Don’t be a dick: The Great Story Wars

Domino Day

Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist, said that there was really just one story that repeated itself throughout mythology. He called it the “monomyth.” I personally would have gone for “megamyth,” but hey, maybe a life in academia makes you allergic to good-old-fashioned hyperbole.

Anyway, Campbell described the basic structure of the monomyth as this:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

You’ve already probably recognized one of the incarnations of this story: it’s the basis of dozens of religions (Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed and their respective times in the desert, Buddha and his return from enlightenment, etc.), pretty much every great 20th century epic (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc.), and, you know, kinda every story ever.

Campbell believed that the reason we kept writing this story is because it is a fundamental human experience to struggle, overcome, and learn, but that we needed to explain it within the cloak of our own culture. Which is why every culture has their own iteration of this story. The culture uses the story to push its own morals: Star Wars is about the war between democracy and totalitarianism, while Lord of the Rings has a nature vs. industrialization theme. Harry Potter, at its most basic, is an anti-racist story. Islam focuses heavily on justice and society as a whole, while Christianity and Buddhism have a more individualistic focus.

But at its core, it’s all the same basic story dressed up for different times and places. Which makes ideological debates infinitely more frustrating: everyone is arguing over differing details of the same story. All of the world’s religious wars are basically just a variation on the argument over whether Star Wars or Lord of the Rings is better.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have these stories. But different stories are relevant at different times and in different places. Stories are just tools that help us understand our current situation. Consider, for example, a monomyth story that deals with privacy in the digital age (this story exists in at least one form, by the way, in Cory Doctorow’s book, Little Brother). That story would be incredibly interesting to a modern American, but it would be completely boring to a Papuan living in a remote jungle, or an Darfuri village with zero televisions. A resident of Darfur, however, might find a lot of comfort in a story that focuses on the battle between farmers and nomadic herders. So Darfuri residents would probably totally understand the American western movie, Shane, which is about the wars between farmers and herders. But Brave New World or Little Brother would probably not resonate with them.

This is frustrating, yes, but the current political divide in America follows the same pattern. This isn’t a war between left and right: it’s a war between city and countryside. Take, for example, the gun issue in the United States. As a resident of almost exclusively cities, I favor gun control laws. The fewer guns on the street, the better. But people in the countryside have a reasonable argument for owning guns: a) hunting is actually an option for them, and b) their local police station is probably more than 5 minutes away at any given moment, and their neighbors may be too far off to hear them if they scream for help. So they may want some means to protect themselves.

Neither side is wrong in what they want, they’re just living in totally different situations, so they have different stories.

The Great Story Wars are eternal and unchanging. The only way to gain any perspective on them is to figure out what your perspective is. You see from where you stand. If you don’t know where you’re standing, you can’t possibly begin to understand what you’re seeing.

Featured Photo: Andreas

The one word we need to ban from politics

I’m trying something new today! My first-ever webcomic. I apologize for the terrible art, but hey, you’ve been putting up with terrible writing for god knows how long, so my guess is you’ll be okay with this. It’s a coincidence, by the way, that the second dude kinda looks like me.

If I could ban one word from politics, it would be:

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Not “hypocrisy.” Not “hypocritical.” Just “hypocrite.” Why, you ask? We are all, after all, very used to this kind of hypocrite:

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Scan 2

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That guy’s a douchebag, right? Why shouldn’t he be called out for being a douchebag? Mostly because we refuse to acknowledge the same in ourselves.

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Scan 7

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For every this dude:

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There’s this dude:

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We’re totally fine with contradiction when it’s within ourselves, but we get shockingly unsympathetic when it’s in others.
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The insane complexity of human existence makes hypocrisy necessary to function on a day-to-day basis. The pure can’t survive in a messy world.

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None of this is to say that hypocrisy is okay. Just because we’re flawed people doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold ourselves to a higher standard and keep working on ourselves. But calling someone else a hypocrite is useless.

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Ultimately, the paradox of the word “hypocrite” is this:

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Don’t be a Dick: All the poors enter CBS’s thunderdome, none leave

Okay, if you have any faith in humanity, it is not in your best interest to read this article. It’s better for all of us that you remain a kind fool and keep treating people with dignity and respect, and not in the way they deserve to be treated. The reason why?

