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Nov 03, 2015

“Read This Now, or You’ll Be Sorry!” AKA: Contemplating Clickbait

“Read This Now, or You’ll Be Sorry!” AKA: Contemplating Clickbait

It asserts that the reader could never guess what happens next, only to show them exactly the thing the would expect to happen. Its list is long, but there are only so many viable entries that don’t result in an eye-roll. It’s a tease, leaving out the meat but exposing the edges of the leg. Clickbait is the digital form of an old truth in advertising and news media, that what’s good doesn’t sell as fast as what makes you feel you need to buy.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of clickbait advertising is its clear, keen understanding of human behavior and interest. While its value often seems skin-deep, clickbait authors are evidently the new masters of commercial aesthetic. As “human interest” pieces grow in popularity in the news and most media, the basic aspects of human nature feel  more exposed than ever in the digital world. Clickbait’s first and foremost fault is its greatest strength. It works because it is easy and effective, and in being so frustrates the viewer with some manner of recognition that by clicking the link they have rendered themselves, to some extent, shallow, or easily tricked. While this is unfair to those who do click on these ads (63% of Buzzfeed’s posts qualify as these, so there seem to be very few who never click on them), it is not                                                         unfair to criticize the practice.

Guilt, humor, sex appeal, fear, wow factor, scandal; the title is visceral and conjures up a scintillating response from one or two themes in a select few. The origin of this technique dates back to the late 19th century with the advent of “Yellow Press“, coined by Erwin Wardman to describe journalism that utilized mostly  sensationalism and exaggeration to sell papers.

"The Yellow Kid" the comic strip that helped coin the term "Yellow Journalism" from the New York Journal
“The Yellow Kid” comic strip that helped coin the term “Yellow Journalism” , from the New York Journal

It is currently unclear just how effective clickbait is at turning engagement into profit, though the fact that  its use is growing more prevalent by the day is a strong indicator that those who utilize it seem to believe it works well. Independence_Seaport_Museum_224Historically, Yellow Press was introduced to legitimate news sources to drive up sale numbers and succeed against competition, pitting titans of the journalism industry William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer against one another for control of the New York press market. This illustrates the reality that clickbait is an aggressive technique, subversive in style but ultimately in your face and ambitious.

In response, last year Facebook pledged to wage some level of war against the market medium in gauging the success of a link’s engagement by measure of how long the reader remains on the page they click on. While this is a step forward on the road to fighting vague and misleading headlines, there are multiple clickbait techniques which have cropped up to combat this campaign. One common  strategy is to clutter the destination page, making a list, super-sectioning entire aticles into multiple pages as opposed to the classic and appreciated form of a single scrolling page to raise the amount of ad exposure. Even when the title of an ad doesn’t accurately depict the content inside, or makes itself useless by spoiling the hook within the headline, the high volume of clicks remains the main goal, and clickbait creators are excelling at it.

But one of the biggest problems with clickbait is that those providing the criticism of it don’t provide much of a quality product themselves, are either too heavy or too light, and miss the real solution. The fact is that for all the problems with clickbait, people still insist on clicking them, despite the nature of clickbait being relatively common knowledge to a contemporary internet user. In that regard, only so much blame can be placed on the tactic, and if making the catchy title is so easy and affords such large conversion rates, certainly quality content could make use of it as well.

Clickbait is like catching fish, except if people are fish, they tend to be closer to moody sharks, and to bite on something that pulls them up onto an ugly boat makes them somewhat unhappy. But imagine if you will that the bait is as good as the deck, so much so that the shark doesn’t snap or jerk around, but is so satisfied that he willingly stays on deck, then pays the fishermen to join their crew and work for them. If that metaphor seems to have broken down entirely, that’s because the latter half is really an advertorial consisting of good content that still sells its promoters product. But it’s a far more appealing prospect. Good content is still king, as it has always been. Now the tension between quality advertorial and clickbait is growing more tenuous than ever before, and the question can be raised- Just how much longer can clickbait stay on top?

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