Reasons Why I Hate Clickbait – This is not a TV Show Review

Although this blog isn’t a critic’s review of the popular TV show “Clickbait” on Netflix, the few episodes I did watch motivated me to research this issue. Specifically, I was drawn to the topic to learn more about its impact on our digital ecosystem when juxtaposed with the spread of false information on the internet.

Today, digital media sites will use clickbait as a mechanism to attract viewers to a website or an article. For most of us, it’s not uncommon to come across a catchy heading on the internet like “What State Do You Actually Belong In” or “You Won’t Believe What Happened in Congress?” In a NY Times article titled “The Boy Wonder,” clickbait was once the “trade secret behind BuzzFeed’s success.” It was once considered the “secret sauce” for the organization before it became ineffective as a strategy in 2009.

If you remember, in elementary school, we were taught to find credible sources and be wary of questionable URLs and headlines. But what if reputable sites like Forbes suddenly inundate you with ads that say “12 Things Every New Blogger Should Know.” Over the past year, Forbes cleaned up the presence of clickbait and pop ads. Still, the experience of reading and closing out ads simultaneously is maddening. On other websites, clickbait ads are strategically placed on the page and includes a cliffhanger like an advertisement trying to sell you something you just thought about a minute ago.

I do understand the importance of running ads to generate revenue, whether it’s clickbait or a legitimate landing page that delivers on expectations. However, it would be beneficial, if popular sites, to maintain credibility, screen their paid partner content before posting it on their page.

What is Clickbait?
The Oxford Dictionary defines clickbait as “content whose primary purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a particular web page.” On the other hand, in an article by The Atlantic, clickbait can be “any story ‘someone’ finds unsatisfactory in headline, concept, subject, or execution.” Buzzfeed’s business model closely aligns with Oxford’s definition, but as technology advanced, the colloquial term noted below is more widely accepted among online readers.

In the same article, Josh Benton of Harvard’s Neiman Journalism lab defined clickbait on Twitter as a “noun: things I don’t like on the internet.” He then went on to explain that “the term is sometimes thrown our direction to characterize entertaining web-culture content that the author doesn’t like.”

This is not to say that every journalist or first-time blogger in an MBA course intentionally wants to mislead you or deliver poor-quality information. But journalists should consider the cringe response one gets after clicking on a “curiosity headline?” Sometimes a catchy headline can cause someone to cast doubt on the credibility of the site. For me, I instantly feel like I’m being played, and the strength of my character to resist ridiculous headlines is in question. Most people are more empathetic in the comment section of a video or blog if they notice that the content is well thought out despite possibly not agreeing with that person’s viewpoint.

The Rapid Spread of False Information
From a journalistic perspective, I understand the desire to develop a catchy headline to attract readers or viewers to a story. However, it’s getting harder and harder to separate factual and misleading information. The rapid pace of news appearing on Facebook and social media makes it difficult for someone to choose whether the material they’re reading is factual or fake news. But lets be honest, most people won’t fact-check a source, especially if the headline strikes at a sincerely held belief, at which point a person will believe anything the author is saying. If this trend continues, I think it will cause irreparable harm to the digital ecosystem and deepen an already polarized social climate. Furthermore, professional journalists should pay more attention to the headlines they write to distance themselves from the clickbait titles that sow division and promote harmful information.

In Closing
One of the golden standards in journalism is to title an article or blog to draw people in with curiosity on a topic they wouldn’t ordinarily care about. For instance, if I wanted to write about Crispr, the genetic engineering technique to prevent disease, I may want to think about a great headline that could draw in an audience outside of the medical profession. However, I’m worried that digital content publishers will have a little financial incentive to produce quality and/or factual based information. You can now make millions of dollars on digital media sites like YouTube if you can convince people to watch your videos. For example, I like to watch the TV show “First Take” on ESPN, and it amazes me every time I’m fooled into watching a random person’s video.

All in all, everyone hates clickbait, but unless we try to raise our standards for quality information and remain on alert for faulty headlines, then the issue will continue to worsen. Share your thoughts about clickbait and its impact on the digital landscape in the comment section below.

9 comments

  1. I believe clickbait can oftentimes attract the wrong users as well. Forbes and/or the NY Times may have good intentions to entice a growing number of consumers to read their articles, but I argue that it makes the journalist’s job harder. Consumers attracted to clickbait are often those that skim publications with the intent of “getting to the point” or finding the scandalous notes. A journalist’s message may get lost in misinterpretations because click-baiters do not look at the details or bother processing the information for themselves. It’s a tough world for journalists today–I do not envy the social responsibility they carry.

    Awesome blog! This was a great topic. I wish I had thought of it myself haha!

