Guest post: 7 thoughts on clickbait from a student journalist

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the eighth of those posts. Alisa Pelaez is a senior reporting major at UNC-Chapel Hill who enjoys writing and playing music. This semester she’s working hard to launch The Internationalist, an undergraduate research journal with a focus on foreign affairs. 

Everyone’s scrolled through Facebook and seen those headlines: “I Left My Husband & Daughter At Home And THIS Happened! I Can’t Believe It!,” which leads to a video of a father and daughter singing a duet. Cute, perhaps, but not exactly what we were expecting. We’ve been clickbaited.

“Clickbait” is a huge buzzword among online journalism (or really online content creation of any type), such that it’s spurred parody sites like ClickHole that satirize the sheer ridiculousness of digital headlines. With a never-ending stream of headlines competing for our attention on our Facebook and Twitter feeds, what does clickbait mean in the ever-evolving world of online journalism?

1. Clickbait is almost impossible to define.

The Oxford Dictionary defines clickbait as “(On the Internet) content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.” The problem with this definition is that there is very little, if any, content, written on the Internet or elsewhere, that is made to discourage attention or visitors from clicking on a link.

As editors, we’re taught about search engine optimization, writing headlines featuring key terms related to the subject of an article. Even the driest of local news stories are paired with headlines designed to entice readers, even if those readers may be limited to the area of geographic relevance. There must be another compounding element contributing to the creation of clickbait. Could it be banal content, the withholding of key information, deliberate misdirection, or some combination of the three?

2. Storytellers always ask us to mind the gap.

Content creators want us to view their content; it’s a fact of the industry. Sometimes they choose to do this by teasing with part of a plot to ensure we stay tuned to see the conclusion. This can be anything from heightened suspense before a commercial break (only to conclude that the problem was really just a clever misdirection), or teasing a new character after the credits of a superhero movie.

The Internet has become so inundated with these types of stories that Twitter accounts like Saved You a Click devote their whole feed to answering questions posed in headlines. Even movie trailers are just a more acceptable version of “You’ll Never Guess What Donald Trump Said to Marco Rubio at Last Night’s Debate” type headlines. So why is it that this strategy bothers us so much more in print?

3. Our real problem is misinformation.

James Hamblin of the Atlantic argues that our problem may stem from the misdirection of headlines more than the content itself. He compares headlines to carnival barkers, saying if he goes into a freak show expecting to see a man with three legs and instead sees a sword swallower, no matter how impressive the sword swallowing is, he’ll be disappointed because he came for the man with three legs. This is immediately applicable to stories like the father-daughter ukulele cover, where the headline would have been much less infuriating if it was marketed as an adorable sing-along.

4. Alternative story formats are actually more effective.

Another problem I frequently hear complaints about is the Internet’s saturation with list articles or “listicles.” While stories like “19 Pictures that Scream ‘Dad’” may seem superfluous, it has been shown that alternative story formats, including lists, infographics, ratings and timelines actually help us comprehend more information than traditional news stories. I also enjoy the natural stopping places that lists provide. When I only have a few minutes to read while waiting for the bus, it’s easier to know where to pick up again later.

5. Could “sharebait” be a better term?

Another term passed around regarding inflammatory headlines is “sharebait,” meaning the headlines are written to encourage people to share the stories on social media. Some say sharing can act as quality control, that only quality content will be shared enough to become viral. The jury is out on whether or not that’s true, but I know that one of the most popular conversation topics among my friends was “16 Things Lady Gaga Looked Like During Her Super Bowl Performance,” which isn’t exactly groundbreaking journalism.

6. Where does this leave us?

My working title for this article at its conception was “We don’t like it either: Why journalists don’t want to write clickbait.” While I maintain that no one gets into journalism to write banal stories about YouTube videos that only get attention because of misleading headlines, other aspects of “clickbait,” like enticing—but truthful—headlines and alternative story formats certainly do have their place in online journalism.

7. In conclusion.

I may have bit off a bit more than I can chew with this list, but I like the number seven better than six. Here’s your misleading clickbait story.

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