Commodification: the transformation of goods, services or ideas into objects of trade.
Last week, the internet was very upset with Roosh. Roosh is an author, motivational speaker and media personality who comments through the lens of an ideology that he calls neomasculinity. Neomasculinity is an ideology that brings together idiots, misogynists, and nerds who happened to have read “The Game” by Neill Strauss, and found their life’s calling inside its meagre page count. Roosh has been around for a while, and has written several books for his target market, as well as providing paid instruction courses on how to pick up women for those without his obvious skills, and pops up on TV every now and again whenever a panel show wants a provocative guest to rile up the audience and other guests.
Roosh felt however that he could do more, and decided to take his following one step further, and organise real-world meetings of his supporters, in dozens of cities all over the world, at the same time: all to occur on Saturday February 6th 2016. This physical manifestation of misogyny was too much for one internet to take, and in the days and weeks leading up to the main event, Roosh was not a popular man, as mainstream media took on the story, fuelled by a narrative that he was ‘pro-rape’. As impassioned Facebook statuses, likes and shares began to pile up, as well as sincere retweets and think-piece gifs pointing towards a unanimous public consensus that Roosh was indeed a very bad man, a few days before the intended meet-up, he cancelled the worldwide event, saying that he feared for the safety of those who intended to attend. A victory was declared for progressive-thinking internet folks.
To make a decent living by preaching an ideology such as neomasculinity, I would imagine that Roosh is quite a smart man, yet it is hard to see anyone who follows his nonsense as anything but a complete idiot. No one had any idea how many people would turn up to his meet-ups, but I think we all would admit that it probably wouldn’t be a lot. Opponents in every city he planned an event in, from Ireland to Australia, all expected the man himself to show up at their local event, preaching vitriol about how the rape of a woman in the comfort of your own home was no rape at all. The Immigration Minister of Australia pledged to deny Roosh an entry visa into the country, and Roosh replied with a photo of himself with a wad of cash saying he would sneak in through the unguarded North-West Coast. Australia was outraged. The entire world was outraged, and the entire world was not quiet about it. When Roosh cancelled the worldwide event, he was eventually tracked down by a tabloid reporter, living in the basement of his mother’s house in Maryland, USA. It turned out that while the world was outraged at his very existence, Roosh was busy selling ad-space on his personal website. The man set the world on fire while lounging around in his underwear, and was getting paid for it.
What Is A Two-Sided Market?
Everyone reading this sentence knows what a two-sided market is, you just maybe don’t know that it has this name. A one-sided market is when you walk into a shop and buy something. There is one customer, and one seller (or provider, if a service). A product is exchanged from buyer to seller for money, and then the transaction is over. A two-sided market is more complex: it involves the interaction between one seller and two different types of customers. In this case, the ‘seller’ acts as a platform (or intermediary) between the two types of customers, as one type of consumer attempts to extract value from the other side of the market (the other customer). It sounds complicated, but you know when you are watching television and a commercial break comes on? The product advertised (Side 1) paid the TV station (the Platform) for the privilege of gaining the undivided attention of you (Side 2). There are two sides to the market, and the traditional ‘product’ merely facilitates interaction between these two sides that would struggle to efficiently encounter each other without that platform. If one side of the market values the other significantly more than vice-versa, then often only the more desperate side will pay for using the platform, while the other side will use the platform for free.
This, of course, is why Facebook is free, and will always be free. It’s why all Google products are free, and will always be free. It’s why basically everything on the internet is free: you are on one side of the market, and the product/app/social network makes its money by selling you to the other side of the market, the advertisers. Most news sites operate like this, unless they are behind a paywall and require a paid subscription, meaning the site will get less views and thus is not attractive to advertisers that want their ad to be seen by as many people as possible. Paid subscription news sites therefore focus on extracting revenue from a different side of the market from the free-to-view news sites, but what is to be gained from taking money from readers, rather than advertisers? A free-to-view site is in the business of selling eyeballs (page views) to advertisers, while a subscription site is in the business of convincing readers into a long-term relationship based on quality content and possibly a compatible ideological viewpoint. We all know which one of the two is easier to do.
