Gemma Styles: In Defence Of ‘Clickbait’

By dismissing everything published on the internet as 'clickbait' we run the risk of dismissing all the engaging, great content out therePhoto by Matilda Hill-Jenkins

Gemma Styles: In Defence Of 'Clickbait'

by Gemma Styles |
Published on

The Internet gets a lot of shit - some of it warranted – for producing ‘clickbait’ – defined (according to Google) as:

*(on the Internet) content, especially that of a sensational or provocative nature, whose main purpose is to attract attention and draw visitors to a particular web page. *

You know the stuff I mean, don’t you? It’s the ‘wow, this one herb in your kitchen cupboard could help you lose 13lbs of stomach fat!!’ that fills up your Facebook feed and inadvertently leads you to a website about double glazing.

This week, the state of our modern times has been tutted at once again, in a previously spiked column by Lee Marlow from the Leicester Mercury newspaper. LM from the LM, if you will. The Press Gazette posted the article this weekin which Marlow laments the death of proper journalism in favour of clickbait Internet rubbish. So now in a strange turn of events I am here to fight the corner of the ‘wow, this one herb in your kitchen cupboard could help you lose 13lbs of stomach fat!!’ links. Kind of.

Firstly, what exactly do we mean by clickbait? The hyperbolic weight-loss headlines that are actually trying to flog you plastic surgery (or double glazing) are definitely up there – and they’re misleading and wrong. But what about a bit of half-arsed celebrity gossip? Or a video of a basket of puppies covered in glitter? If people click on those things and care enough about them to share with their friends, does that make them clickbait? And why do we assume this type of content is only found online?

I picked up a magazine the other day whose main, front cover feature was a very ‘clickbait-y’ piece about whether two ~celebrities~ had started dating. Long story short... they hadn't. For all of the exclamation marks and ‘sources’ who speculated that maybe they might maybe text each other at some point in the future, the main story was basically two pages of nothing happening. I couldn’t share that story on my Facebook newsfeed because it was a physical magazine, but had I shelled out a couple of quid to actually purchase it in the first place rather than reading it in a waiting room, I'd have been furious.

Surely a misleading headline that actually gets you to part with your hard-earned cash is far worse than one that makes you click a link?

In terms of actual content, I fail to see how that magazine story is any different from its Internet equivalent. There are so many reasons why the decline of local print journalism (which is what Lee Marlow was talking about) is a bad thing. But it's not fair to shout nostalgia and declare that all words are better when they’re on a piece of paper rather than a screen.

Yes people have bothered to write their stories and commit them to print, magazines are painstakingly put together as a whole - but doesn't that make it worse when they put that effort into publishing crap? Just like websites encourage readership in order to sell advertising space and make their money, magazines do the same thing, and have been doing so for years. You can’t blame that on the internet.

I’m certainly not defending misleading headlines in either format, I hasten to add. But why is a short news or celeb story, or that puppy video I keep talking about a sign that millennial news consumption is going to hell in a handcart?

Longer think pieces online often get shared more than shorter content – because we are (shocker) capable of appreciating different formats. And sometimes we want to consume our news, or entertainment, in bite sized chunks. We might want to devour a Sunday paper these days wholesale when we’ve got the time, but equally we might also want to dip in and out of the news throughout the week while waiting for the toaster to pop or trying to wake ourselves up in the first ten minutes after the alarm goes off.

Because fundamentally, there’s a difference between proper clickbait – the misleading, promise-the-earth headlines that misdirect you into clicking onto something totally different, and content that you care about reading, whether it’s 100 words and a lolzy video or a 2000-word investigative report. Facebook knows this, which is why they’re cracking down on the shit stuff.

They’ve tried before - by checking out how long people spend on a link after they click it, but they found that this method wasn't accurate enough. Giving it another try, they're changing tack and targeting certain phrases, thus inventing a new game I shall call 'Clickbait Bingo'.

I'm pretty sure we can make a drinking game out of it given some thought. I'll get back to you.

The technology elves at Facebook have built a new program to pick up on the most obvious of the headlines and automatically suppress them so as to make our scrolling experience less of a drag. After manually trawling through thousands of articles, they've identified key phrases such as ‘his response was priceless’ and ‘you'll never guess why’ as key bullshit flags to be squashed and banished forthwith.

Hooray. With more of these nuisance articles dusted off my dashboard I can get back to taking Buzzfeed quizzes where they guess my age depending on what kind of fries I prefer - thank god for that. All hail the Internet, cleaning up its own mess.

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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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