We’ve all seen them. They’ve graced Facebook and Twitter feeds everywhere. They’re the bane of journalists, and the disappointment of the masses who dare to give them a look.
This week, we talk about clickbait.
Mention the word to any journalist (or anyone who complains about journalism today), and they’ll instantly get a chill down their spine. It’s the lowest form of attention-seeking.
Clickbait, for the few of you fortunate enough not to know, is essentially the online version of old tabloids. They rely on sensational headlines and the people stupid enough to share them with friends. Often, it’s nothing more than a picture ripped from DeviantArt, or a video from YouTube. But instead of just sharing the video or picture, clickbait attaches it to a weird website that grants the poster ad revenue.
You’ve all seen it. “This man does a thing, and the reason may surprise you.” “This Craigslist missed connection is an instant classic.” “You won’t believe how inferior to the Slug Empire humanity really is.”
Notice how they never tell you what the picture or video is actually about, or what it might actually look like. It seductively tries to trap you in its web, after which it throws ads, newsletters, and pleas to share with your friends in your face.
It’s not cool, and most of us are pretty immune to it. It’s the kind of thing our… well, I don’t want to say “stupider” friends, per say, but let’s put it at “more-easily-impressed” friends – anyway, they’re the ones who are impressed by it and sharing it around, none the wiser that it’s something that could’ve been found elsewhere, more efficiently, by someone else.
If they’re responsible, they’ll at least credit the artist behind whatever they share, but aside from the really big ones, clickbait sites are not known for their decency. They just want the ad revenue, and they know there are plenty of rubes on social media just waiting to gobble it up and shove it in their friends’ faces.
Those “more-easily-impressed” friends – or MEIs, for short – are calling this a revolution in journalism. Websites like Buzzfeed, Distractify, and Upworthy are being hailed by many as the next big way to get news and content. Buzzfeed even calls itself “The Media Company for the Social Age.” And it is true, those sites are bringing issues to light that may not have gotten the attention they might have deserved on something like, say, BBC News.
But when you read something like BBC News, it’s news that’s actually important. You don’t see BBC or the New York Times come up with manipulative headlines like the examples I gave above, and their content is more substantial, more in-depth, and more intelligent than sites like Buzzfeed.
Let me put it another way. News sources like the New York Times are like a big, juicy steak. It’s a great effort to eat it all, but it feels fulfilling. You can feel every ounce of effort that went into it. And it’s filling. When you’re full, you don’t feel ashamed, you feel accomplished. You feel like a better person for having eaten that steak. It took effort to consume, but it was very, very enriching.
Continuing with that analogy, clickbait sites that rely on social media are like potato chips. They’re not designed to be enriching or fulfilling; they’re designed to be consumed en masse. When you finish a bag of chips, there’s a little bit of a happy rush, but that rush subsides with every chip. At some point, you’re not even eating them for the taste; you’re eating them because they’re designed to get you addicted. And when you finish that bag, you don’t feel full or happy. Maybe you’ll buy another bag in the hope that eating more will provide that rich feeling you crave, but it’s never going to help. It’s all empty calories.
Watching or reading content on Buzzfeed or Upworthy feels good, at first. But that rush goes away. But every time you see the site pop up on your Facebook feed, you still click on it, hoping that it’ll give you that same rush.
But when you read an article that had actual effort and research put into it, it’s informative and enriching. If you’ve been consuming nothing but Buzzfeed for a while, of course an article from the New York Times is going to feel daunting to read at first. But it’s healthier to get your news from a reputable source, and I guarantee you’ll feel better about it as well.
And then, like George on his current diet, you can look down on all the Buzzfeed-consuming masses with laughter and pity, as they fatten their minds with useless junk. You, on the other hand, will feel like a new person, ready to tackle the world.
RESISTANCE IS FUTILE. EMBRACE THE SEAWOLF SLUG.