'The Fifth Estate and The Supermassive Faphole', by Liam Pieper

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above: Mia Freedman with lots of exposure 

On October 15, 2013, the online magazine Slate ran an op-ed by columnist Emily Yoffe in which she called for women to avoid binge-drinking because it made them vulnerable to sexual predation, and the internet went bananas. I don’t use the term ‘going bananas’—evocative as it is of excited monkeys screeching and throwing faeces at each other—glibly. It just seems appropriate.

An armada of left-leaning publications lined up to take a pop at Yoffe. Once-friendly commentators published recriminative pieces calling her out for victim blaming and perpetuating rape culture. Longstanding antagonists to Yoffe’s brand of feminism rushed to defend her. Slate’s Double X podcast brought her in to discuss the piece, and the site published Yoffe’s defence articulating her arguments. This brought a fresh wave of adversarial editorial, and all of it linked back to Slate.com.

Then, one week after Yoffe’s transgression against feminism, Mia Freedman, owner and editor of Mamamia.com, got on the case. I wasn’t there in the room with her, and can only speculate on how Freedman spent the day, but presumably, upon awaking on the morning of October 21, after a bracing swim in her vat full of money, fully cognisant of the sheer amount of traffic being driven to Slate and it’s affiliates, Freedman sat down and wrote a piece on how she was going to teach her daughters that binge drinking would make them vulnerable to sexual predators, and thus started an antipodean shitfight to mirror that which was still embroiling America’s east coast.

Mamamia was flooded with outraged feminists who wanted to see firsthand what Mia had done now. Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook all lit up with people calling Freedman out for betraying the sisterhood, for tacitly condoning rapists, for victim blaming, for bad and hurtful analogies. The wider media picked up the story, and everybody in the world clicked over to Freedman’s website for the two-minute hate. It went on for a week, then on the Friday evening Freedman published another defence of her piece, and it all started anew.

In my old age I’ve retreated to my corner of the internet where I can watch and rewatch that video of otters holding hands (biologists call that particular act ‘rafting’. Otters do it so they don’t float away from each other while they nap. My heart!) enjoy a cup of Bovril and yell “Get off my lawn”, so I don’t fight online much. When I was young, though, there used to be a bit of prevailing wisdom that went something like “Don’t feed the trolls”, meaning, if someone is an asshole to you online, don’t give them oxygen or the attention they crave, but ignore them and eventually they’ll find something else to do.

Yet somewhere along the line, this paradigm shifted, as online editors realised that if they could cause offence to a group of people, those people were going to visit their site.

There was a time when the media, even ‘the new media’, did its best to function as a fourth estate, holding the rich and powerful to account and fostering an informed and socio-politically engaged populace. But then the media ran out of money, and faced with plummeting revenue streams and a dearth of talent, mastheads had to figure out a way to keep the lights on. The solution seems to be to get the whole internet wanking furiously into the void.

News sites understand that the internet has allowed political and social movement to be commodified; that if you can get someone outraged about your story then you get free publicity. How many editors, working in a 24-hour news cycle with no resources, can resist the spike in hits that a good shitfight over cheap ideas will provoke? It’s a worrying development in terms of content; picture an olde-timey editor in a press hat chomping on a cigar as he reads a writer’s copy and barking “This is fucking garbage! Let’s lead with it.”

The above process creates a self-perpetuating news cycle where a content curator publishes a piece by some asshole who you should rightfully ignore, who says something egregious like “White Aboriginals aren’t proper Aboriginals.” Then, the right minded of the world, who once upon a time might have written a ‘Dear Sir’ to the Green Guide, instead jump online and break the news that said asshole has said something asinine, and invite their networks to come be angry alongside them.

Good content is getting harder to find, but punditry is not. Editors rely on stirring debate to plump their comments section for harvest, and will pitch controversial topics to their staff writers in clear oppositional terms, asking them to really articulate how angry they are about a point of view. Writers who don’t have strong opinions either way on a certain issue are asked to fake it. That way, people for and against will take time out from their day to join the conversation at the bottom of the page, and the site racks up the all-important page views. Shit, the strapline for Mamamia.com is “What everyone’s talking about.”

I would never assert that every person’s opinion isn’t a valuable, unique treasure to be shown off at the slightest provocation, but the way a lot of us faceless weirdos spend our outrage is counterproductive. Just look at the aforementioned Mamamia ‘up with rape’ controversy.

Page views, the gold in the hills of the internet, are a strange commodity. Nearly any other product—Nike shoes, McDonalds burgers, etc—require you to have some measure of buy-in for the product; if the shoe fits, you wear it. For online media brands, just visiting the site is a vote in favour of it, regardless of your opinion. A couple of years ago, when News Limited wanted to put Andrew Bolt’s blog behind a paywall, he moved forcefully to ensure it was kept free, because he, better than anyone, knows the value of a good trolling.

Long after you’ve hate-read an article, rage-quit a site, and linked to it so all of your like-minded folk on your networks can also be angry, those page views remain a saleable commodity. When you visit a website, its analytics software collects and stores information about you: where you live, what you probably earn, what you probably buy, browsing habits, language, demographic information, all of which is exported from analytics and passed on to sales where it is rendered down into pie graphs and used to sell advertising.

The one quality it doesn’t collect is your mood. It doesn’t care if you visited the site in supplication or in apoplectic rage. It just cares that you visited. Once your anger has expired, it is, like a tired racehorse, broken down into its components and on-sold to make their owner money. This is the closest thing flailing sales teams can point to as a measure of success for a website. Clicking through just to let them know you disapprove is on par with those Christian radio stations that bought the Beatles records in ’66 so they could burn them.

Among the vitriol directed at Freedman over the past few weeks was the accusation that she is stupid: a 42-year-old woman with the worldview of a teenager. This is unfair and untrue. Sure, she writes like Norman Mailer with a brain injury (“Let’s say you have a daughter. Or a little sister. I’ll tell her that getting drunk when she goes out puts her at a greater risk of danger. All kinds of danger.”), but she’s not trying to take out a Walkley – she’s trying to build a media empire, and by any metric you’d care to measure her, she’s succeeded.

In a world where century-old mastheads are crumbling into digital remnants of their old glory, she has leveraged her persona into a huge and widely-read media property, one in which it seems half of Australia has lined up to write for without being paid. Helping foster a culture where writers are expected to work for free was a neat trick, but she’s gone one better, and prompted the massive onanistic faphole of the blogosphere to shill for her.

Every time you marshal your 140 characters and go to war on something asinine on Freedman’s website, you make her richer. When you write a scathing reaction piece dissecting her latest war-crime, it’s not like she falls to the ground of her emerald tower screaming “Wordpress! My one weakness! How did you know?” No, instead your readers idly click through to her site, the money tinkles into her accounts, and off on Freedman island she’ll smile across the verdant fields, load another gold bullet into her dodo-hunting shotgun, and ride her dinosaur off into the sunset. Or whatever it is wealthy people do of a weekend. 

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Liam Pieper is a freelance writer whose recent credits include Meanjin, Going Down Swinging and The Sleepers Almanac. His first book, a memoir, will be published through Penguin Australia in 2014. You can find him on Twitter @liampieper or on the internet proper at liampieper.com. He has a piece in the upcoming issue of the Brow.