The Death of Outrage

It once fueled the Internet. Now the Internet’s moving on.

From an advertising standpoint, outrage doesn’t integrate well.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Thinkstock, Library of Congress, Flickr Creative Commons, and Reuters.

At the end of 2014, Slate chronicled the year’s seemingly nonstop stream of outrage, during which nearly every day brought a new scandal demanding our opprobrium. Someone said the wrong thing, a celebrity did something awful, a Slate writer argued a contrarian position—even a minor imbroglio, whether it was the war on Columbus Day or manspreading, seemed to conjure up a flurry of angry articles analyzing its significance for our doomed society. If all those think pieces left you feeling fatigued, I bring good news: We have already passed peak outrage. Outrage clickbait is dying.

Make no mistake, outrage will still be with us—on news networks, talk radio, and Twitter—but its role in written journalism on the Internet is going to fade. Of course, writers of all stripes will still write passionately about what pisses them off; it’s the massive reduplication, the aggregation of outrage, that’s going to go out of fashion. We’ll still hear about the ghastly uptick in measles cases and the anti-vaccination hype that brought it about, but well-reported stories will no longer be followed by hundreds of “analysis” pieces summing up the original article and adding only a soupcon of context, attitude, derision, or moral injunction. The volume will decrease. There will be less ranting about why Thor shouldn’t be a woman, why Patton Oswalt is a horrible human being, why Sheryl Sandberg isn’t a feminist, and why you should never upload naked photos of yourself to the Web. The tweetstorms will not abate—but they will cease to be overamplified by opportunists with blogging quotas.

We’ll say goodbye to this model because it will no longer be good business. The culprit? The declining effectiveness of traditional Internet advertising, for starters, and the increasingly cozy relationship, spatial and otherwise, between digital advertising and digital journalism, which will slowly but inevitably leave less room for viral outrage.

The old model relies on short-form analysis, low overhead, and high volume to draw readers, who hopefully then click on accompanying banner ads and share the story on social networks. Much of this ecosystem has thrived on indignation. To understand why it’s about to crumble, it’s worth recapping how outrage became profitable, and it started with right-wing media.

From left, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Reuters.

Talk radio and Fox News hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck found great success in the 1990s and 2000s with their approach of all outrage, all the time. The war on Christmas, scary Islam, Benghazi: These were ripe subjects for a media that locked certain demographics into attentive and sometimes obsessive consumption of news. Beyond the Internet, outrage still remains primarily the domain of the right. Online, however, outrage has powered, to varying degrees, sites and blogs at all points on the political spectrum: Breitbart, Gawker Media’s verticals, Huffington Post, Salon, Townhall, Twitchy, even Upworthy, as well as a legion of smaller blogs mimicking the cheap viral content model. (Witness, as an egregious example, the quick spread of the “Wikipedia bans feminist editors” story, which generated five write-ups in two days even though no editors, let alone feminist ones, had been banned.) Phoebe Maltz Bovy termed this kind of writing “feelings journalism” and linked it to feminist journalism in particular, but the model of “low-paid essays that take a personal or provocative stance,” in her words, is hardly specific to any one political or social stance. It’s one logical business approach if virality is your ultimate goal.

Today, however, the new approaches to online “content” production that we hear so much about—sponsored content, the closer integration of advertising—are beginning to squeeze outrage out of the picture. For many years, the dominant business model has been content plus ads: Get people to read the content, and they have to see the ads. This model has never been hugely profitable (unless you are Google or Facebook, meaning you’re a middleman rather than a vendor). Indeed, click-through rates (the percentage of the time a user actually clicks on an ad after seeing it) for banner ads have declined precipitously since the dawn of the Web—the general figure today is that an ad is clicked once every thousand times it’s shown—abetted by increasing usage of ad blockers in users’ browsers. Nonetheless, with cheap-enough content, sites could survive and sometimes thrive. Notably, the Huffington Post was successful enough with this model to bootstrap itself into videos and other media.

There’s been a lot of coverage over the last few years of the investments made in two media companies in particular, BuzzFeed (currently valued around $850 million) and Vox Media (valued around $400 million). These valuations are not—cannot be—based on a content-plus-ads model. (Neither is Gawker’s, for that matter: Its estimated $250M valuation stems not only from traditional advertising but also from e-commerce, which accounted for 22 percent of its revenue last year. Gawker’s e-commerce department creates promotional articles containing affiliate links, which are then published across Gawker’s sites through its Kinja content platform.*) But they do reflect these sites’ promise to advertisers, both as a platform for ads and a creator of them. More generally, they are a product of four current trends in online advertising:

  1. Native advertising (or “custom content”), in which paid material closely resembles editorial content.
  2. Custom social media content that’s deployed directly on Twitter, Facebook, or other networks rather than on a site or blog. (Vox Media, for example, has played up its social media engagement.)
  3. The growing importance and dominance of mobile, whose varying formats and usage patterns are less compatible with big, bright banner ads.
  4. End-to-end advertising providers, or companies like BuzzFeed that offer clients a one-stop shop for production of the advertising content itself, the platforms on which it’s to be deployed, and placement on specific sites.

