If you have had a Facebook account for the past year or so, you couldn’t have missed the phenomenon that is clickbait. I was so annoyed by this that I wrote a small Chrome extension named “Clickbait Killer” that filtered out such garbage from my feed so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. I’ve released it so that you too can use it, should you so choose. You can find out more information on the Clickbait Killer page.
But what is clickbait, and why is it annoying? Clickbait is the use of hyperbolic and sensationalist content that lures (the “bait” part) users into clicking (the “click” part) to see more. The owners of the visited sites just want to rake in revenue from advertising placed on their pages. Actual content plays second fiddle to phrases that have been algorithmically shown to generate the most clicks.
One popular form of clickbait is the “X Reasons Why” list. As an example, I typed “14 Reasons Why” into a Google search, and got the following article as a result: 14 Scientific Reasons Why Bacon Is Really F*cking Good For You Notice the use of words like “Scientific” “Really” and “F*cking”. These are all attempts to get you to click on the article, regardless of what it contains. The first few paragraphs, if not the whole article, are generally very low content. The authors know how search engines work, and place certain keywords in the hopes that their article rises the Google search engine ranks. If someone searches for “is bacon good for me?”, for example, this anything-but-scientific article may pop up since it has all of the right words. That increases the chances the user clicks on this article, which in turn generates more money for the business.
Is there anything more satisfying, alluring or mouth-watering than bacon? A sizzling pan of bacon brightens the cloudiest of mornings; it’s the golden ticket to a perfect day. Everything good starts (and, realistically, ends) with bacon. – What is the actual content here?
Another morally worrying aspect of clickbait is that the linked-to articles are often content that is simply relinked from elsewhere, which may have been itself relinked. Check out this example I saw today on my Facebook feed (also, notice the hyperbolic domain “thisblewmymind.com” – a sign that you are in for some clickbait): http://www.thisblewmymind.com/passengers-on-plane-whip-out-their-phones-the-minute-these-elderly-men-do-this/ This site hired someone to find an already viral video, add some intro text that helps them increase their numbers, and repackage the content as their own.
At least in this case the original content owner got views on their Youtube page. In many other cases content is taken with no attribution back to the original author.
An excellent New Yorker article, that I highly recommend (if you can stomach it), tells the sordid tale of a chain of content stealing:
At the bottom of a Dose post, there is usually a small “hat tip” (abbreviated as “H/T”). Many people don’t notice this citation, if they even reach the bottom of the post. On Dose’s first day of existence, its most successful list was called “23 Photos of People from All Over the World Next to How Much Food They Eat Per Day.” It was a clever illustration of global diversity and inequity: an American truck driver holding a tray of cheeseburgers and Starbucks Frappuccinos; a Maasai woman posing with eight hundred calories’ worth of milk and porridge. Beneath the final photograph, a line of tiny gray text read “H/T Elite Daily.” It linked to a post that Elite Daily, a Web site based in New York, had published a month earlier (“See the Incredible Differences in the Daily Food Intake of People Around the World”). That post, in turn, had linked to UrbanTimes (“80 People, 30 Countries and How Much They Eat on a Daily Basis”), which had credited Amusing Planet (“What People Eat Around the World”), which had cited a 2010 radio interview with Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel, the writer and the photographer behind the project.
The article goes on to mention that the actual content creators invested 1 million dollars and 4 years of their lives creating this portfolio of images and are now trying to sell books and license their images in an attempt to recoup some of the money. Instead, the money for the content goes to the chain of clickbait sites who have taken the images illegally and immorally.
As I have mentioned before, it seems like calculated advertising is replacing content in more and more areas of life, and I find it very troublesome. Clickbait is a clear example of this and perhaps its highest incarnation. Instead of focusing on creating content that people enjoy and find meaningful, these companies use math and psychology to maximize revenue, often at the expense of actual content creators and disappointed users.