Clickbait, for many, is the bane of the internet where traditional journalism goes to die. It feeds on our inherent need for surprise, excitement, and uncertainty, as we click the link to learn what we already knew about the top five reasons to brush our teeth, but it seemed like a good refresher from such a credible source like Buzzfeed or Upworthy.
For those unaware of what clickbait is, it is defined as: “(on the Internet) content, especially that of a sensational or provocative nature, whose main purpose is to attract attention and draw visitors to a particular web page.”
By nature, this is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, journalism has been enacting forms of clickbait in its own way since the nineteenth century, but instead went by another name: “yellow journalism”. That term comes from the wildly successful “Yellow Kid” cartoons that appeared in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, which was the main reason consumers bought the newspaper in the first place. “Yellow journalism” is an antiquated clickbait that sensationalized articles to sell newspapers. Interesting that one of the greatest journalistic honors, The Pulitzer Prize, is named after a man who pioneered clickbait. So before judging it so quickly, look at the system’s history.
Why Clickbait is BAD
But if clickbait finds itself in the annals of journalistic history, then why is it so condemned? There are two reasons for this affront.
We know it’s an advertiser’s devilish scheme for clicks.
Many ads get results (and money) simply by how many times people click on the link. Those people do not even need to spend more than five seconds on the page without earning a click for the advertiser or blog page.
We know it preys on our mind’s simplest instincts.
Our mind is made to categorize and simplify information into nicely separated compartments to process swiftly and effectively. With an article like “Here’s why eating chocolate is actually the best thing to happen to you”, our mind knows what to expect, yet it leaves room for surprise even though you already know that the article is just going to tell you that a study done by a start-up research company finds that eating chocolate cures cancer. Even though we realize that an article is clickbait, we want to know more and our mind and body accept that.
Two years ago, Buzzfeed’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith wrote an article to explain why Buzzfeed doesn’t do clickbait. He argues the origins of clickbait begin on a later date: “Clickbait actually has its origins in old media, not the web, and specifically in the don’t-touch-that-dial antics of television and radio.” This matches his more specific definition of clickbait which explains that it’s a headline that under delivers on its article’s intent.
How silly, Buzzfeed, how silly. Instead of lying about Buzzfeed’s ENTIRE internet purpose, he could have instead spun clickbait in a positive light.
Why Clickbait is GOOD
It reaches an audience and does not live on a headline alone.
Ben Smith briefly points this out within his piece from 2014, but should have focused on it more directly. As he points out, “You can trick someone to click, but you can’t trick someone to share.” The article’s headline may earn views and clicks, but Buzzfeed’s success is much more predicated on its ability to earn shares and likes across social media platforms. Accept the clickbait nature of Buzzfeed and continue to utilize it effectively.
Journalistic history stands on entertainment and eye-catching titles and now we stand with a different term to explain the natural evolution of the industry.
Just like fancy movie trailers or pretty book covers, the average reader does judge an article by its headline. If content is non-existent, that headline and article will die a slow death in the slums of the internet. Readers might miss a piece that could actually have relevance to their needs or wants.
In both cases, clickbait finds itself negatively connoting headlines that have nothing to offer. For advertisers, writers, bloggers, and the starving artists, finding balance with what clickbait actually is and how to use it or not to use it is the game that must be played.
Interestingly enough, the ironic clickbait nature of this article’s title will probably spawn less clicks than one that is not about clickbait, but if you don’t believe me, check out the research done on the issue here.