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Is Clickbait the End of Online News?

Recently, “clickbait” has become one of the most frequently lobbed pejoratives on the Internet, but what does it mean exactly? Many might point to Buzzfeed as the quintessential culprit, with enticingly-titled articles under large yellow tags like “LOL,” “omg,” “cute,” “wtf,” etc.; but editor-in-chief Ben Smith insists those accusations simply aren’t true, claiming that their attention-grabbing headlines don’t promise more than they deliver and therefore aren’t clickbait. The Atlantic’s James Hamblin ponders his claim and mulls on how best to define the phenomenon:

BuzzFeed is great at delivering on the curiosity it creates, but it’s misleading to say that it doesn’t rely on curiosity gaps. Great journalism at every point on the information-entertainment spectrum has long relied on curiosity to draw people into a story that they otherwise wouldn’t care about.

Hamblin ultimately concludes that making clickbaiting a sin unique to Buzzfeed isn’t fair, as every headline and story competes for attention, with varying amounts of honesty in advertising:

…the market demand goes well beyond only the topics that lend themselves to needing to be told.
Maybe that’s the best definition then, of clickbait: Did this post need to exist, or did you just make a thing for the sake of making a thing? In which case, BuzzFeed does Clickbait. So does pretty much everyone.

Thus, all article-headline pairings fall on a spectrum ranging from more to less manipulative. Online audiences are understandably upset by this trend of false advertising, or even just by the sinking feeling of being duped as they instinctively click on a pointless (yet interesting) article. But the sheer bulk of viral news options creates odd pressures on online news: traditional news can’t always depend on competitive traffic rates, and many websites are essentially stuck feeling they must be as flashy as their competitors. Eventually, everything starts to look and sound a little like Buzzfeed.

It’s an understandably depressing phenomenon to those who love the professionalism and respectability of traditional media. For example, longtime readers of Time magazine who subscribe to the publication’s Facebook feed are undoubtedly surprised when they are barraged with stories like “There Was an Entire Category About Beyoncé on Jeopardy Last Night” and “Kim Kardashian’s Butt Might Just Break the Internet Today.” Does this signal a decline in journalism?

Hamblin is not so pessimistic:

Among cynical readers given to labeling everything clickbait, there seems to be an assumption that editors and writers live and die by the number of clicks they generate. That’s rarely true, and only less so as sites move away from banner ads and find better ways of monetizing based on the quality of content rather than the quantity of people exposed. That bodes well for the readers who prefer only-publish-what-we-really-love kinds of sites to high-output hit-or-miss content mills. Some call it the Slow Web movement, or simply the dream.

The “Slow Web” concept is encouraging in an age obsessed with newness and loudness. If Buzzfeed and its kind are the checkout-stand tabloids of the Internet, websites operating within the Slow Web ideal are the newspapers, and their regular readers are subscribers.

For instance, compare Buzzfeed to Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe’s The Toast. This website is about as niche as can be, with articles almost exclusively centered on humorist, feminist interpretations of art, cultural, and literary history. Sure, the Toast’s content (entertaining as it may be) appeals to a tiny fraction of web traffic—but to the editors, that’s fine. The Toast has its place on the Internet, and it has carved out that space without desperately bidding for universal appeal via clickbait.

In the case of news websites, there’s an element of “boring” that understandably must persist. We can’t all be humorists, after all. But news websites can still deliberately craft an online brand that reflects grace, thoughtfulness, and professionalism. The sad online face of Time pales in comparison to the contemplative news space at Hamblin’s own Atlantic. News services attempting to cater to everyone on the Internet are drawn inexorably towards the lowest common denominator—and at the end of the day, that’s not what anyone wants.

Stephen Gibbs is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative.

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