Into an anime chumbucket: succumbing to clickbait and breaking my heart

Your ads dare obscure even a part of my silver queen, *the* Masuzu Natsukawa?

[Chum is one of the sexier words in the English language… dead fish eyes glaring out of blood and guts. Oi, a weird start to one of the weirdest posts I’ve ever written…]

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times… uhhh why am I covered in blood and fish guts? Where am I?

I stumbled into an internet chumbox the other day. You know, those 6-square ad spaces hosted by Taboola or Outbrain with clickbait titles like:

  • <popular television show> stars [sic] net worth? #<prime number> will shock you!
  • Doctors hate him! <target demographic> discovers one neat trick to <desirable health outcome>!
  • You won’t guess what <celebrity fleeing paparazzi> got caught on camera doing Again [sic]!
  • Grandma from <your IP-determined area> discovers disastrous flaw in Social Security!

Number 1 might have a photoshopped thumbnail of the sexiest cast member in a revealing pose, Number 2 some gross trypophobia-inducing body horror garbage, Number 3 an unrelated mugshot that looks nothing like the target celebrity, and Number 4 a stock photo of an old woman in front of a clip-art financial chart with some gold coins or something. Who knows, who cares.

Or at least, I didn’t care. Before last week, chum-ads had almost never captured my interest except to sneer at their exploitative badness. Ah, but this time I took in a mighty breath through my nostrils to hock up great snob and instead caught an irresistible scent in those blood-clouded waters: anime, “Neo Yokio Season 2: Premiere Date, Characters, Plot” from an entertainment news website called The Cinemaholic

Oh, I like Neo Yokio… did Netflix announce a second season to continue the Pink Christmas special? And next to it “Gakkou Gurashi Season 2: Premiere Date, Characters, Plot.” Oooh, yes yes yes, I love Gakkou Gurashi! After the live-action movie, will they adapt the rest of the series? But wait, huh? From Cinemaholic again? What’s going on here? Oh my god, oh my god, hold that thought: “Oreshura Season 2: Premiere Date, Characters, Plot” aaannnddd oohoo a picture of the Masuzu Natsukawa, my devilish queen. click click click.

No. A mistake. ‘twas but a mirage borne of the blood-haze! The Cinemaholic had a harpoon waiting, ready to break my heart: “It is highly unlikely that Netflix will renew the show,” “We can’t guarantee anything,” “At this point, ‘Oreshura’ season 2 … seems like a distant dream”

Dearest Masuzu, I’m sorry — thrice pierced!

Before reading into those juicy, nonexistent season 2 premiere dates, let’s take a look at some meta issues here. The Cinemaholic uploaded each of those articles within just an hour of each other. And it wasn’t just three articles, it was three articles by the same author, Dhruv Sharma. And he didn’t just write three on the same template, he wrote thirteen published in a single 24 hour period:

And 11 the next day, and 5 the next day, and…

The posts themselves pack in so many ads that the website freezes up when loading (at least, on my junk computer). Ads overlap with other ads and even hide the pages’ actual content (Masuzu, nooo~). When scrolling up or down, new ads phase into existence, causing the text to shift while reading and slowing the site down even more. Mobile doesn’t do much better; the site wastes so many computing resources on ads that neither the navigation menu nor search bar respond to taps for about 30 seconds after opening a page. Even the homepage uses such large ads on both the top and bottom of the screen that they cover up parts of the main featured article:

Not so bad, but why obscure your own featured piece?

And then there’s the giant Taboola feed stuck at the end of every article:

Actually, two feeds… one on the bottom and one on the sidebar

The feed is limitless; no matter how far you scroll, Taboola will keep serving up more “sponsored links” which not only hide the comments section and page navigation area, but also Cinemaholic’s own recommended content. With a little persistence, you can reach the bottom of the page by either scrolling faster than the feed will load or by skipping it entirely with the ‘End’ key. However, after hitting the comments section, I only ever found unmoderated spam:

A post absolutely composed, chaps! Like a …British motor home? God, I wish I could write like a spam robot. That’s poetry right there

But now that I had broken through the Taboola gauntlet, I finally caught a glimpse of Cinamaholic’s related articles: four more season update posts. Like Sharma’s, one author had mass-produced them on the same template, uploading four in just two hours:

I envy your productivity, Ms. Gani!

I can’t figure out how many articles the site posts in a day, but if all of Cinemaholic’s writers produce as much as Gani and Sharma, it must number in the dozens. As Cinemaholic puts it at the bottom of one piece, “Keep visiting the page for latest [sic] updates. Habe fun!” Yeah, sure, I’d love to learn more about Gamers! season 2 (if only to mock the poor series again…). But um… sorry, no more habing fun for me. I don’t want to wade through this chumwater much longer.

