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.