The Briefcase.

If you haven’t heard of The Briefcase, it’s CBS’s new reality TV show. It is not, sadly, the same as Gold Case, the show that Kenneth pitched in 30 Rock.

The premise is that a poor family is given a briefcase full of $101,000. They are then given a choice of whether to keep it or give it to another, presumably needier poor family. They are given heart-wrenching details about the other family, and then are forced to decide. The catch (because toying with the lives of the poor isn’t really enough of a catch) is that the other family also got a briefcase, so if they choose to give the other family all the money and the other family doesn’t choose the same for them, well, then I guess they can go fuck themselves.

Here’s the worst fucking thing I’ve ever watched, a.k.a. the trailer for the show.

Here are some other fun facts! Les Moonves, the President of CBS, got paid $54 million last year! Which is the equivalent of $147,945.21 per day!

One imagines that this pitch came about when Moonves and his executives were sitting in their office, snorting a Tony Montana-sized pile of cocaine, and forcing underlings to fight to the death using a broken pool cue a la the Joker in The Dark Knight.

But let’s consider for a second what this really is: this is the start of a pretty amazing dystopia. This is how Mad Max: Fury Road begins. And we all want to live in a world where Imperator Furiosa is a real thing, right?

Seriously, how fucking great was this movie?

Seriously, how fucking great was this movie?

At the end of the day, we can’t get to a world of sand and chrome and Gladiatorial battles to the death without breaking the hearts of a few poors who desperately want to feed their children. If you want to make an omelette, after all, you’ve got to emotionally manipulate a few eggs into killing themselves over a frying pan. And if our omelette is going to be as awesome as the rust-tinged hellscape, we might as well just lean in and enjoy this show.

Les Moonves

Les Moonves

The next logical step, of course, will be to have the poors fight to the death while armed only with a spoon in the Thunderdome, which will then be followed by some sort of weird oil war, which will then lead us to the awesomeness that is Fury Road.


We’re riding to Valhalla. Thank you, CBS.


The Friday Shitpile: You can’t disprove mermaids

I’m on my way to a friend’s wedding, so there’s not much from the shitpile this week. I do, however, want to leave you with something that will make you feel incredibly happy.

It’s technically impossible to totally disprove the existence of mermaids.

Seriously. It’s technically impossible to disprove the existence of anything. It’s called the “philosophic burden of proving a negative,” and it’s why that pesky god debate is still around. It is possibly to say that the likelihood of mermaids existing is almost infinitely improbable, and the odds of mermaids existing on our planet are astronomically small, but what about other planets? What of underground caves? Sure, mermaids probably don’t exist. But it’s basically impossible to disprove their existence anywhere.

There. You can start your Friday with a victory now.


Featured photo by Tuan Hoang Nguyen.


Neato Burrito: The US overthrew a government because bananas!

There is a dark, secret organization at the uppermost echelons of American government that is tasked with the job of protecting America’s most important values while the rest of us live our lives in blissful ignorance. They are the CIA. The CIA’s deepest, darkest secret is not the Bay of Pigs or the identities of countless agents in the field, but what, in fact, America’s most important values actually are. Sure, you’re familiar with the standard ones: Freedom, equality, justice for all. What you are not familiar with is the most important American value. The one that takes precedence over all others. The one that we will do literally anything for:

Poop regularity.

You may laugh, but a simple examination of American language shows that it has seeped into our everyday speech.

Bumper stickers shout, “These colors don’t run.

One who is considered to be upstanding has “moral fiber.”

During the Cold War, Soviet citizens who escaped to the United States were casually referred to as “defectors,” which was a shortening of the word “defecator,” which had been a secret title used for identifying other Revolutionaries in 18th Century America. “United States of America,” of course, is an anagram of “It defecates to a anus rim.”1

All of this is important context for understanding what would otherwise be one of the United States’ most absurd, morally bankrupt interventions in history: the 1954 overthrow of the Democratically elected Guatemalan government by the CIA and the United Fruit Company, now known as Chiquita.