As best as I can tell, Cinemaholic might qualify as a content mill that engages in what I’ve seen called either “advertising arbitrage” or “traffic arbitrage,” an internet business model premised on buying traffic for a website with the intention of exposing those incoming visitors to as many revenue-generating advertisements as tolerable. In theory, if the arbitrageur can earn more from advertising than it spends on buying traffic (i.e. advertising for itself), it will net a clean profit. They have a few obvious strategies to do so:

  • Loading the site with extra ads to increase “impressions” (exposure to an advertisement)
  • Splitting a single post across multiple pages to increase views and thus impressions (slideshowing)
  • Encouraging a high “click-through-rate” on the ads, which usually pay per click*
  • Incorporating sponsored link widgets, like Cinemaholic’s own monstrous Taboola feed
  • Selling ad space directly to businesses or creating affiliate marketing campaigns
  • Selling user data (Cinemaholic promises not to do this in their privacy policy)

* (for example, by using such obvious clickbait that only the most click-happy people will succumb to it, thus increasing the chance that visitors to the arbitrageur’s site will click on more ads in turn. It’s a bit like the game theory behind the Nigerian Price scam: only the most gullible people will fall for the absurd emails, meaning that once a scammer has hooked someone, they have a high probability of fleecing their victim without needing to waste much time on persuasion)

“Arbitrage” sounds sinister, but most media companies engage in it on some level. If you’ve ever seen an online advertisement for a free but well-regarded news outlet like The Atlantic, they’ve probably gambled on the ads increasing traffic and thus their own advertising revenue (and who knows, maybe win a real subscriber). Arbitrage doesn’t violate any laws and though tech giants like Google and Facebook have tried to curtail clickbait, they permit it so long as the content meets some vague algorithmic standard for quality. Ohhh quality… on that point, let’s look at some of Cinemaholic’s content.

I suppose I should start with those harpoons that broke my heart. Each of the Cinemaholic posts drew my cursor with the same titles: “Season 2: Premiere Date, Characters, Plot.” Ooo, yay! Premiere date? Have the studios announced a second season of my favorite shows? No, it’s just a misleading clickbait tactic that preys on innocent human curiosity despite offering nothing to reward it. The articles can give no information on a mythical second season because no information exists for them to give. They don’t lie, but they sure don’t tell the truth either. Instead, Sharma offers some idle speculation — Neo Yokio met pretty terrible reviews so it’s unlikely, Gakkou Gurashi has 6 more manga chapters to adapt so it’s plausible, and Oreshura aired a full six years ago so it’s maybe impossible. But as much as he might try, in the absence of any real news to report on, Sharma has nothing of substance to say. 

So, each of the posts pad themselves out with those “Characters” and “Plot” sections, I suppose to buff up the word counts with relevant keywords that might make them more palatable to search engines. However, the summaries contain enough scattered errors and bizarrities that I wonder if Sharma even had time to watch the shows he discusses (I don’t doubt that a dedicated writer could put out 13 articles for rapid publication, but watching 13 television series? Eh…).

For example, on Neo Yokio Sharma writes “it surely is something that you can briefly go through at 4 AM when you have nothing else to do, only to enjoy its stunning aesthetics.” Huh? What stunning aesthetics? I like Neo Yokio, but the art’s ugly as sin. That’s part of the show’s ironic, satirical appeal. But I think he may have missed that point. In the closest Sharma ever comes to a thematic discussion across the three posts, he claims that Neo Yokio “tries its best to touch upon various underlying themes such as fashion, philosophy and even literature. But even with such high ambitions, it often falls flat and does not even come close to being enlightening.” Ummm, okay? Enlightening? It’s an absurd comedy that revels in its own total nonsense! 

Otherwise though, the posts lean on those boring plot and character summaries that are difficult to dispute even if they probably got plucked and thesaurized from an IMDB or MyAnimeList entry. They do feel so redundant though — wouldn’t the people interested in a second season for these series already know that sort of basic information? The redundancy even becomes a little comical when the character summaries repeat physical descriptions clearly visible in their portraits. Yep, Kaz has pink hair, brown skin, and purple eyes. I can see it right there in his picture. Hilariously though, summaries sometimes get the characters wrong: at one point, Sharma calls Kaz’s butler Charles a “giant humanoid-like creature” — odd because, again as pictured, Charles is a robot

But wait, I’m pretty sure that I had read this sort of weird fluff before… an article promising information about Neo Yokio Season 2 but delivering nothing? Give it a search on the Cinemaholic website and boom, near-duplicate headlines. I fell for this same clickbait a year ago!

