, no one got any closer to an answer of whether Tony survived the final episode.
Which, everyone can agree–Chase, Nochimson, and the rest of the internet included—was not the point of the episode.
Some days after the Vox story published, The Daily Beast sat down with Chase to ask him about his conversation with Nichomson and the subsequent article that came from it. Appropriately, among the lessons that he claimed to have learned from the whole experience is that it is a bad idea to make friends with journalists.
As a journalist, I can’t possibly blame him. The incident only proves you don’t necessarily need to be hiding in the bushes outside of Brangelina’s house with a sniper scope attached to a Nikon to achieve the equivalent affect of a sycophantic paparazzo on your subject.
It can be done just as easily behind a desk, convinced by both your arrogance and your click-hungry editors that four words uttered by someone more famous than you is news worthy and that you’re writing something new and vital and refreshing about them, when you’re actually saying nothing at all.