It's Everywhere, the Clickbait

Readers are quick to use the label to castigate publications. What is clickbait, and what isn't?

CBerkshire Athenaeum, Pittsfield, Massachusets/Wikimedia/The Atlantic

In “Why BuzzFeed Doesn't Do Clickbait” last week, BuzzFeed’s editor in chief Ben Smith made the case that his site does not publish clickbait. It has long actively opposed the practice, he wrote. The journalists of the Internet immediately began yelling their thoughts about that. Because, isn’t that what BuzzFeed is known for? Or, wait, do I not know what clickbait is? According to Smith, who The New York Times dubbed the boy wonder behind the enormous success of BuzzFeed, he has long been in possession of a “trade secret” that was, until Thursday, strategically kept to a whisper within the ranks of BuzzFeed: “Clickbait stopped working around 2009.”

Okay, then yeah I guess I don't know what clickbait is.

The idea that nothing you’ve seen on BuzzFeed in the past five years is clickbait seems strange to the publishers who have seen BuzzFeed shoot past them in audience size and dismissed its cat-based listiculations as bait. It should also surprise many readers, who are now quick to condemn as clickbait any story they find unsatisfactory in headline, concept, subject, or execution. Find an article with a decent number of comments in which no one suggests that it is clickbait, and you have found ... an article where the comments must have diverted into an even more heated tangent on race, politics, or gluten.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines clickbait thusly: “(On the Internet) [Ed: Is that parenthetical necessary?] content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.” More colloquially, Josh Benton of Harvard’s Neiman Journalism Lab defined clickbait on Twitter (on the Internet) as "noun: things I don't like on the Internet.” Smith addressed that definition preemptively in his post, noting that the term “is sometimes thrown our direction to characterize entertaining web-culture content that the author doesn’t like. That is something different, a matter of taste.”

Smith is right that BuzzFeed tends not to publish clickbait in the narrow way that he defines it: articles with the sort of headline that purposely withholds information from readers. Without naming them, he refers to sites like Upworthy that rose to popularity in 2013 by using “tempting, vacuous, ‘curiosity gap’ headlines” that harken back to the “don’t-touch-that-dial antics of television and radio. Because you won’t believe what happens next—after the break.” Those curiosity-gap headlines are the ones people tend to feel guilty for clicking. As the page is loading, I’m already grinding my teeth and whisper-chastising my own weakness of character. But at least with those, I know I’m being played, and I’m complicit. This majestic elephant mother and her baby are reunited after years in separate zoos, and I must know what happens next.

A cliffhanger is a gratuitous way to create a curiosity gap, sure, but it isn’t the only way. BuzzFeed’s most popular post on Facebook in the past year was an absolute curiosity draw: “What State Do You Actually Belong In?” As of this writing, the post has been viewed 41.4 million times. And the site still regularly runs headlines like October’s “17 Facts You Won’t Believe Are True.” (They are amazing facts. The closest U.S. state to Africa is Maine. Of course, promise kept, I don’t believe it’s true.)

Smith’s definition of clickbait is based on comments made by Jon Stewart in the current New York magazine cover story, in which Stewart was asked about his Internet-media diet: “Do you look at BuzzFeed; do you look at Vice news?” Stewart, relatably, confessed to haphazardly wading through the deluge of content: "I scroll around, but when I look at the Internet, [and] I feel the same as when I’m walking through Coney Island. It’s like carnival barkers, and they all sit out there and go, 'Come on in here and see a three-legged man!' So you walk in and it’s a guy with a crutch.”

There, Stewart was referring specifically to a post that I wrote in 2013 called “This Three-Legged Man Is Not What You're Thinking But Will Blow Your Mind. You Won't Believe How Three-Legged He Is Until You Click. It’s a Real Third Leg, Not a Crutch, I Promise.” No, that's not true. Stewart was talking about what people often are really referring to when they call something clickbait: misdirection and lying.

If you promise me a three-legged man, and I go into your Internet tent and there is a real three-legged man, then, fair enough. I have more questions and feel pity for this man and hope he's fully on board with being paraded about like this, but apart from that, okay. If instead you reveal to me a man with a crutch, then I definitely hate you and feel no sympathy for your crutch-ed accomplice, even though he’s clearly injured. That kind of deception is obviously one way to get readers to call your article clickbait. Even if what you wrote is great, people will be upset if it under-delivers on the expectations set by the headline. If you promise me a three-legged man and I go into the tent and it's a sword swallower, I'm upset, even if he's really terrifyingly amazing and highly regarded in sword-swallowing circles.

Similarly, if you publish the first chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and it's by all accounts a really solid piece of writing, readers will be angry if you gave it the headline “Moby Dick: The Entire Book.”

