This week I had an article up on the Guardian, in which I defended clickbait. I've pasted it below. The piece apparently got a pretty decent run on the Guardian in the UK and US as well, and as a result NPR's All Things Considered tracked me down for an interview. I'll post a link to that when it airs tomorrow-ish.
Here's the piece itself:
Last week the internet was treated to another great offering from Randall Munroe, author of the xkcd cartoon blog.
In it, Munroe re-imagined 20th century headlines if they were written to get more clicks. "This one weird mould kills all germs" could have applied to the discovery of penicillin in 1928. "You won't believe what these people did to the Berlin Wall" could have appeared in November 1989 for maximum effect.
His point, of course, was that the "clickbait-ification" of our news is cheapening it. The argument is that if media outlets lead by trying to get someone to read their story at any cost instead of just giving them the headline-length summary of the piece, they're acting cynically and not showing their audience the respect they're due.
To drive this point home, the Twitter account @mamamiaspoilers has been retweeting clickbait tweets from the Mama Mia website with the "answer" inserted in front of it. On Friday, it pithily answered the clickbaiting question "Is this immoral and dirty, or just a bit of fun?" with the article's subject – anal sex. Hey presto, no need to click through to the site.
While I don't think we're likely to see the New York Times lead with "15 wacky solutions to the debt ceiling you just won't believe" or The Guardian tweet out a link to "8 things the NSA knows about your last relationship", I'm also unconvinced that link baiting is all that bad.
We live in a media environment where online eyeballs, in sufficient quantities, are still more valuable than paid subscribers. In a competitive environment where the number of media sources has proliferated, outlets have to do everything they can to get readers. It's not enough to announce the news – media outlets need to get the clicks, or from the perspective of advertisers they've done nothing.
Clickbaiting is, at its core, about presenting a piece of content in the way that the media outlet thinks will maximise the number of people who see it. And to that end, it can be a really effective way to get the message across – and also lead readers to more worthy content.
On Friday, Buzzfeed, the cat GIF-wielding clickbaiting powerhouse, headlined an article headlined "Can you guess the number of people who signed up for Obamacare on day one?". The article gave readers the answer (six) in terms of the number of people in the Brady Bunch, the number of sides on a die, the number of strings on a guitar, and so on. It was silly, for sure, but also an effective and playful way to get the point across.
More impressively, the bottom of the article linked to a serious piece of news reportage by Buzzfeed on the same issue. This was perhaps best in class clickbaiting: piquing interest, responding playfully with the core message, and then offering interested readers more detail in the form of serious, reported news content.
When readers are lured in, and rewarded for their curiosity with good content, everyone wins. So if clickbaiting can be harnessed to drive views (and therefore earnings), we should play along. After all, it's reasonable to conclude that it is here to stay. In light of that, I'd hate to see traditional media outlets feel that they have foresake new ways of driving traffic, lest they be seen as low brow.
Even if they can't execute it as well as Buzzfeed, it's also fine to run some clickbait-y content to subsidise the more important but less popular reporting they good media outlets should produce. Indeed, Buzzfeed aren't always baiting us to learn more about Obamacare. Rather, they have used articles like "31 creative life hacks every girl should know" to drive traffic, while investing the proceeds in building a stable of recognised and talented political and investigative journalists.
In this way, they're exploiting their chief advantage over their legacy newsmedia rivals – the lack of expectation. Serious news consumers expect clickbait from Buzzfeed, and are delighted when they venture into serious content. If and when traditional outlets stray off the serious path, they risk being pilloried.
Those of us who care about traditional media outlets and serious journalism need to pick our battles. The giants of the industry are under serious threat and have to adapt quickly in the face of threats from more nimble rivals. Let's give them a pass on the clickbait, and keep the focus on the quality of the content.