You know, mostly guilt-free. Photo: Dawn Huczek

In the 1930’s, the United States let it’s second most important value (“freedom”) take a back seat when it supported the installation of brutal Guatemalan dictator, General Jorge Ubico. In return, Ubico gave significant tracts of land to the United Fruit Company, and allowed abusive labor practices that gave UFC significant profit margins. But the Guatemalan people — who presumably also value poop regularity — overthrew Ubico in 1944 to prevent the mass export of all of their high-in-fiber bananas to the United States, and less importantly, to end his fascist and kleptocratic policies of forced labor, police state violence against dissidents, and institutionalized racism against the indigenous peoples.

For the next ten years, Guatemala was run by democratically elected leftists, who instituted labor laws, land reforms, literacy programs, and granted voting rights to nearly everyone. But the land reforms involved the seizure of land that hadn’t been cultivated by the UFC (by which I mean the United Fruit Company, not the Ultimate Fighting Champ, though that would also make an interesting story), so the UFC asked the United State government to orchestrate a coup against the second elected leader, Jacobo Arbenz.

Normally the United States would say, “No, that’s ridiculous. Countries can do what they like with their land and grow the fuck up,” but United Fruit had two advantages: the first was that Americans would stop pooping properly if deprived of cheap, moral-fiber-rich bananas, which the US government could not allow, and the second, much less important point was that John Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State, and his brother Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA, had been receiving money from the United Fruit Company for decades after doing legal work for them prior to their government positions. Normally, this would have been a horrifying conflict of interest, but a country that poops together stays together, so any moral dilemmas were superseded in the interest of America’s bowel well-being.

The overthrow of Arbenz was followed by 42 years of brutal right-wing dictatorships and civil war, including a massive genocide of indigenous peoples by the military and a total of nearly 200,000 dead. The overthrow of Arbenz was also what radicalized Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, who is credited with pushing Fidel Castro from being a simple Cuban nationalist to being a full-blown Marxist.

All of this would have been a stain on the history and integrity of the United States if the prevention of a nationwide constipatory crisis wasn’t of the utmost importance. I mean, without poop, this entirely story would be absurd.

1. I swear to god, everything after “it defecates a anus rim” in this article is true. I mean, “it defecates a anus rim,” is actually an anagram of “United States of America,” but I don’t have any conclusive proof which one followed the other.

Don’t Be A Dick: A pacifist’s guide to “They died for our freedom”

Memorial Day always causes a bit of a predicament for me. I have a number of friends and acquaintances who have spent time in the military and who have even gone to war. And I don’t want to be disrespectful towards them. But I also have trouble hearing the phrase, “These soldiers died for our freedom,” and letting it roll off my back. This is because I happen to be a pacifist.

A pacifist, I have been told, is a ridiculous thing to be. War is a part of life, and hey, remember Hitler? Hitler is a good reason for war. Hitler was bad. Are you saying we should’ve let Hitler continue being Hitler? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Pacifism over.

But this misses the point. Pacifism is aspirational. It’s saying, sure, there was war, but must there be war? And is war as useful as we say it is? Asking questions like this can make certain universally accepted credos really hard to swallow. Like:

“They died for our freedom.”

“They died for our freedom” sounds really nice. It’s almost a Messianic sentence, suggesting that the men and woman who died died for a reason (and so few of us get to die for a reason), and that we benefitted from it directly. And it may, in some cases, be true. But there are a few problems with it.

1. If the war was unnecessary, then “They died for our freedom” can’t be a true statement.

You can get most Americans to admit the Vietnam War was a mistake. Even Robert McNamara, who oversaw the escalation of the war, eventually said it was a mistake. If nothing was gained from a war, then “They died for our freedom” is not true in an objective sense. We did not gain any freedoms from the Vietnam War, so the deaths of soldiers did not deliver any freedom to us.

2. Do “friendly fire” deaths count equally?

Were all friendly fire deaths necessary to win the war? For that matter, any other manner of accidental deaths — car crashes, equipment malfunctions, death by disease, death by starvation — all of these deaths can happen in war. Were these deaths necessary for our freedoms? Should we qualify which deaths protected our freedoms more?