Fool me twice!

It’s practically the same post — not a direct copy, but written on a similar template. It tempts with information on a Neo Yokio season two but, without any to give, pads itself out with plot summaries. Conspicuously though, it says that it will provide updates but then misses Neo Yokio’s Pink Christmas special, which Netflix listed as a second season. Taken together with the spam comments and the virtual repost a year later, the failure to mention Pink Christmas demonstrates that Cinemaholic likely had no real intention to ever edit the post.

And man, that lack of editing really shines… the older Neo Yokio post concludes with a Youtube link to a “trailer.” But then the website neither bothers to embed the video into the article nor use a real hyperlink — it’s just a plain text URL. And, even if you paste the text into the navigation bar, the video doesn’t even exist!

The Cinemaholic’s articles are full of similar typographical and formatting errors. I already mentioned the “habe fun” issue because it just cracked me up, but the Gakkou Gurashi post does one better when it compares the series to the legendary moe-horror masterpiece “Modaka Magica” while making a generic point about genre crossovers. Of course, Cinemaholic meant Madoka Magica… an error made funnier because it links to a post that got the spelling right. Being Modaka is suffering. 

Beyond the copy-editing errors though, Sharma’s posts all use unnecessarily complex grammatical constructions like “A supervising teacher known by the name of Megumi Sakura” (a supervising teacher named Megumi Sakura) or odd vocabulary choices like “in the confinements [?] of the [?] Megurigaoka High School” (confined in the school). Take this twisted example:

The truth is that [unnecessary dummy clause] the members of the high school living club [redundant, established in a previous sentence] are the sole survivors of a zombie apocalypse and are just counting [unnecessary verb expansion] their last few days on the planet [phrase adds no meaning].

I dunno, I’m not a writing coach, but a 30 second rewrite got me this:

The characters count out their final days in the club, the sole survivors of a zombie apocalypse.

I don’t want to attribute the twisted style to bad writing. To the contrary, I think it might have required some real, deliberate skill. The passive voice, dummy clauses, and unnecessary phrasing all work to push the posts towards their target word counts without needing to actually say anything because, remember, Sharma doesn’t seem to have had much time to work with here (he published at least 30 of these articles in a week…). But on top of doing the genuine research required to write about each anime series without watching any of them, he knows how to do the difficult task of saying as little as possible in as many words as possible.

I wonder though… why not try to say something real? The Cinemaholic feels so close to escaping its chumbucket, clickbait-driven niche on advertising networks like Taboola. I’ve mocked the site this whole time, but it does have decent content. I mean, not good — the grammar and typos alone demonstrate that it needs some careful copy editors — but at least “good enough” for an entertainment web magazine. It has skilled writers, a solid brand* and theme, and useful article templates that find space between the boring objectivity of an IMDB entry and the unserious subjectivity of a blog post.

* (though Cinemaholic seems to have little interest in protecting that brand… I have found a podcast Cinemaholic(s), a Russian Cinemaholic, and even a Hebrew Cinemaholic)

But then Cinemaholic’s weird business model traps it, with the reliance on buying traffic and cutting all other costs resulting in an editorial policy that just doesn’t care about its own content. As outlined in the terms of use:

“Information on the site may contain slight errors or inaccuracies; the Website does not make any warranty as to the correctness or reliability of the sites [sic] content. The Website does not provide any warranty or guarantee as to the accuracy of the information. You acknowledge that such information and materials may contain inaccuracies and errors and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors.” 

Lovely. Journalism we can’t even trust, repeated three times with the same convoluted, error-ridden grammar as its actual articles (in case they ever take me to court for defamation, right now I’ll just claim to “exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors.” Ha ha hugh… fake news is a real problem).

But then why not make an effort to correct the errors and delete the obvious spam comments, to give the writers more time to exercise the skills they clearly possess, to build a media company with a real dedicated reader base* beyond the stray clicks off purchased traffic on Taboola? 

* (for a website that claims to host millions of visitors, Cinemaholic has a surprisingly weak social media presence)

Or in other words, the Cinemaholic did well to catch my interest. But then it only served me up chum and ads. A site that I could have enjoyed just spat me back into the same Taboola feed that b(r)ought me to it in the first place. Regardless of Cinemaholic’s quality, that results in such an odd, lonely web-browsing experience… are the only other users out there advertising algorithms?

In the few moments before I got annoyed, that thought broke my heart.

=’(

[But seriously, if anyone from The Cinemaholic reads this, I’ll gladly correct any errors or misunderstandings. And I’d love to do an interview. Your website and the digital space it occupies fascinate me]

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