  2. I think clickbait is a scary trend that does not seem to be going away any time soon. From the journalists’ perspectives, I am surprised at how many reputable writers are willing to blatantly mislead their prospective readers when it is usually immediately obvious that the true content is far less appealing than their title. It causes a loss of faith in the writer, and their platform, that unfortunately does not hold much weight due to the financial structure of revenue with advertisements. And that is not a knock solely on the writers necessarily, as they need to remain competitive and relevant in a field that is becoming more dependent on click counts by the day. I believe the revenue grab it creates can only be counterbalanced by public outlash against clickbait attempts. If the public is truly against the misleading of information they are expecting, and refuse to revisit those sites, the company would need to re-evaluate its stance on clickbait titles in order to regain a public following.

    I’m not holding my breath for that type of reaction from the general public, though… We’ve seen how quickly a user’s attention span can be changed through social media apps like TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram. With the rising popularity of these rapid information blast-type apps, I doubt that same population sees the distraction of a click-baity title any differently than a snapchat story that never gets to its actual substance. These apps are making misleading titles in order to gain clicks the norm.

  3. I am a curious guy and I am always getting tricked by clickbait articles. Most of the articles that I read were a waste of time but some of them turned out to be interesting. Like you said the standards will never change if people like me don’t stop clicking everything that crosses the screen. I don’t see this changing anytime soon especially with all the apps making misleading articles.

  4. Great blog post, as I’m a total sucker for some of these clickbait schemes and although a lot of them are useless, they absolutely work. Even some of the most ridiculous headlines like “You’ll Never Believe What Happened” with just a picture of a smiling couple, completely draw me in. I’ll find myself clicking through slide after slide just because I’m so curious as to what actually happened to the couple in the picture. As much as I’d like to say that I don’t ever pay attention to the ads in between slides, its impossible not to and ultimately that’s why people pay for space within these types of schemes. I will say that as time goes by, it has got a lot easier to spot them and I click on them far less than I used to. As with any marketing scheme, eventually consumers will be educated enough to learn when to stay away which will only force the creators of these schemes to get more creative.

  5. Really well said Miles and this is something I can’t wait to discuss later in the semester when we get to this topic. I myself get drawn into some of these clickbait articles from time to time and after i’m done reading I stop and think to myself why did I just waste my time reading that! I think this is a very complicated situation and one that can potentially get worse as technology improves and we continue to digitially transform. You mentioned fake news in your post but I think something even more dangerous that is only going to get harder to validate are some of these deepfake videos that circulate throughout the internet whether it be of a celebrity or a politician they can sometimes be very convincing. Sadly I think the root of the problem all comes down to money. Whether it’s an author trying to collect views on their article or a website trying to generate ad revenue the name of the game is profit and until we can think independently of that or regulate it, I think clickbait and fake news will continue to be a problem moving forward

  6. Your post really got me thinking about clickbait and the business purpose behind the proliferation of those frustrating “you won’t believe what happened next!” or “wait till you see her now!” ads that cause my blood to boil when I scroll past them. Like many of the other commenters, I too fell victim to the intriguing promise of shock value lurking behind these ‘headlines’ or ads, and then began to notice the patterns with them and felt frustrated that these even exist – doesn’t everyone see right through them by now?? I hadn’t spent much time trying to understand the underlying economics or purpose, and I guess the best thing I can come up with is the idea that these are like the digital/modern-day equivalent of a snake-oil salesman or any of the countless other gimmicks that prey on the unsuspecting masses. The biggest difference of course is that these are a lot harder to avoid. It will be interesting to see how consumer behavior is impacted and therefore resulting business decisions around what types of ads to use/how to best reach customers (ie if there’s a significant shift away from certain sites or people stop clicking, will these disappear or is there enough activity that leads to eventual sales that these are a mainstay?).

  7. Nice post. My experience in writing says that headlines absolutely does make a difference in readership, but it’s hard to separate good SEO with clickbait. I would disagree somewhat that Forbes is still a reputable site. It’s mostly just a shared blogging platform at this point.

  8. Great post Miles and like most of the other comments, I often find myself falling for clickbait articles. But that’s also why the use of clickbait has seen such a rise in recent years, because it works. Catching someone’s attention for even a moment so that they click on your ad or article is a huge win for any marketer. So despite the lack of professionalism it may show, as long as clickbait gets clicks, it will be here to stay.

  9. I am not sure if this is how clickbait started, but I remember that YouTube videos were the first type of media that hooked me using it. Flashy thumbnails and one of the first sentences, “stay until the end to see what happens,” worked too often.
    It is unfortunate to see how this type of advertising made its way to other kinds of media and formerly reliable sources just as a way to attract more customers than competitors.
    However, this is the reason what makes you post great, Miles. Reminding ourselves as consumers that we set quality standards with our actions and decisions is essential if we want to enjoy quality information in the future.

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