For one of the most talked about issues in journalism, there has been much division over what exactly clickbait is in recent years. The term has widely been synonymous with viral content sites such as Buzzfeed, with a common belief that the tactics used by those sites to entice viewers in is the clearest example of what clickbait is.
Merriam Webster defines clickbait as “online material (such as headlines) designed to make readers want to click on hyperlinks especially when the links lead to content of dubious value or interest”.
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin, Senior Writer at business site Inc.com, says of clickbait: “you’ve seen it before; it’s the kind of headline that is either frightening or uplifting to the point of absurdity,” using a sample clickbait title “Here are 25 Time People Shocked Everyone When The Worst Was Expected. A Must See.”
News through Social Media
From these definitions, clickbait is widely considered to be trivial content that draws you in through its novelty or by piquing your interest. With recent figures (see chart below) showing the rise of social media as a significant news source for the majority of its users, there has been a concern within the journalism industry about the most popular news content on social media being seen to be clickbait.
Source: https://infogr.am/, raw data 
Operating under the above definitions of clickbait as emotionally evocative content that makes the reader want to read more, it is unquestionable that it has been incredibly successful in the online space. Upworthy, a site that launched in 2012 using this type of content, rose within two years to having 88 million unique visitors each month, in comparison to the esteemed NYTimes.com, which receives about 30 million.
The prominence of clickbait has been such that there have even been spoof sites set up to highlight its absurdity, Clickhole being the most well known. With articles such as ‘4 World Leaders I Was Forced To Suspend From My Water Polo Team Because Of The Panama Papers’, the objective of Clickhole is to mock the widespread use of clickbait tactics and highlight how potentially flawed a system it can be for attracting readers at its worst.
This is where the ethical question has existed for many in the journalism industry: is clickbait damaging the quality of journalism? If a large portion of news being consumed by users today comes through social media and fits the clickbait mould, are more important stories and events being missed by readers too preoccupied with articles promising to restore their faith in humanity or proclaiming that they’ll never believe what happens next?
Acting Managing Editor of news website Vox, Nilay Patel, claims that “most clickbait is disappointing because it’s a promise of value that isn’t met – the payoff isn’t nearly as good as what the reader imagines”, a belief backed up by comedian Jon Stewart who spoke about clickbait-style websites in an interview.
“It’s like carnival barkers, and they all sit out there and go, ‘Come on in here and see a three-legged man!’ So you walk in and it’s a guy with a crutch,” he said.
This relates to a fundamental assumption held about clickbait, that it promises more than it delivers. If that were the case, though, and most clickbait experiences were underwhelming and unable to live up to what their headlines offered, it would raise the question why the tactics keep having such success.
Buzzfeed is seen by many as the prime users of clickbait, however with the site reaching more than 200 million unique monthly users, it does not make much sense to suggest that its primary content is by its nature underwhelming. Common sense would suggest that few readers would keep coming back if their Buzzfeed experience is always disappointing. In late 2014, Buzzfeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith addressed this in a piece entitled ‘Why Buzzfeed Doesn’t Do Clickbait’, in which he questioned a misunderstanding of the term.
Firstly claiming that clickbait “stopped working around 2009”, Smith goes on to talk about his site’s success, saying “the only real trick is that the work has to be good. And the only thing, other than mediocrity, that can really sabotage this strategy is writing a headline that overpromises and a story that under delivers.”
Smith’s argument is that the term clickbait is not related to a style of content, but an untruthful method of marketing that content with a purpose “to generate page views, which in turn generates ad revenue” and one that doesn’t care about the experience of the reader once they reach the page. Therefore if clickbait is solely seen as misleading readers by promising in a headline more than the piece itself delivers, it is clearly not the tactic used by Buzzfeed or similar sites.
Smith states that “if your goal – as is ours at Buzzfeed – is to deliver the reader something so new, funny, revelatory, or delightful that they feel compelled to share it, you have to do work that delivers on the headline’s promise, and more.” Buzzfeed’s aim, as is clear through Smith’s words and the content the site posts, is not to just get readers to click through to the page but instead to get them to enjoy its content so much that they share it themselves. Instead of being ‘clickbait’, what they produce is something that more accurately could be called ‘sharebait’, which needs the content to be enjoyed to work.
Therefore, the question lies more around the content – instead of hard hitting news delivered in a serious tone, Buzzfeed’s success has come off the back of merging that news with entertainment. Instead of posting traditional clickbait purely for the ad revenue of page hits, it seems Buzzfeed has strived to deliver content that social media users want to read, engage with, and share.
Financial Times writer John Gapper argues that “ultimately, entertainment is a bigger business than news. That was true of the analogue world and there is no reason to think it will change online. The lesson of the viral epidemic for news publishers is that, if you battle for attention with entertainment, you lose.”
Clickbait through the ages
Scott McDonald, Hit105’s Social Media Manager, believes that clickbait is “just another form of headlines”, and that there is some level of undue hysteria around the term. “Headlines came in to get people’s attention and sell papers, and clickbait is doing exactly the same thing just on a brand new medium,” he said.
Gizmodo’s Annalee Newitz agrees, stating that “clickbait is nothing new. Journalists and news sources – even respectable ones – have always used trumped up headlines and dumb pictures to lure people into looking at what they’ve written.”
Therefore, while clickbait is often associated with trivial content rather than serious news, it is perhaps more important to be considered as a creative way of marketing content rather than the content itself.
Strategy consultant Steve Hind wrote a piece entitled ‘in defence of clickbait’, and believes that the matter is about clever presentation of news content rather than taking readers away from important news to more trivial pieces. “If you put a bit of thought and creativity into how you label your content, you can really transform how far it goes”.
With social media now being such a prominent source of news for so many and growing at a rapid pace in that regard, it is understandable why traditional media outlets are concerned that circulation numbers and overall readership is down on their traditional delivery of the serious news, but it’s not true to say that readers are not receiving the important news regardless. It would just seem that the news is now being most successfully delivered in a social media friendly way, alongside other popular culture style content that readers are interested in. And as the below interview shows, many readers of Buzzfeed’s content would miss the news entirely if it was not delivered in this way.
It is unquestionable that sites like Buzzfeed have developed an outstanding ability to connect with their readers through social media, and it is probably unfair to attribute all or even much of that success to the idea of clickbait as misleading and overpromising headlines. Instead, it seems likely that those sites have mastered the modern version of a sub-editors job – selling the stories in the best and most appealing way possible for the readers, and getting the balance right of what stories their readers are interested in.
The content covered by Buzzfeed is surprisingly similar to that of the traditional mainstream media outlets for the most part. The reason behind their success then, instead of being dismissed as clickbait, is clever and creative marketing of their stories for social media in comparison to the traditional outlets.
If, as Ben Smith wrote, clickbait stopped working in 2009, then the traditional understanding of what that term means is not a threat to quality journalism at all. Rather, it seems as though the reason that news sites accused of using clickbait are succeeding is due to their understanding of the social media landscape. Whether the same quantity and quality of important news is still reported in this style as has been in traditional media remains to be seen, but to dismiss the most popular news organisation on social media for how they creatively market their stories would be unfair.
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 http://www.inc.com/christine-lagorio/clickbait-destroyer-downworthy.html (Accessed May 21, 2016)
 http://www.niemanlab.org/2014/02/4-headlines-that-will-restore-your-flagging-faith-in-journalism/ (Accessed May 18, 2016)
 http://www.clickhole.com/article/4-world-leaders-i-was-forced-suspend-my-water-polo-4248 (Accessed May 22, 2016)
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 http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/10/jon-stewart-rosewater-in-conversation.html (Accessed May 24, 2016)
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