3. Are these soldiers more valuable to us dead?

There’s a field of study called “counterfactuals,” where academics will try to predict what would have happened historically if something major had not happened. It’s more or less an impossible futile task, but it still raises interesting questions: what if Hitler had died in World War I? What if Native Americans had had immunity to smallpox when the Europeans arrived instead of the other way around? What if Khrushchev hadn’t backed down during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Et cetera.

We have to ask: What if they’d lived? These soldiers that died in our wars, wouldn’t they have been even better assets to our society had they lived? Isn’t it possible that it’s better to live for freedoms than to die for them? When you’re alive, after all, you’re around to create and to build and to protect. Death doesn’t offer any of that. You could make the argument that the death was necessary for our freedoms, but you would have to ask: isn’t there more potential in a life than in a death?

4. Freedom isn’t that simple.

The things that we consider “freedoms” in our modern society are things that we created by building and strengthening systems and institutions of government. Yes, a safe space to build these institutions is essential for them to be able to exist, and at times military force is necessary to protect that space. But that safe space is often obtained and negotiated as much through diplomacy as it is through violence.

There’s nothing sexy about saying “Bureaucrats refused to be bribed for our freedoms,” but it’s just as true as saying “Soldiers died for our freedoms.” And freedom can be obtained peacefully (see Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.).

5. It’s actually super creepy to think of soldiers as sacrificial lambs.

Is freedom some ancient god that requires blood sacrifice for appeasement? Or is it way more complex than that? While it’s nice to think of soldiers as Messianic figures who made a really noble sacrifice for our country, it’s also inherently creepy to expect it from them. The fact that we paint all soldier deaths en masse as a blood sacrifice for our country is an almost tribal idea that we should probably have rejected by now.

6. You don’t know what every soldier is fighting for.

I have no doubt that soldiers fight for extremely noble, patriotic reasons. Some may fight because they feel indebted to their country, and some may fight because they are really idealistic, but others may be fighting for more practical reasons. Maybe the military was the best route out of poverty. Maybe they needed the discipline of the military to shape their lives up. Maybe they were violent sociopaths or racists looking for an excuse to kill people. All of these types of people exist in the military, and all soldiers fight for very different or personal reasons. To claim simply, “They died for our freedoms” is to write off their personal story and their humanity in favor of a small, mythologized view of them.

Disrespect for the dead

Ultimately, viewing soldier deaths as necessary or inevitable actually shows less of a regard for human life than viewing war deaths through a cold, unsentimental lens. By saying, “We could have done better,” we are acknowledging our mistakes in the past and are committing to preventing the same mistakes in the future. One of the best ways for us to show respect for our soldiers is to not send them into unnecessary wars where their sacrifice is unneeded.

If you want to show respect for the fallen soldiers, show it by refusing to fetishize them, and by not putting them into harms way in the future.

Featured photo: Praline3001

The Friday Shitpile: Rules for not being a terrible wedding guest

Next week, I’m going to my buddy Jesse’s wedding in Boston. His is the first of the 2015 season, which will consist of 8 weddings over the next 6 months, culminating in our own in November. It is a lot of weddings, and it is the first “Summer of Weddings” I’ve had. Everyone has this period in their life when everyone is getting married, and as much as people like to complain about it, it’s pretty awesome to get to go to ritzy parties with free food and booze.

During the planning of our wedding, I have developed certain rules for what wedding guests should keep in mind to not fucking suck. If you have held a wedding, you already know these rules. If you have not, these are for you:

Your opinion is not welcome.

Trying to plan a wedding is like trying to fuck a tornado. If it ends and you’re not dead, it’s a success. The tornado part of this analogy is balancing all of the opinions and weird politics of weddings: the bride and groom (or groom and groom or bride and bride) have to balance a) what they want, b) what their parents want, c) what their grandparents want, d) what their church wants, e) what their close friends and wedding party wants, f) what their society wants, and g) what their budget allows. Which means that, 10 minutes into the engagement, they are already bogged down with suggestions, demands, and restrictions.

So if you approach the bride or groom unsolicited and say, “Hey, don’t do a cake-cutting ceremony, it’s cliche,” or “Don’t have penis straws at the bachelorette party, it’s fucking weird,” then please keep in mind that the best possible response you’ll get is this:
But that they are totally within their rights to give you this:
If your opinion is asked, by all means give it. If it is not asked, stop. Just stop. And remember the Golden Rule: “Shut the fuck up.”

