Clickbait, "Content," and Our Collective Insanity

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“The ‘bait’ comes in many shapes and sizes, but it is usually intentionally misleading and/or crassly provocative. Clicking will inevitably cause disappointment.”
— Urban Dictionary

Let’s establish a safe space here where we can admit that we have all fallen for clickbait at least once in our lives. These headlines – mainstays of sites like BuzzFeed and Gawker – tease us with the promise of a reveal so enticing that we just can’t scroll past. We have to click. We need to click. Clicking is survival.

We love to hate clickbait. Ask any savvy Internet user how they feel about these often misleading (but nevertheless magnetically attractive) titles, and you can expect a stream of vitriol. But what makes them so distasteful? There’s nothing new about teasing readers with only part of a story in an effort to encourage them to read on; that’s why catchy headlines were invented in the first place. We can’t begrudge sites getting crafty in an attempt to attract our limited attention.

Catchy headlines become clickbait when the crucial element of the story that’s withheld is the entire story. Take, for example, this recent article from the once-venerable Time, which was shared on Twitter with the headline “Find Out What Prince George Is Called at Preschool.” As the brilliant Twitter account @SavedYouAClick drolly pointed out, the answer is just “George.” Time is probably correct in their thinking that very few people would click on a story titled “Prince George Called ‘George’ at Preschool.” But the solution shouldn’t be to trick readers with a misleading title. If an article depends entirely on a clickbait-style headline to earn page views, it isn’t worth publishing in the first place.

Vapid pieces like this one from Time are the product of our obsession with content. From the morass of buzzwords we drown in daily, “content” rises to the top as perhaps the buzziest. I’m willing to reserve judgment on the journalistic integrity of Time, but many so-called online content providers exist exclusively as platforms on which to serve ads. They need something – anything – to convince readers to visit their sites and view the ads. Often, when people use the word “content,” it would be more accurate to say “filler.” They’re selling us nothing but packing peanuts – and the headlines keep us clicking.

Libretto tries to differentiate that kind of content from substantive, incisive writing. The triptych “Strategy | Messaging | Content” appears as a descriptor for our services, but we landed on this only after a great deal of discussion. We considered the association with content as something that merely takes up space online – which isn’t what we provide. We want to help lead a movement to demand more from online content providers (#NoMorePackingPeanuts), and we accomplish this in our own way by creating content that provides value and rewards readers for taking the time to consume it.

Clickbait-style headlines are likely here to stay, and we all know that online ads aren’t going anywhere, either. But if below those titles and alongside those ads we find content that’s actually worthwhile and meaningful, they might not infuriate us so much.

File under Clickbait, Content, Advertising

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