The common thread here is integration—advertising that is carefully and tightly coupled with its surrounding content—and these four trends reinforce one another in that way. The smaller-screen real estate of mobile in fact encourages native advertising because there’s literally less room for disjointed ads to sit alongside editorial content. There’s more of a need for end-to-end advertising providers, because advertising form and content are becoming more tightly bound together. And as it turns out, more integrated ads work better, anyway: When Facebook started inserting ads directly into news feeds instead of alongside it, click-through rates soared by a factor of 4.5. Sheryl Sandberg has stressed the need to carefully titrate promoted content so as not to annoy users, but there was no doubt that tighter integration got around the problem of people tuning out advertising. Meanwhile, the model of content plus vaguely related third-party ads has seen diminishing returns due to “banner blindness.” While that model has remained lucrative for Google and Doubleclick, clients (especially upscale clients) might do better with more integrated and seamless advertising.

From an advertising standpoint, that’s the problem with outrage: It doesn’t integrate well. Whether an article inveighs against the war on Christmas, Scott Walker, or Barbie, outrage can be viral, but that’s about all it has going for it. In an era of more tightly grouped content and advertising, there are far happier things to integrate with promotional content. Yes, Glenn Beck’s screeds against the Federal Reserve go well with gold-brokerage ads, but that’s the exception, not the rule. Atlantic Re:think, the Atlantic’s creative marketing outlet, can run intelligent and sleek promotional content that matches the urbane, respectable face of its magazine, like its Porsche campaign. That tone would be jarringly incompatible with sites with primarily sarcastic or self-righteous tones. Vox and BuzzFeed are quick to stress the sheer flexibility of their content and how it is ready to match the advertiser rather than the other way around. (BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti: “It’s not a site, it’s a process.”) A site with a more singular voice has to be one that users (and, even more importantly, advertisers) are comfortable having things sold to them; the site has to be knowledgeable, even-handed, and critical, but not preachy or superior. Native advertising can be dicey even in the best circumstances, so the goal is to make the transition soft. A dominant tone of outrage makes that impossible. Advertisers are looking for branded viral content that will reinforce an association with a particular brand and lifestyle, not contradict it.

Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff implies as much when he speaks of his company’s offerings as “quality brands—in our case brands for a new generation of audiences—but also quality design and engineering to make sure that we do take advantage of mobile platforms and we do take advantage of social platforms, which are a great way of sharing intelligent, smart content as well as sharing fluffier, lighter things as well.” Bankoff portrays Vox Media’s content primarily as a vehicle for pairing with advertising, or as a model for what advertising can be. The focus on branding is really just another way of saying integration, and that means that what’s being shared is the advertising itself, not content that happens to come with ads. And “intelligent, smart” and “fluffier, lighter things” are positive terms, appealing to advertisers.

Nick Denton, left, and Jonah Peretti.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Getty Images and Reuters.

In contrast, the negative emotions of outrage are never going to be advertisers’ first choices. In this context, Gawker head Nick Denton’s January “quality” memo, which promised good stories instead of clickbait, comes off as a knowing bit of kayfabe—the pro-wrestling term for the pretense of reality for what is in actuality a performance. Gawker isn’t really changing its tune; look at its recent “Mein Coke” stunt, in which, for some reason or other, the site tweeted Mein Kampf at a Coke Twitter bot that churned out ASCII art made of Hitler’s words. The key takeaway from Denton’s memo is, instead, Denton’s derisive attitude toward BuzzFeed, whose advertising strategy Gawker can’t match. For Denton, this makes Peretti “even more shameless than we are”—but Denton is trying to shift the conversation back to the old model of traffic and click-throughs, while Peretti has already moved on to the greener pastures of being a high-end advertising agency. Gawker’s model is suboptimal and inflexible, rooted in a particular voice and style (outrage, shamelessness, etc.) that is becoming a millstone around its neck. Gawker says to advertisers, “We can make you part of the Gawker, or Jezebel, or Deadspin scene.” BuzzFeed says, “We can make a BuzzFeed for you.” For most brands, the choice is obvious.

Stratechery blogger Ben Thompson’s recent analysis of BuzzFeed is far too Panglossian, but he does accurately capture how drastically the terms of advertising engagement have shifted. The old pastures are not evaporating. Fox News will still keep inciting its aging viewers. We’ll still hear plenty about how dangerous Islam (or Islamophobia) is. But that approach is not growing, and on the Internet, content models are supplanted far faster than they are on radio or television. There will still be a niche for “content-first” viral models, but the focus of the advertising world is shifting toward advertising providers, which means the merchants of outrage will struggle to keep their foothold. So in the new, more integrated online advertising age, here is my prediction: more ambiguously colored dresses, less outrage.

*Update, Monday, March 23, 2015: This article has been changed to clarify that while the bulk of Gawker’s revenue comes from traditional advertising, its revenue from links to affiliate sites has grown rapidly.)