Weddings aren’t weapons. Don’t take anything personally.

Literally the worst part of the wedding is figuring out the guest list. This is where the couple has to actually rank the people in their lives and decide whether or not to invite certain friends. If you invite this friend but don’t invite these three friends, then the latter three will be offended, but if you invite all four there’s no room for Great Aunt Maude without going over on budget.

Maybe the couple has a huge family and needs to cut certain friends, maybe they have to set arbitrary rules to cut the size of the guest list down — no kids, no unmarried couples, no significant others we haven’t met before — maybe they had to choose between old childhood friends they loved but aren’t all that close with anymore and an open bar.

The wedding party is also tough: what if you have a really big group of close friends? Who do you choose to be involved? What if there are siblings to consider? And how do you choose which of these is the “Best” Man? This shit’s stressful, man.

The point is this: if you don’t get invited, if you don’t get asked to be in the wedding party, and you don’t get asked to do a reading, it very likely is not about you. Brides and grooms have too much on their minds during the planning to orchestrate petty vengeances by not including you in the way you think you deserve. Just shrug and roll with it.

You’ll get a plus one if we damn well want you to have a Plus One.

Wanted a Plus One but didn’t get one? Worried you’re going to feel alone at the wedding? Try this: hook up with someone at the wedding. There will be other single people, they will be drinking, and there will be a reserved block of hotel rooms at your disposal.

Seriously. Plus Ones are really cool things for the bride and groom to give you, but keep in mind that giving you a Plus One might mean that they no longer get to invite a close friend of theirs. Plus Ones are perks, like a vodka slide or a kitten as a party favor. They are not requirements. Do not complain about your lack of a Plus One. Get some strange.

In short: Do not make it about you.

It’s an opportunity to watch your friend be in love while drinking and eating for free. Why would you read into this any more than you have to?

Featured photo by Michael Salvato.

23 ideas for fixing America’s problems

  1. Change to an “everything is on fire” system.
  2. Everyone chooses to be gay and all the people who aren’t willing to give parenting the time, effort and money required to do in vitro fertilization slowly die out.
  3. Let Kanye get in his zone.
  4. Give every politician a sockful of nickels, send them into the Thunderdome, and whoever comes out is our new overlord.
  5. Institute a parliamentary dictatorship.
  6. We all pretend to understand dogs and then obey what they say.
  7. The Constitution is just the lyrics to “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” by Smashing Pumpkins, all up to interpretation by an appointed-for-life Supreme Court.
  8. We all admit the apex of humanity was the “Peanuts” Christmas special and walk hand-in-hand into the sea.
  9. We change our justice system so that if you do anything wrong, Chris Pratt refuses to give you a good night hug.
  10. We play the “Chariots of Fire” theme until everyone kills themselves.
  11. We convert the entire country into a laser tag course and have some fun while the world collapses around us.
  12. Make bodily fluids the only currency. Solve income inequality forever.
  13. White men only get to speak when spoken to.
  14. Require every cable news channel to always carry a picture-in-picture box featuring hardcore pornography so everyone either watches something else or watches it for much more noble reasons.
  15. Massive, mandatory, worldwide orgy to blow off all the sexual tension.
  16. Everyone over the age of 10 is executed, everyone under 10 is allowed to grow up. Economy presumably becomes centered around bringing back Dinosaurs and finally inventing a working Iron Man suit.
  17. We all unite to fight the one true common enemy: mosquitoes.
  18. Just shrug and give all the money to the Koch Brothers. They want it the most, anyway.
  19. Play Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” on loop until every male dies of prolonged, throbbing erections. Women are now totally in charge.
  20. We force Y to always be a vowel.
  21. Rename every world capital “Bonetown.” Everyone is at least clear on what goes on there.
  22. Awake Cthulhu.
  23. Create a new law where you’re forbidden to buy a product if you think that the CEO of the company that makes the product is kind of a dick.

Featured photo: Judy Van Der Velden

Neato Burrito: Here’s how we get you to click on things

The Neato Burrito is my weekly column where I talk about things you probably didn’t know. 

