Clickbait, endings explained, SEO, ChatGPT: a call for better

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A welcome act of rebellion from IGN points the way to a better way forward for movie journalism: a few thoughts.

A few years ago, I was absorbing the many motivational lessons that the social network service LinkedIn has to offer. I particularly enjoy the life stories you find there, that are injected with a far more generous smattering of carriage returns than any reasonable paragraph could offer.

Still, on this particular day I saw someone involved in a major publishing house posting about a fresh achievement, one that had taken years of work and planning. I was intrigued.

It was just after the announcement of a major games console, and the person in question was in celebratory mood. I wondered what the cause for celebration was: maybe an exclusive article or a particularly incisive piece of writing about it, that had caught people’s attention?

Neither, as it happened.

The achievement was that their articles were listed on the first page of the Google search results for the games machine in question. The articles that registered were as you’d expect, the kind of mutated ‘here’s everything we know’ pieces that either spread 100 words of information over 20% of the works of William Shakespeare, or that hide the stuff you actually want to know in a position that requires approximately a quarter of a mile of scrolling.

No slight here on the people who wrote the pieces, let me be clear: I have, as I’ve said before many times, problems with the game itself, not with its players. Furthermore, going back to that LinkedIn post, it was an achievement. The person in question knew that landing high up in Google brings more traffic, which brings more advertising, which means people can stay employed. It’s not the most pleasant vicious circle, but it appears to be where online journalism has landed.

I confess I got downbeat about this. I’ve written before about how Google isn’t really interested in quality, and has instead fostered a culture of articles written to be read by a computer, in the way that the computer wants to see them. Now, with the growing use of ChatGPT, the computer is also writing some of these. The human being is an incidental part of the process.

Yet I’m – and this has been heavily tested of late – a glass half full person. And I’ve retained a belief that ultimately, good work by human beings shall find some way back. That an ecosystem where articles are prioritised either by finance or how well they game the system is not sustainable. It’s no secret that the media industry is being gutted at the moment, with outlets reducing their headcounts and Google growing a search engine that’ll present answers to questions on its search pages, without even giving the source website the simple courtesy of a click.

Over the weekend then, I was interested to see a piece pop up at over IGN. It was presenting one of the endless ‘ending explaining’ articles that the film and TV website industry seems to depend on. I’ve seen several for All Of Us Strangers of late, a film that to my mind has an ending that’s almost entirely determined by what the person watching the film takes from it. But, hey, I can’t get 800 words out of that.

IGN’s focus was Matthew Vaughn’s heavily-promoted new film, Argylle. Now this was a movie we got very little access to, hence the lack of reactive features and such like to it on this website. IGN, to its immense credit, decided that this was the time for a conversation about ‘ending explained’ articles, with its delightful introduction to its post.

Now I’ve not seen Argylle, and thus I can’t comment as to whether its line at the end is fair or not. What I can take light from though is that, finally, it feels like there’s pushback growing from outlets themselves over the way things have gone. Given that so many of us have felt the pinch from the growing use of AI in this particular industry, it feels about time that we all stand on our spot a bit.

The reason ending explained articles exist is, understandably in some cases, that that’s what people search for. I’ve also have conversations with a couple of people who, for very good reasons, struggle to follow films, and to whom the likes of an ending explained article is a real boon.

For most of the rest of us, it’s churn and clickbait, and few writers have the appetite to actually write such a piece. They do so because the algorithm demands it, and if you don’t feed the algorithm – think of it as a bit like the plant in Little Shop Of Horrors – then you don’t have a job.

I think, longer term, it’s becoming more and more important though for outlets and writers to find something more individual, rather than compete in what feels like a rigged footrace for the top search result pages on Google. I’ve pulled the leg of search engine optimisation consultants and such like in the past, but got talking to a friend of mine in that industry last year, and they told me what they felt websites needed to do.

Particular to us, they suggested a huge collection of lists, that they recommended we use ChatGPT to help write for us, so we could get through 100 or so in a month. They were matter of fact about this, as was I. The reason we’ve only done a few of those lists so far is, ultimately, what’s the point of doing it if it’s of no discernible use or interest to the person actually reading it?

Last year, I became aware of several outlets working in the same area of this who are leaning on ChatGPT more and more for their material. There’s one film and TV website in particular – that even had a good exclusive – that’s evidently using AI to do the actual graft.

What gratifies me, therefore, about what IGN has done is that if lots of us get behind it, it offers a fork in the road. Lots of us means readers as well as other outlets. I can’t remember anything about an ending explained article I’ve read in the last year or two, but I will remember the IGN piece. I’ll remember that it took a stand, whether it’s a one-off, or something longer term. And, you know what? It’s an interesting, human piece of writing that’s clearly been written for human eyes.

Film Stories has long had to battle in the Google rankings because we try really hard not to do clickbait, and not to do articles whose sole purpose is to feed Google. There’s a price to pay for that, but at the heart of it, a core ethos: that, longer term, a reader is worth a lot, lot more than a click.

As such, a request, and I wouldn’t ordinarily do this: give IGN a click. Let’s support the ones who are willing to fight back (and I fully accept that not everyone’s in a position to do so), and hope that this isn’t a one off, but the beginning of a long, long overdue course correction for the industry as a whole.

Like I said: a glass half full person.

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