Two-Sided Markets & Clickbait
The above paragraph or two would be the best explanation I can give for the existence of ‘clickbait’: a headline of a news story shared on social media that was created solely to tempt you into clicking it. Think “He Asked For a Divorce, and You Won’t Believe What Happened Next”, or “9 Things College Never Prepared You for”. These kind of titles exist in order for you to click on them, and hence count as a page view for the site you have now entered, and this provides advertising revenue for that site. These things are meant to be a mild distraction, and no one really expects to be blown away by what is discovered on the other side of the click. This poses a problem for these clickbait websites, as ad revenue analytics have evolved significantly over the years, and simple page views are just not enough to charge advertisers big money: what’s required is that each page view corresponds to another click on that same website, and the holy grail: for users to share the content on their personal Facebook/Twitter accounts, meaning that successful clickbait will take on a life of its own, snowballing into thousands of unique page views.
The issue here is that fluffy clickbait stories such as every Buzzfeed post ever have gotten old very fast, and while we will share one now and again, we all know deep inside that all of our Facebook friends are silently judging us as ‘the type of idiot who shares cute cat pictures or Game of Thrones personality quizzes online’. No one wants to be that person. So in order to get you to share something online to all your friends, the content you share must be something interesting, or at least say something important about your character, or (and this is the goldmine) provoke an emotional reaction.
Remember Roosh? Roosh provoked an emotional reaction: everybody hated Roosh, and everybody shared something explaining Roosh’s diabolical acts, and how he/she felt about it. Roosh was at home selling ads the entire time he was suffering the scorn of the world: Roosh understood two-sided markets, and he knew he could charge whatever he wanted for advertising space on his website that would achieve unimaginable traffic during the whole ordeal. A page view that hated him generated exactly the same amount of money as a page view that agreed with him. Everything anyone read about him, anywhere, would provoke a google search that would lead to Roosh’s own website, or his YouTube channel, and each one of those searches put money into Roosh’s pocket. Roosh is the platform, the advertisers who pay him are one side of the market, and the outraged page viewers are the other side. He brought everyone together, and made money from it.
It’s pretty depressing, but that’s not even the point I’m trying to make here. The thing is, Roosh probably didn’t even plan all this, he just took advantage of the situation. This is because all those articles written about him and his plans were written solely to lure enraged clickers to ad-funded websites, and then for this content to be shared on social networks along with a sentence or two condemning the morality of the man in question. Roosh became a big issue because websites knew his views would enrage people online, and so article after article was published, in the hope of enticing traffic based on revealing whatever depraved sentence Roosh had uttered in the past. This content would cause outrage in people who viewed it, but this content had nothing to do with Roosh, nothing to do with rape, and nothing to do with anything at all except drawing eyeballs to advertisement on an external website.
The Commodification of Outrage
Did you ever wonder why the death of Cecil the lion was such a big deal? Why you probably know what the Westboro Baptist Church is, despite it consisting only of one family and perhaps 30 members? Why all of a sudden there are calls for race quotas at the Oscars because there are no non-White acting nominees? Why Donald Trump is always in your timeline, yet you don’t know anyone who would vote for him? Why some websites will actually complain that Harrison Ford was paid so much more than Daisy Ridley for appearing in Star Wars: The Force Awakens? I am not saying there are not real, important issues involved here, but my argument is that the reason for a website writing about any of these issues is more about inducing a click by causing anger to the viewer, rather than any genuine concern for the issues that are very superficially discussed on the other side. The goal of an ad-supported, content driven website is thus to pick up on whatever is currently pissing people off, or whatever could possibly piss people off, and throwing it out there to see how it does. If it attracts attention, more will be written about it, and ad-driven websites will recognise the power of the issue, and reap their rewards through advertising revenue.
People like Roosh don’t matter, they just personify a certain type of outrage that we all feel from time to time, and this outrage was successfully focussed and directed at him for a certain amount of time, and many made money from this. They didn’t necessarily do anything wrong, they just knew how to benefit from it. They successfully acted as a platform that brought together two sides of a market, the outraged and the advertisers. The platform extracted money from the advertisers due to the increased interest and page views caused by the outrage, and this is part of their business model. The interesting point is that in the order to extract money from one side of the market (the advertisers), the platform was forced to produce exploitative content that extracted emotion from the other side (the customer). Clickbait has evolved, it is not fluffy photos of animals anymore, it is content that is meant to offend, outrage and then be retweeted afterwards with a few words indicating your moral standpoint. There are a few old memes that tell us “if you’re easily offended, then get off the internet”. This could not be more wrong: isolating easily offended groups is the future of the internet, at least outside of paid subscription sites.