Chris DeLine

Cedar Rapids, IA

Web as Foie Gras

Published in Blog. Tags: .

In “The Amazon Doctrine” Michael Heilemann compares how easy it is to trust a brand relative to how profit-focused, or “driven by business reasoning,” they are when dealing with customers. “When did Amazon last make a move that screwed you over as a customer in the name of profit,” he asks, before shooting down Twitter for having “gone insane” in killing their desktop client (the most recent initiative to safeguard where and how the service can be used).

“Never mind that I don’t give a flying intercourse about ‘Who to Follow’ and ‘Trending Topics’ nonsense that is continually shoved down my throat. #foiegrasjokehere”

I’ve thought about this plenty in the past, especially as I made my own attempt at pursuing a living online. More and more though, even despite Heilemann’s assertion that such narrowly focused companies will have a hard time succeeding, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to believe that many would actually try to move on from their force feeding ways.

For those unfamiliar, foie gras is duck or goose liver that’s been fattened by force feeding the animal. Some denounce the process as being cruel to the animal, while others take an opposing view. Comedian Joe Rogan falls in the second group,

“You ever see them force feed a duck? They take the duck, they stick its stupid head under this faucet, they pour some grain down its throat, and they pull it out. It takes five seconds. And you think that it’s terrible? That’s terrible to an animal that you’re going to kill and eat, really?”

The actual foie gras debate aside, take a step back and reconsider Heilemann’s bit about how the pending death of Twitter might be by the hand of the company’s own aggressive attempts to monetize the service. I can’t help but look at sites like Buzzfeed, which I actually enjoy, without a similar thought coming to mind: Even if Twitter or Buzzfeed succeed financially, are they “screwing over customers in the name of profit” to do so? It all depends on how you look at it.

“I get the attempt to control the stream in an effort to monetize it,” adds Heilemann. And likewise, I get the trend of packing sidebars, headers, post footers, RSS feeds, and every other remaining inch of white-space (or whatever you’d rather call non-monetized real-estate) in an effort to drive income to your business. Businesses have to make money, and there are very few ways for online content-producing companies to do so aside from milking a few extra pageviews (or browser refreshes, reloading ads, and inflating marketable metrics) to make things work. Is this force feeding? Maybe, maybe not. I will say this though: The line between force feeding and content presentation is downright nonexistent when websites use slideshows, something which not even Buzzfeed utilizes. As Rogan continues his rant, things begin to sound familiar,

“I’ve watched them do it. It’s ridiculous. They take the thing, grab them buy the neck, stick its mouth on it. And they get sort of used to it after a while. They just kind of [sit] there, they pump grain down their throat, then they let them go. Then they’re done for the rest of the day, they wander around…”

A couple months back I was talking to a friend about this — I named Complex as one of the biggest abusers of the process, burdening readers with 100-page click-through slideshows ad nauseum — and he broke things down from his perspective as a publisher, telling me that he too didn’t care for them but has learned to accept them because point blank: they work. “I stopped trying to fight it,” he told me. And believe me, I get it. There doesn’t seem much use in arguing them because they work. They work, but they can always be done better (meta alert: a good slideshow about how foie gras is made). And when they suck, there’s always an alternative.

If you head over to one of my favorite hip hop blogs today you’ll see that the Passion of the Weiss crew has released a great post counting down “The 25 Greatest Outdated Rap Slang Words.” By Complex standards this should be nothing but a weighty 27 page click-through extravaganza, including an introduction page and a concluding “Related Articles” slug. But Weiss kept things simple, with everything on one page, all there for you to digest as you please. That, and it’s a good read. (I suggest you checking it out.)

Now, is one method better than the other? Again, it all depends on who you ask. Not unlike foie gras, some will denounce the click-forcing process as being cruel to the reader while others encourage it.

If your only method of generating income is capitalizing on pageviews, then I get it. Having users (don’t lie, they’re not readers anymore) clicking away until a glossy haze forms in their eyes, the whole experience becoming a blur regardless of how used to it they become: all of that serves a purpose, and good on you for capitalizing on it. But if your goal as a publisher is to deliver something in a manner that gives your readers as little trouble as possible, a slideshow is absolutely unnecessary. Both might work, but it’s up to you as a reader and a publisher to choose which method you want to see survive. As Michael Heilemann adds, “It may take years, but if it really is Twitter’s intent to kill the desktop client, it will definitively mark the end of my use of the service.” And as for myself: You’ve lost my trust with slideshows, and I’m tired of clicking.