Becoming clickbait

A little peek behind the curtain of clickbait: the laziest, strangest part of the modern news environment

Hello,

Hope you’re good. As you can probably tell from the subject line, I’m writing to you about clickbait. Let’s get right to it.

Last week I went for a swim. Did some laps, felt tired, went to get changed. While doing this, I noticed something I found amusing at the time: this cute old man had picked up his phone and landed himself in some kind of video meeting. I say “cute” in that he was sort of old and befuddled, and just reminded me of my grandpa or something.

Anyway — way off to the side I just saw his phone, with some faces staring back at him.

Situations like this make me instantly feel like I’m in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. “What would Larry David think about this?” is the thought that inevitably passes through my mind when anyone upsets the agreed upon rules of society.

Should anyone be on a video-call in a changing room? Pending some sort of emergency (a hostage negotiator doing a remote negotiation? A pilot talking a passenger through landing a plane?), the answer is always “no”.

But some clarity about this particular situation, too. Some further scene setting. The changing rooms were pretty much empty. The cute old man was off to the side. His video background, I imagine, was mostly the wall or some lockers. I just caught faces on the side of his phone. I wouldn’t have been in shot. It wasn’t like his Zoom background was a room full of writhing, nude bodies. It wasn’t a sea of dicks.

When I left, I tweeted about it. My mood was amused and quizzical. I think my tweet reflected this:

And that was that.

Three days later, some news notifications came through. One of them was about a key witness in a murder trial committing suicide here in New Zealand.

The next was about my tweet.

I should clarify that two things. Firstly — tie a cinderblock to my feet and throw me in the ocean — I am not a “media personality”. That’s part of the clickbait. Pro move.

Secondly, news notifications are absolutely diabolical here in Aotearoa. It’s a combination of gossip, sport and murder. I wrote about this phenomenon in 2017: New Zealand news notifications read like a very short episode of Black Mirror — bleak, with a smattering of dark humor to make them more palatable:

So I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked that my tweet made it into the news alerts. My particular news alert came via the Herald, our main newspaper here in New Zealand. And over on their website, “Man’s shock at video call in pool changing room” was front and centre:

Clicking through, I got the main headline: PRIVACY TABOO: MAN’S DISTURBING NUDE CHANGING-ROOM VIDEO CALL.

It sounded like an utter horror show. A horror show after a basketball game, apparently. And the story they’d written painted a very different picture to the reality I’d experienced. Another point of clarity around “nude video call” — and sorry to disappoint — but I wasn’t nude. I had a towel around me. I’m Tobias Fünke in Arrested Development. I, dear reader, am a never-nude.

Okay, let’s see how the article portrayed my nude horror:

An Auckland media personality has revealed being caught up in an alarming swimming pool changing-room incident when a fellow swimmer took a video call in a room full of naked men.

Television documentary maker and podcaster David Farrier tweeted he was in the changing room after going for a swim when he walked past a man on a video meeting in the men’s lockers.

In a tweet which has garnered more than 800 likes, Farrier questioned whether this was appropriate. “I feel the rule is we’re all in this nude, together. Outside video calls breaks the sacred rule. Am I correct or a prude?”

Alarming”. No it wasn’t.

A room full of naked men.” No it wasn’t.

From one tweet they had generated four paragraphs so far. That’s quite good mileage. The piece then went on some more, before quoting Privacy Commissioner John Edwards:

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards replied saying it was “so wrong”. He added the man conducting the video call was at fault, not Farrier, who happened to walk past him in the changing room during the call.

A reader could assume that the Herald had talked to John Edwards — but no. They just read his tweet, which was a reply to my original tweet.

They had somehow turned his 5 words into 36 words. To their credit, the next line made it clear they’d tried to seek more comment from Edwards — but he’d said “no”.

Edwards said he did not want to discuss the matter further other than what was expressed in his reply on Twitter.

Fucking exhausting. At this point, I thought I’d check my burner email account to see if they’d reached out to me — and it turns out they had. Twice. They had one reporter email me first in the morning, and a different reporter email me later in the afternoon:

“I’m getting in touch about the experience you described on Twitter where a man took a video call in the changing room you were in. It makes a good talking point. I was hoping we could talk about it today. Do you have time this afternoon or evening?”

In short, no, I guess I didn’t have the time. But not to worry, the piece was just written anyway. Which is perfectly fine — they’re allowed. And hey, video-calls in changing rooms is a topic that people want to talk about I guess. Larry David would. It’s why I tweeted about it.

But it just also made me sort of go “do we have to, really?” I know newsrooms need clicks so people watch the lil’ banner ads, and that helps them pay for real journalism. It’s why they said “media personality”. No one gives a shit about David Farrier, but media personality: oh my god, that could be someone big! The Rock! Beyonce! Elon Musk!

And to be clear and fair — some of New Zealand’s best journalists write for the Herald. They have to get paid, somehow. But then, there’s… this:

It’s just a bit much.

I cannot express how much I love this” a friend in London messaged me. “The poorly written headline. The pastiche with stock image. The pic they chose of you. The fact that it’s all based on one tweet.

And I agree with them. The photo of me is actually me in a cage at a dominatrix’s dungeon; a still from doing press for Tickled years ago. That, along with the headline and stock image, are a killer combo.

All based on one tweet.

Clickbait. It’s the news cycle pushed to its extreme: reactionary, full of bluster, and bringing absolutely nothing useful to the world.

David.

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