“I know it when I see it-” a phrase that hasn’t been this relevant since the 1964 Supreme Court. While at the time, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was grasping at how to define obscenity, the phrase itself can now be applied to something a bit less (or possibly more, depending on whom you ask) offensive- clickbait headlines.
Those of you who frequent social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter or participate regularly in online conversation have encountered this, whether or not you are familiar with the term. Don’t believe me? Just try reading some of these real-life examples of clickbait headlines:
These aren’t headlines I just made up. These are actual headlines written and published by sources that get millions of visitors a month. This wouldn’t be a problem if it were just niche websites with no influence, but such is not the case. That last headline, the one with the titillatingly mysterious headline about a child murderer? That one was published by none other than CNN. Which begs the question, how long before we see the Wall Street Journal publish “I Didn’t Believe in Blue Chip Stocks, but When This Woman Stood Up My Faith In Humanity Was Restored.”
So what exactly is a clickbait headline? While it’s certainly true that most people “know it when they see it,” it can be a little tricky to define. The most basic definition would be a headline that exploits a reader’s curiosity gap to drive clicks, rather than previewing the content of the article. These headlines give just enough information to pique someone’s curiosity, but not enough to satisfy it. At their best, these headlines are annoying. At their worst, they are deceptive and manipulative.
Deception creeping its way into journalism, unfortunately, is nothing new. Why then, are clickbait headlines in particular such an abomination? Well, for starters, they are simply annoying. I can’t speak for anybody else, but for me, clickbait is annoying to an unreasonable degree- to the point where regardless of how interesting an article sounds I refuse to click a clickbait headline simply out of spite. And I suspect I’m probably not the only one. I understand that seeing a homeless man join a street performer for a cover of “Call Me Maybe” may be interesting, or that your recipe for buttercream frosting might taste great on lemon pound cake, but don’t try to convince me it’s going to be a catalyst for an existential revelation.
But aside from just being annoying, clickbait headlines are threatening to bleed over into serious journalism. While there has been backlash against these headlines, it’s no secret that some of the world’s biggest publications are already dipping their toes into these clickbait waters. A good headline tells you the gist of the story, and gives you the opportunity to read the article if you’re interested in learning more. Newspaper stories for years have been structured to reflect this, with the most important facts at the beginning and working towards the less important details the further into the article you read. This not only lets the content stand as the focus, but allows you to engage with as much or as little of the story that interests you. I, for one, would hate to one day see a digital landscape full of Russian Roulette headline clicking.
Not only that, the inherently “sharable” nature of these headlines that often leads them to go viral makes them prime fodder for Facebook news feeds which, in turn, clutters up popular social media sites. This takes the “conversation” out of conversation media.
There is, however, some good news amid all the doom and gloom. Facebook has been actively working to try to de-prioritize links with clickbait headlines. Not only that, there has been a steadily growing number of voices sharing their distaste for this trend. We, as online information consumers, actually have the power to dictate whether or not these types of headlines grow in popularity or if they join AIM and Google+ in the ranks of dead internet fads. If you see a clickbait headline, I urge you, do not click it. I don’t care how much it promises to change your life or how many diseases it promises to heal, do not click it. Clicks drive web traffic, and web traffic drives ad revenue. Simply put, publishers will stick to practices that perform well. Don’t give them a resume to keep clickbaiting us.
Note: I realize the contradiction of urging people not to click on clickbait while simultaneously providing the links, but there’s no way anybody would believe those headlines were real without proof.