How Does Clickbait Change Content – Day 47

(note: much of the information here is based off of or pulled from CGP Grey’s video “This Video Will Make You Angry”)

This is where the catchy intro should go. The catchy into is what grabs your reader’s attention, making them want to read more (or, at least, so I’m told). In the era of internet content, though, I wonder if typical writing conventions apply, especially the catchy intro. If someone wants their article to be read, it seems that they will still attempt some form of attention grabbing intro that convinces the reader to keep reading. If someone just wants their article to be clicked on, it seems that the attention grabber is no longer in the first paragraph; instead, it has been substituted by the title.

The first known use of the term “clickbait” was in 1999, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. The prominence of clickbait as a term, though, seems to have grown to new heights in the last five years. As the typical story behind clickbait goes, many sites are being driven by advertising to draw eyes to their pages; the length of the stay on the page doesn’t matter as much as the click onto the page itself, since they earn their money from the ad appearing on the screen for any length of time. This is most often done by turning the title, or the headline, into the attention grabber (in this instance, both terms seem interchangeable). The way this functionally works, though, is more interesting than it may seem.

Clickbait does not function in a vacuum; in fact, quite the opposite. Clickbait can only thrive in a sharing environment. Clickbait headlines are intentionally written in such a way that not only will you click on the article, but you will share said article with people you know. In the early 2000s, this type of sharing would have been done through a chain e-mail, the kind you would get from a grandma or a coworker that had already been sent to thousands of people before it got to you. With the advent of social media, sharing got to be much easier. Instead of a “narrowcasting” that would happen through e-mail (the ability to really only share with people you knew), social networks allowed a much larger broadcast with potential to reach people you don’t know (with a higher chance of this depending on the social media network). Thus, more eyes can see more content more quickly and have a greater and easier ability to re-share the content (and we don’t have to scroll through all of the names of the people who’d already been sent the info).

In order to maximize share-ability (or the potential for a link to be shared), clickbait titles intentionally play on emotions. Depending on the emotion, articles have a higher or lower chance of being shared. Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman identified that anger and awe are the two emotions most likely to induce sharing of an article; or, for that matter, anything online. The rise of internet memes, pictures, videos; all of these things that correlate to anger or awe have a greater chance of being shared, especially when identified very specifically with a headline or caption that draws your eye to that thing. A video framed with the caption, “James Corden as Belle from Beauty and the Beast is the best thing I’ve seen all day” (actual example) is more likely to draw eyes than “James Corden as Belle from Beauty and the Beast,” or no caption at all, because of the added “is the best thing I’ve seen all day.”

With regard to angry clickbait (or, clickbait that inspires or induces anger), I think Americans at the very least are quite familiar with this content, especially after the previous election cycle. Interestingly, it seems that clickbait in this category could actually contribute to the “echo chambers” that we have consistently been hearing about over the last year. Content that induces anger will stick around longer when it generates argument, but an increase in argument between two different sides will lead to argument amongst each side about the other. Double the places to have arguments, double the fun, and the more likely certain people will click on specific types of links.

While “clickability” is what is of concern for clickbait websites and articles, the content itself must be good enough to prompt a person to share the content. The biggest change may be to where the attention getter is, but garbage content has less of a chance to be shared, at least, logically speaking. I have had my fair share of instances clicking on a link, thinking “OK, I’ll give this one a chance,” only to find some poorly written piece of trash tangentially related to its clickbait-y title. The thing is, the quality of the article isn’t even the main concern here – less likely doesn’t mean unlikely. This is why “good enough” or “real enough” or “perceivably true enough” content continues to get shared, so long as it plays to the previously mentioned emotions.

The danger with clickbait, especially with regards to anger, is that there is an increase in quantitative ability to reach more people than ever before with misinformation because it is playing on emotions. If a lie was able to get halfway around the world before the truth got its pants on when Winston Churchill was alive, imagine how quickly the lie can move today (you won’t BELIEVE how quickly this lie made it around the world before the truth even woke up). In many ways, quality of content doesn’t end up serving as the main concern, truth does – or, maybe more accurately, truth should be a major concern.

Whether clickbait will sputter at any point has yet to be seen. Constant and continuing plays on emotion, though, will certainly continue. While clickbait is one of the current ways to make a large amount of money on the internet (or a substantial amount…or some amount; I don’t know much about ad rates on these sites), there is no guarantee that payment or ad structures will remain the same. Emotions and emotional responses, though, are too powerful to go away; they will exist as long as humans do. Trying to “stop” clickbait at this point doesn’t seem terribly reasonable; those people who attempt to scale back from those clicks will still give some of these articles a chance. While this isn’t the goal to pursue, I think the goal we should focus on is related. We need to understand how and why we function, and why is it that we’re as susceptible to clickbait as we are. Understanding why we respond as we do may still lead some people to decide to feast upon clickbait and these types of content…

No. I don’t think this is right either.

I don’t think clickbait in and of itself needs to be defined as “good” or “bad.” Sometimes I want to see a list of 17 somethings about this, that, or the other thing (but I won’t click through 51 screens or 17 screens to see the list). The greater concerns I’ve seen from content creators are about sensationalization, content quality, and truth. Addressing these concerns has been attempted for years, and if anything, the content that violates these concerns has grown. It would be easy to stand on an internet parapet and scream about the need for responsibility from writers and readers, but quite honestly, easy (and money) will often beat responsibility. This doesn’t mean we stop pursuing responses to these concerns, and it doesn’t mean we stop creating content that actually fits into the categories we wish to see thrive; quality and truth presented in an un-sensationalized way. I think the consistent creation of this type of content is a much louder and much more effective statement than telling someone not to consume clickbait.


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