It’s hard to go online these days–whether to check Facebook, email or even a “reputable” news source–without encountering some shocking or exciting headlines. “What This Little Girl Has to Say Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity” and “Watching This Puppy Will Not be a Waste of Your Time.” These titles, and the articles that accompany them, have become so prominent as to claim a new genre, known as clickbait due to its ability to draw users into visiting websites.
The use of flashy, vague titles to draw in viewers is not new by any means. Internet advertisements and emails that claim to reveal “one weird trick” that makes “doctors hate this suburban mom” have been around since the dawn of web advertising. Society has grown to recognize and ignore these spam messages, armed with a junk mail folder or ad blocker. Why, then, are people being sucked into “news articles” that use the same techniques? The answer, it seems, is social networking. In a society where ideas, songs and videos are constantly going viral, sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy have been given a chance to thrive.
The popularity of these articles is impacting traditional styles of news. Just as news anchors have been known to dumb down stories for the masses, websites have tried to disguise their news behind clickbait titles. One example is this tweet by CNN , which sparked a lot of controversy:
14-year-old girl stabbed her little sister 40 times, police say. The reason why will shock you. https://t.co/5ZFqHFrviw
— CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) January 23, 2014
Has journalism been driven so far as to resort to any means of attention possible? A 2009-2010 study conducted at the University of Bristol titled “Modelling And Explaining Online News Preferences” recorded the popularity of different types of online news and found that shocking articles and news about product releases or pop culture dominate the interest of most readers. It seems that on the web, titles are now more important than ever, as each click brings attention to the news site and its supporting advertisers and attracts a potential new regular.
Like any new trend, companies have started to take action against clickbait. The satirical news site The Onion launched ClickHole in June to make fun of sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy, proclaiming that “all content deserves to go viral.” Facebook announced in August that the site would begin to discourage clickbait content, and the new head of social news at CNN has even acknowledged that it isn’t always the correct choice. So, the question at hand still remains: is clickbait bad? To most companies and websites, it is a way to gain views and ad revenue; it’s as simple as that. However, sites like Upworthy can actually provide inspiration and tell success stories during times of turmoil. Should these types of stories replace traditional news? Certainly not. We have to realize that what’s going on in the world won’t always be bright and flashy. In that case, should we all boycott Buzzfeed? No again. Instead, society needs to be conscious of what is important in an article and not let excitement destroy knowledge. So, next time you are browsing Facebook, try skipping the album of cat pictures that “Will Be The Cutest Thing You’ll See All Day” and search for something that interests you. The Internet is full of knowledge; see what you can learn.