You Thought You Understood Clickbait. Now Read THIS.

If you’re reading this because of the headline, shame on you. Shame! I recently finished watching season 19 of South Park on Hulu. The main theme running through all ten episodes is the concept that advertisements are taking over our lives and newsfeeds, cleverly disguised as newsworthy articles. This ends up, naturally, being outrageously depicted as android-type beings, who are disposed of in humorous and violent ways.

But it made me think, as I’ve often done in the past, about the places I get my information from. Like most of us, I use Facebook, both professionally for my writing and to keep in touch with friends and family. I like it; I think it’s a useful tool that can connect people who would otherwise have great difficulty staying in touch. But Facebook, like any company, needs revenue, and they’ve chosen to get theirs from advertisements.

A lot of this takes the form of sidebar and inline advertisements, such as this one for Zume Pizza:

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I actually don’t mind these quite so much, because they are clearly marked as advertisements, and easily ignored or dismissed.

But then ‘Suggested Posts’ started happening. Take this one, for example:

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Perhaps because of my interests in science, reading and science-fiction (I’m fully aware of how companies like Facebook assess my interests, and that’s not a debate I’m willing to get into right now), Facebook has ‘suggested’ an article for me to read. But wait—it’s starting to have a somewhat suspicious feeling about it: shouldn’t an article headline give me a brief summary of the content? 33 Hilariously Absurd Feats That Movies Keep Trying to Pass Off As Legit. It sounds a little to … subjective. How do they know I’ll find it hilarious? What’s with the colloquialisms such as ‘legit’? Here’s what I found when I clicked:

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There are four advertisements on the page, and that’s just within the viewable area. The supposed article is little more than an amalgamation of screenshots with some text superimposed. It’s actually incredibly clever, because with every click of the Next button I’m served four or five new ads—and there are 66 slides (two per factoid).

This is a relatively well-constructed ad-machine. It tempts you with interesting trivia (who doesn’t like a new tidbit of information?), and then bombards you with advertisements. But then there are ones like this:

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This is absolutely dreadful, of course. Nearly everyone would recognize this as a clickbait article, but the funny thing is, they click anyway. (Note that I’m not providing links to any of these articles—your’e welcome.) This one wasn’t suggested for me—it was shared by a friend. A friend who fell for the bait. Here’s the website it takes you to:

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Wait, I’m sorry—was there supposed to be something to read there? The article itself is, when you get to it, rather trite, mundane (apologies to those involved because it does sounds like a kid was made happy for a few minutes), and poorly written. In fact, it’s entirely incidental. Articles like this flood the internet as padding for advertisements. No one wants to click on a page of ads, but they’ll happily click the ads on a page that contains even the tiniest morsel of titillating information.

The worst bit of all, though, is that supposedly reputable news sources are beginning to use this technique as well. They do it well, of course; here’s one from the BBC:

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There’s a headline that, to its credit, does give me some basic information about what the article is going to be about. There’s even an introductory topic sentence at the top. But the article, when you click on it, is nothing more than quotes and a brief video. There are less then 200 words of original text, and of those, 14% are quotes.

At least the BBC label their (few) ads clearly, but this is not news. Perhaps I’m being judgmental here (in fact, I’m sure I am), but this is pandering to the lowest common denominator. The BBC, whose other articles include headlines like “Rio Olympics 2016: US and NZ runners help each other” and “Ferocious US Fires Evict Thousands”, are better than this.

Luckily, I’ve found that the built-in News app on my iPhone actually serves—for the most part—reasonable, intelligent news articles that I’m often interested in reading. Here are the first five as of this writing:

  1. New Ford Virtual Reality App Puts Viewers At Le Mans – The Detroit News
  2. The Hazards of Lightning – Archive – The Guardian
  3. July Was Earth’s Hottest Month in Modern Times – Brief (Okay, this one’s a little iffy)
  4. Brazil Police Pull US Swimmers Fro Flight Amid Robbery Probe – Reuters
  5. Trump Reshapes Campaign In His Own Image – The Wall Street Journal

And the articles, miraculously, are ad-free! I tend to browse through the Apple News articles a couple times a week, but sometimes more often when I’m not working as hard. I find it entertaining and stimulating.

Sadly, I browse Facebook dozens of times a day. And so I get a lot more of my information from clickbait, and it depresses me. I’ve grown tired of my brain being overstimulated by involuntarily wanting to know what THIS is, or why I should avoid THESE 5 FOODS. I often contemplate shutting Facebook down entirely, but I still rely on it to manage my authorial work.

I suppose ultimately clickbait gets results, so I can’t exactly fault the webmasters for making the most of this technique. I think, rather, I wish that people were most intelligent so that solid, unbiased headlines became the norm again. But that might be a pipe dream.


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