We're supposed to be living in an "attention economy," right? But standard Web metrics don't really measure attention. Uniques, page views, monthly average users—none of these take into account how long a visitor spends, whether the visitor is satisfied, or even if the visitor is human and not a bot. For all our talk of Big Data, audience measurement remains a remarkably crude science. And yet, because advertisers and investors rely on these metrics, they have a distorting effect on social media and professional media alike. This has been one source of Twitter's problems, but it's even worse with online journalism. If the sites with the most uniques win, it's easy to game the system by baiting users with value-free content. So cheeseball aggregators like ViralNova—which just sold for something approaching $100 million—get rewarded, while more serious stuff is penalized.
When people fall for crazy clickbait come-ons, you won't believe what happens next.
I've been fascinated by this phenomenon at least since 2009, when my colleague Daniel Roth published an excellent story in Wired called "The Answer Factory." It was about Demand Media, a self-aggrandizing startup whose stated mission was to publish "what the world wants to know and share"—which turned out to be a cynical euphemism for "what we can stuff with ads and trick people into clicking on."