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.
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.