I walk my dog along the Willamette River where fishermen drop their lines in the water from dawn to dusk, playing catch-and-release with the sturgeon that swim there. The fishermen use a bait of chopped herring they call chum. Their chum often dribbles onto the ground around them, and they leave it where it falls on the wharf, because it isn’t worth the effort to pick it up. I wouldn’t even know it was there if my dog wasn’t so attracted to the stinky bits.
Now chum has taken on new meaning as the term for a particular type of online advertising, and it’s a very fitting descriptor. You’ve probably seen a photograph of a medicine bottle with the headline “The Secret Pill Billionaires Are Taking,” or a picture of something icky with the headline “10 Signs You Have A Tapeworm,” or a wrinkled woman with the headline “She Had Sex On Her 100th Birthday.” That’s chum. Often several of these images are arranged on a grid called a chumbox.
Of course, I want to read these stories. If the richest people in the world are all taking the same pill, maybe I should be taking it, too. A tapeworm would explain my incessant craving for a bacon cheeseburger. And I want to see a picture of the person a 100-year-old babe had sex with, assuming it wasn’t herself.
Unfortunately, there’s no story behind these headlines. Chum is bait for advertising, not information. A chumbox is delivered to a website by a software company that promotes itself as a “content discovery” service. Right. Chum is content like the stinky bits of dead fish on the wharf are food. The content in a chumbox will lead you straight to the internet’s waste matter.
I could lose an hour trying to figure out if that mother bear really hugged the guy who saved her cub from drowning, and I get a secret satisfaction out of knowing how “These Celebrity Facelifts Ruined Their Careers.” I should have chum controls on my browser with a pop-up box that warns, “Don’t You Have Something Better To Do?”
Chum could turn my brain to mush the way it gives my dog the Hershey squirts. But chum is big business. Billions of dollars are being made by spreading mind pollution on the internet. It’s a cynical strategy and it works. It works because when I read “Ice Cream Facial Proven To Reverse Aging” I want to know what flavor ice cream. Do you have to melt it first? Can I use frozen yogurt instead?
See what I mean. I’ve learned to steer my dog away from the wharf when the fishermen are out there with their chum buckets. But it takes more discipline to steer myself away from chum online. No one sweeps the sidewalks or takes out the trash on the internet. It’s up to me to step around it.