All of us have our dirty little secrets – people lie, are deceitful, treacherous, gluttonous, cruel, or quietly mad.
And many of us, millions upon millions of us in fact, have a just-safe-for-work secret. If you peer over our shoulders at around mid morning on a week day, you’ll see grainy images of a drug dependent celebrity in excruciating collapse licking the face of their Bichon Frise in public or sucking the last nano-glob of narcotic from in between their fingernails.
I’m talking of course of the Daily Mail.
A selection of the Daily Mail offerings.
The Daily Mail’s website is in fact the world’s biggest dirty little secret – late last year officially ousting the New York Times and BBC as the most visited news site globally.
In the print age, the competition between newspapers called for polypacked jandals, offensive front pages, and close haul stories that every morning walked the libel tightrope to try and draw in readers at the main point of sale – the cash register.
Joseph Pulitzer’s The World on Sunday set the gold standard for excess – a mammoth full colour tabloid that in its heyday weighed as much as a ‘small roast beef’.
Later The Sun started running topless women on page three, and reached the historic nadir of print news front pages with the ‘Gotcha’ headline – tastelessly celebrating the killing of 323 naval officers on the General Belgrano during the Falklands War. Other papers, like German goliath Bild Zeitung (exposed by Günter Wallraff) simply fabricated stories to gain audience.
But the print age is over, and from the rubble one victor has emerged – the Daily Mail.
This peculiar website has transformed a tabloid newspaper that in print form is a kind of curmudgeons handbook for Middle England into an incredibly addictive, disturbing and mysterious experience: a discombobulating mix of celebrity gag shots, you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it videos, animal stories about briefly famous zoo exhibits, hysterical political coverage, scaremongering about benefits rorts, in between fat shaming of tweens, and a pervasive ANTI stance that flirts continuously with misogyny, racism, and homophobia.
The Mail Online cherry picks from science to provoke controversy, selectively edits government policy to generate division, and quotes out of context to manufacture hate.
So far so tabloid.
But what is fascinating about the Mail Online, what makes it world beating, is process not content.
To start with, the site is run with no visual hierarchy. Big and small images appear jumbled together all down the page, and the layout of articles might best be described as embracing and aesthetic of deliberate ugliness in common with the Drudge Report.
It’s sidebar of shame – a never-ending, thin column of what are known in the industry as ‘horizontal journeys’ – offers you hundreds of alternative articles no matter what page you’re on. It drowns you in a neon-tinged sea of clickbait.
In other words, the Daily Mail’s site defies every principle of clean, good looking design.
It’s important to understand how a site like the Daily Mail is run. The introduction of analytic tools like Chartbeat now allow web editors to view predictive histograms for traffic flows to news articles. Within 20 minutes an editor can tell whether an article is a hit or a flop, and move the article up or down the page. He or she can also see, given regressive analysis of previous traffic trends, when audience will get bored with the article, and consequently when the news tidbit should be banished to the lower reaches of the front page.
Their front page is responsive to traffic, responsive to us.
In other words, the Daily Mail’s online editors are dangling a honey stick over the internet bear pit and asking us – do you like it? Throaty growls see ‘news’ pumped up and silence sees it ellipted from view.
Recently Rolf Dobelli wrote an article about how news is bad for you.
‘[N]ews is to the mind what sugar is to the body,’ he said.
‘Today, we have reached the same point in relation to information that we faced 20 years ago in regard to food. We are beginning to recognise how toxic news can be.’
The Daily Mail barely passes as news, but exemplifies that trend.
It’s a mirror board for global desire, that short circuits deep thinking and traps readers in a shallow sweat of news onanism, of guilt and fear and disgust.
Russell Brand once described the paper as: 'distilled evil and cruelty, designed to make you feel utterly afraid, full of self-loathing and unwilling ever to leave your house.'
Others have called it online heroin. In reality, whatever the site represents, it represents something from inside us. This chameleonic, adaptive abyss is what millions of us each day stare into searching for meaning.
We click through and click through to look at cellulite shots and tantrums and the private parties of celebrities, or the miserable deaths of teenagers, or the latest terrifying factoids from science, medicine, economics, sociology. But we can’t stop. There is a masochistic switch that gets flicked and we want more misery and humiliation – ours and theirs. The more we feel miserable and humiliated, the more we want to punish ourselves by clicking through. The more we wallow in negativity, grime and paranoia.
This is how a police state trains the administrators of torture chambers, how pedophiles learn from their abusers – brutality acclimatises further brutality. The Daily Mail is the online equivalent of comfort eating or psychological transference or any other brain fail where exactly the thing we loath seems to be the thing we're drawn to in a mesmerizing, sick-inducing buzz of confused addiction and cosmological loneliness.
It reduces our celebrity gods just as we have always relished the fallen. Their arses dangling awkwardly from bikinis, their legs splayed in moments of drunken unbalance.
Twisted and degraded – those unfortunate enough to become the subjects of the Mail Online's news articles are cast in epic cycles of death, birth, triumph, failure and transfiguration that speak as much to the ancient mind as the work-shy cubicle slave turning to the Daily Mail for some guilty, silent, brooding, recidivist need.
If pathological gambling can make it into DSM V, perhaps news addiction has a shot at DSM VI.