Critic’s Notebook: Lost in the Digital Swamp, Link by Link

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A Revcontent representative said that through ad widgets placed on sites like Forbes, Newsweek, The Atlantic and USA Today, it reaches 1.6 billion unique devices around the world every month, according to Quantcast data. (The New York Times has also done business with these services, using them to seed Times links on outside websites.) When the Israeli business newspaper Calcalist reported recently that Outbrain and Taboola may be mulling a merger, people on Twitter shuddered at the prospect of the sway they could achieve with their powers combined.

These “Around the Web” widgets both haunt and tantalize us because they’re designed to stoke our most primal browsing habits. Clicking these links feels like taking a tour through the internet’s id — each grotesque screenshot and gender stereotype that manages to override our thinking brains and reduce us to pure click monsters. Below, a taxonomy of the basest impulses on display.


On these content discovery widgets, you’ll find offerings you won’t get on established celebrity gossip sites like outrageous lies. I once clicked on an item titled “Sandra Bullock’s Son Used to Be Adorable, but Today He Looks Insane” and clicked through 70 pages of celebrity progeny, none of which featured Sandra Bullock’s child.


These ads sometimes cultivate a very casual relationship between the actual content of the article and the thumbnail photos used to illustrate it. The slide show “18 Celebrities You Didn’t Know Committed Suicide” is teased with a photo of David Schwimmer, the “Friends” star who is very much alive. (Imagine if an Outbrain widget were to break that news.)

Some of the falsehoods are so dull as to be ridiculous. “48 Huge Mistakes No One Ever Noticed in Major Movies,” advertised with a shot of Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman,” leads to a hulking TimezOff slide show that is largely mundane, briefly radical (it dings “The Passion of the Christ” for casting a white Jesus) and ultimately misleading: It does not include an item on “Pretty Woman.”

‘True Crime’

This is where the internet’s obsession with true crime stories is reduced to its voyeuristic draw. On a website called, a 2014 ABC News report about an 11-month-old girl who was endangered by her nanny is cynically churned into a 33-part slide show, seeded with cliffhangers.


A disproportionate amount of content involves maritime mysteries. Among them: “Mom Vanishes Aboard Carnival Cruise”; “Disney Worker Missing at Sea”; “Little Girl Was Found Alone at Sea, Decades Later She …”; and “30 Things the Ocean Is Hiding From You.”

Weird Body Stuff

The advertising widget has a flair for the grotesque visual illusion. One link hawking a solution for “cracked feet” features a hand peeling what appears to be a sheet of skin off a foot, but it can’t be that. (Can it?) Even unrelated stories are framed to prompt a physical response. (See: “33 Amish Facts That Will Make Your Skin Crawl.”)


A consistent hook is a photograph that appears to be a private part but is not a private part. One advertorial for an erectile dysfunction supplement features the image of a human hand holding what looks like a phallus emerging from a shell. (A friend helpfully identified the creature as the Pacific geoduck, a kind of saltwater clam. Google it: It’s uncanny.) Perhaps the most horrifying specimen in the body genre is the piece titled “The Unusual Link Between Your Toes and Alzheimer’s,” featuring an older woman with bloody holes for eyes.

Click on her ghastly visage, and you’ll be treated to an interminable video of a man hawking a “completely natural” treatment for reversing Alzheimer’s that a “sinister band” of pharmaceutical corporations doesn’t want you to know about. Toes don’t come up.

Lady Trouble

If “Related Content” has a celebrity mascot, it’s a drunk Tara Reid from the early aughts. Female ruin is a story staple of “Around the Web,” and old photographs of Ms. Reid are dangled frequently as bait, along with a mass of scraped Snapchat portraits and context-free, isolated female body parts. The WeightLoss Groove item “After Losing 220 lbs Rebel Wilson Is Gorgeous Now,” offered courtesy of Taboola, features side-by-side photos of Ms. Wilson and someone who is not Ms. Wilson.


Items like “29 Unique Women You Won’t Believe Exist” and “29 of the Most Bizarre Women on Earth” celebrate the outer limits of the female form, presenting women as avatars of disgust and danger. And headlines like “The Cameraman Just Kept Filming Her” and “She Never Expected This to Happen” ensure that you’re no longer just idly browsing — you’re ogling.


If there’s anything “Around the Web” loves exploiting more than women, it’s animals. Many items take content from wildlife shows or photographers. My favorite is “A Lion Captures a Petrified Baboon and Does the Last Thing You’d Expect,” which churns a wildlife photographer’s 2013 blog post into a 52-page opus. “Our story starts in Botswana with a troop of baboons who were literally freaking out,” it begins, then goes on to manufacture suspense through endless detours, like “Before returning to the baboon saga, you have see these crazy photos. Click ‘Next’” and “Would it be possible for the lioness to nurse the baboon? Click ‘Next’ to find out.”


Sex, babies, the vast and unknowable ocean, a desire for the rich and famous to be exposed or otherwise ruined, and an abiding fear of death — these preoccupations drill to the core of the human experience. After all, there would be no market for these “content discovery” services if we never clicked from a serious CNN report on James B. Comey’s firing to a link like “Former Cruise Workers Reveal What Really Happens at Sea.” “Around the Web” ads remind us that no matter how high-minded our online investigations seem, we are all just a click away from slipping into the internet’s unthinking underbelly, grasping for answers in a slide show that never ends.

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