July 16, 2014

The Daily Beast | Vox

And so friends, it is time once again for our civilization to push up its sleeves like improvisational comics in the ’90s and ask: “What’s the deal with all this clickbait?”

The problem with clickbait is “the reader is always being manipulated,” Jake Beckman tells The Daily Beast’s Emily Shire. Beckman works for RebelMouse and runs the very funny Twitter account @SavedYouAClick, which like @HuffPoSpoilers before it, aims to let some of the air out of clickbait-y tweets.

Clickbait is more insidious than even some old ways of flogging newspaper stories, Beckman says, because “readers are being treated as stupid.”

But clickbait is not one-dimensional. Shire mentions The Onion site Clickhole, built to parody offerings from BuzzFeed and other sites. A BuzzFeed post Tuesday by Dorsey Shaw says it takes inspiration from a Clickhole story that makes fun of BuzzFeed posts.

This confluence is reminiscent of the moment 13 years ago when Elton John and Eminem performed a duet together, more or less ending a conversation about Eminem’s homophobic lyrics and forcing critics to concentrate on how each of his subsequent albums was a little worse than the last one.

More important, clickbait is one way media companies are trying to solve an existential problem, Vox Acting Managing Editor Nilay Patel writes: finding a business model that no longer depends on physical scarcity (think newspapers hitting porches). Clickbait headlines are “super effective at driving traffic and attention, because they’re basically just games,” he writes.

Upworthy’s now-infamous “You’ll never guess what happened next” headline construction is a one-question pop quiz; a call for the reader to actually guess what happened next, and then verify that guess by reading the article. It creates value because there’s a chance you’ll be rewarded with the smug satisfaction of being right. (And if even you’re not, you still get to share that question on Facebook to trick your friends.)

In other words, maybe the real problem with most clickbait is that those clever headlines and questioning tweets often lead to disappointing content. And yet the blame often falls more heavily on marketing than the people churning out stuff that sucks.

I asked Patel via email whether he thought there was a business model for making clickbait that lived up to its hype. Yes, he said, and in fact he tweeted a prediction yesterday that “one day there will be books praising great clickbait like we praise mainstream pop music now.”

“Most clickbait is disappointing because it’s a promise of value that isn’t met — the payoff isn’t nearly as good as what the reader imagines,” Patel said. Naturally, our conversation turned to BuzzFeed. “BuzzFeed headlines pay off particularly well because they actually make fairly small promises and then overdeliver,” he wrote. “It’s validating, which is maybe the most valuable payoff of them all.”

Related: Top 8 Secrets of How to Write an Upworthy Headline

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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