You know how occasionally you’ll click on an article because the title promised something, and the article totally doesn’t deliver? Yeah, we did that on purpose. Internet writers have to pay very close attention to their numbers (we have way more information on you than you realize), and they improve their numbers by employing little tricks to get you to click on their stuff. Here are some of them:

1. We put more effort into the title than we do into the content.

Here’s the thing: advertisers have a few things they look for when they’re looking for a place to advertise. The first is how many unique pageviews we get per month. This is a number that exists regardless of how long you spend on the site. Click it for a second and decide you hate it or that it’s stupid? Sorry. We already gotcha. A second thing advertisers like to hear is the amount of time you spend on our page — they want to know not only that people are coming to the page, but that they are likely to see their ad. But we give that information to them in averages. So as long as we can keep a majority of readers attention for a couple of minutes, we’re more or less fine.

This means that the thing that matters most to us is the click. Which means that our main challenge isn’t writing quality content, it’s getting you onto the page. Most of us are interested in producing quality content, both because we actually enjoy writing good things, and because quality content keeps people around on the page for longer, but it’s somewhat secondary, and there are absolutely people who produce schlock just for the clicks.

The way we get you to click? Titles. Facebook captions. Featured photos. If we have none of these things but really great content, it won’t matter. You’ll never get to our page.

2. We make it about you.

You, it turns out, are incredibly selfish. If we make a title about you, you’re far more likely to click. See what I did in the title of this piece? And see how you’re reading these very words right now? Yeah, sorry about that. There’s so much on the internet though, that the best thing we can do to get your attention is to be useful to you personally. So even if we’re writing about something that happened to us, we’ll make it sound like it’s really about you.

3. We make it a list.


Really: you guys love lists. Numbered pieces do disproportionately better than non-numbered pieces, and the reason is because the internet is a place where it pays to quickly break down arguments into its main points so that people can skim. In the same way the title matters more than the body of the piece, the individual points matter more than the text underneath these points. I guarantee you at least one person who opened this article is not reading this text: they read “We make it a list” and they moved onto the next point.

Also: for some weird reason, odd numbers work better for listicles. We don’t know why, but they do. The most effective odd number? 23. If a piece has 23 points, if it has a good title, and if it’s mildly amusing, it’s probably going to do pretty well.

4. We piss you off intentionally.

It does not pay to be level-headed on the internet. If we’re intentionally provocative, especially in our title, then we’re not only going to get the readers who agree with us, we’re also going to get readers who are hate-reading what we have to say. Whether you liked the article does not matter. If you spent time on our page, we’re earning off of you.

So if you see a title that pisses you off, don’t click on it. Your hate is actually helping them.

Another note is that for many sites, editors choose the headlines, not the writer. More than once I have read a level-headed article that has an inflammatory headline, and the readers are arguing against the headline, not the text of the piece. Not that this is relevant to clickbait, but kindly remember: if you protest an article without reading it, you are a turd.

5. We use sex.


6. We make wild promises we can’t keep.

This follows the same basic theme as the others: it doesn’t matter if we can’t keep our promise as long as we’re able to tempt you to find out if we do. This is why sites like Upworthy make wild, hyperbolic promises: in the end, they don’t need to fulfill those promises. They just need to fool you into thinking they will.

7. We emphasize images.

The human brain processes images faster than it processes text, so if you see a really amazing picture in your Facebook feed, it’ll grab your attention faster than our title will. Even the simple act of transposing text over an image makes that text more effective. For example:



8. We track you obsessively.

I am not the NSA, but using Google Analytics, a totally free tool, I can track what article you’re reading, the location you’re reading from, whether you’re on a computer or a cell phone or a tablet, what browser you’re using, how long you spend on my page, which page brought you to mine, and depending on whether you have cookies enabled, what your general age is, what your gender probably is, and what your other interests are.

So basically, I don’t know you by name, but if I was pressed, I could probably figure out who you were. And that’s what I’m doing with totally free software.

Internet writing is about trial and error, but the only way we discover if we’ve made an error is a) if we get direct feedback, which we almost never get, or b) if we rely on our site’s data. We know a ton about you, and we will cater to what we know. Just to get a goddamned click.

Featured photo by Lecates.