BuzzFeed is great at delivering on the curiosity it creates, but it’s misleading to say that it doesn’t rely on curiosity gaps. Great journalism at every point on the information-entertainment spectrum has long relied on curiosity to draw people into a story that they otherwise wouldn’t care about. If I’m writing an article about the mitochondrial enzymes sirtuins (which I am!), and I want it to be read by anyone who doesn’t already care about sirtuins, I’ll probably have to get them to care about them by engendering some curiosity in the headline. It shouldn’t feel manipulative, or play on undue fears or make implications or promises on which it doesn’t deliver, but other than that, creating curiosity is conscionable, right?

Even the most staid, oblique headlines create curiosity. I’ve always been a fan of The Awl, which deals in headlines that seem like the antithesis of clickbait. Even gems like last week’s “No Offense to Laura Ingalls Wilder” make me think, what do you mean? I must know! The piece is about how the Little House series doesn’t hold up, but it piqued my curiosity without having to be called “You’ll Never Believe Which of Your Favorite Childhood Books Was Actually Pretty Racist.”

Say you publish the entire 206,052 words of Moby Dick and give it the headline “The Time I Spent on a Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective on the World”—which the site Clickhole did, perfectly. No one is disappointed in terms of the content living up to the expectations set by the headline. Moby Dick is still Moby Dick. But is it also now clickbait?

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I’m personally most likely to think of something as clickbait when it seems like pandering, the sort of breathless post with a headline that only serves to reinforce people’s deeply held beliefs (like, “Religion Really Is Important to Leading a Happy Life”) or the sort of post that plays off of self-identity because we know that is how things spread on Facebook (“You Really Were Right to Eat All That Chocolate, A New Study Says” or “What State Do You Really Belong In?” or “Coffee-Drinkers From the Northeast Are Superior Humans.”) That’s what some journalists call sharebait, which feels just as dirty as clickbait, if not more. It’s the sort of headline people will share without really reading, because they want that headline on their Facebook wall.

But Smith is right that clicky headlines can’t really make a bad post popular. Because distribution is driven by social spread, people have to like something not just enough to click on it, but enough to share it. Publishers don’t just want you to come into your tent to see the three-legged man, they want you to come out of the tent and start telling all your friends, you have got to see this three-legged man.

A trade secret of my own: I do want people to read the articles I write and edit. An engaging headline is part of that, and so is choosing an engaging topic, and executing it in an engaging way. Among The Atlantic’s most-read stories this year has been Ta-Nehisi Coates’s June magazine cover “The Case for Reparations.” It spread because it’s an amazing piece deftly written, not because of the headline. But even that headline played some part in piquing interest.

Among last year's most-read articles on our site was a short one about a map created by developer Brad Lyon that I posted under the headline “A Real-Time Map of Births and Deaths.” I wrote the post in an hour, but it’s not every day that someone like Brad makes such a compelling visualization that also speaks to a terrifying problem like overpopulation. Of course it was a simulation, not the actual locations of actual people in the exact instant that they died, but the real-time assertion was true enough. To be honest, I wanted people to see the map, and that’s why I tried to give it an interesting headline.

Most days you don’t publish stories like those; they are just days when the ever-churning Internet is chewing up posts as quickly as outlets can turn them out. It’s rare for a significant number of people to be reading a story that is more than 24-hours old, even when it’s not a news story. Readers demand newness. Journalists, especially junior ones, arrive at work and are expected to put out stories daily; at some places, multiple times. That’s fine when there is news to cover, but there isn’t always. Posts are written that don’t need to be. It’s not that there aren’t enough worthwhile stories in the world—of systemic decrepitude in the U.S. prison system or underfunding of public education or parents withholding vaccines from kids—but that the market demand goes well beyond only the topics that lend themselves to needing to be told.

Maybe that’s the best definition then, of clickbait: Did this post need to exist, or did you just make a thing for the sake of making a thing? In which case, BuzzFeed Does Clickbait. So does pretty much everyone.

Smith says that he couldn’t tell you how many page views BuzzFeed gets every month. That’s amazing to me, but the point behind the idea isn’t. Among cynical readers given to labeling everything clickbait, there seems to be an assumption that editors and writers live and die by the number of clicks they generate. That’s rarely true, and only less so as sites move away from banner ads and find better ways of monetizing based on the quality of content rather than the quantity of people exposed. That bodes well for the readers who prefer only-publish-what-we-really-love kinds of sites to high-output hit-or-miss content mills. Some call it the Slow Web movement, or simply the dream.

Taking time to create awesome work, only writing when you have something important (or otherwise fabulous) to say, is what writers and editors want, too. Carnival barkers aren't happy when they look in the mirror. That's why they shout and dress in those pinstripe suits and funny hats, to hide the sadness.