If you are anything like me, the internet is a minefield of welcome distractions. I’ll sit down to write a rather dry article about something like the evolution of shirt collars during the 19th century, and halfway down a page perfect for my research, I’ll see a link that promises to transport me away from this dull and dusty world of starch and pins and, before I know it, ten hours have passed and I’m watching videos of an otter on a pogo-stick. I like to think of it as the “Rabbit Hole” effect.
Certain websites are very aware that people ‘like me’ are easily distracted, that people are curious and that, people will click just about anything to avoid doing ‘Real’ work, and they capitalise on this fact.
Some links we click are informative, funny and relevant…Though still a distraction, but there are other tempting links that hold little to no value that are exclusively designed to get you onto a page and keep you there forever, clicking tantalising headlines one after another…That lead to just more tantalising headlines for us to click on, and this is clickbait.
Clickbait is just another distraction in an already distracting world. In day to day life we are bombarded by information, instructions to click here, or buy this and working out what is actually useful or presents any value is becoming more and more difficult. To add to this noisy digital existence, there is clickbait, short intriguing headlines that are designed to distract and get you reading page after page of uninformative and irrelevant nonsense.
Clickbait works on a simple principle, fill the curiosity gap. This is as simple as presenting something curious and promising satisfaction.
Why can’t we help but click?
Clickbait keys into predictable human behaviour. It flicks certain switches in our minds that cause us to act in a certain way. In short, it is the use of human psychology for profit.
Of course, not everyone is so easily manipulated, but the concepts are founded on well documented human behaviour.
A state bad for cats health, curiosity is built into all of us. It’s the feeling of “What happens next” that keeps us watching that Netflix series until far past our bedtimes, getting so involved in that book that we miss our bus stop, or being so involved in that game of rugby on the radio whilst in the bath that you don’t notice you’ve turned into a prune… Okay, that’s my experience, but, once we have invested in a story, we want to know how it ends and this is precisely what a well-crafted clickbait headline does, grabs our interest, gets us to invest in the story and offers the cheap, cheap cost of a click to find out how the story ends.
Example: Oliver couldn’t begin to imagine what would happen after he stuck his finger up this lions nose…
Humans are susceptible to emotions, whether they are the emotions of others or of ourselves, they make us want to act, to laugh, to cry, to become angry or to provide comfort. People who write clickbait headlines know this and will attempt to incite strong emotions that, not only make us want to find satisfaction by reading the linked article, but to share the emotion with others. It uses our need to share emotions to propagate headlines on our social networks that make us laugh, that make us angry, that make us sad.
Example: Christmas didn’t come for this orphan puppy this year, find out why…
It’s a sad fact that we like to read about ourselves… I also like to write about myself, but that’s another thing. Making a headline personal to us, locking into something that defines us, is exceedingly powerful. This can be almost anything, where we live, our favourite hobby, a skill or how we see ourselves, it makes us feel important and differentiated from the crowd. People who write clickbait know this and write for certain demographics that may feel they have preexisting knowledge of the article or relate to it because it’s “our thing”.
Example: If you are smart enough to get this, you’re in the top 2% of the country…
The previous example not only speaks to the way we would like to see ourselves, but it also offers a challenge. Clickbait writers know that we can’t resist challenges such as games or tests of skill. Another thing that they know is that we like the challenge of proving assumptions about us wrong, and the only way we can do this is by, you guessed it, clicking that link.
Example: You’ll never believe what this freelance author does to make his articles so interesting!
The final way clickbait creators use our psychology against us is through promises. These are similar to challenges except, instead of us wanting to negate the statement, we want to have our expectations met. These are less effective as we are constantly bombarded with unfulfilled promises, still, they can work in conjunction with an interesting hook.
Example: This article about clickbait will blow your mind!
Headlines and their effectiveness
Of course, we are no strangers to short and punchy headlines. They permeate every part of our lives, from the traditional headlines that splatter the top of a stack of newspapers at your local supermarket to the clever subject lines that compel us to open email newsletters. All such headlines work to instil curiosity, to make us buy that paper, open that email, the difference is, they have to deliver on the promise of satisfying that curiosity otherwise we don’t buy that newspaper again, or we unsubscribe.
Clickbait is different, it is a stand-alone curiosity so there is no long-term investment on the line like there is for a newspaper or email subscription. The ephemeral, there and gone, nature of clickbait lowers our expectations and makes us think, “It’s only a little click”. Again, it is a low investment with the promise of a high reward… Sound too good to be true? Well, as I’m sure you’re starting to understand, it is.
Clickbait is used by sites that make revenue from advertising. In simple terms, the more people they get spending more time on their site, the more advertising revenue they make.
A good example of such a site is BuzzFeed, a series of short articles that partially satisfy the curiosity of the headlines that it spreads across the internet. The articles themselves are not only light on word count, but also light on content. So how do sites such as BuzzFeed get you to stay?… By more clickbait… Tempting headlines at the end of the article, itches that just have to be scratched… And so it continues, each page you click the further down the rabbit hole you go, earning them more and more money from advertising.
When news becomes click bait
Of course, there are many excellent sites on the internet that provide high quality, factual content. The issue arises when such quality sites stoop to the level of sites that practice click bait to gain visitors.
Recently sites run by newspapers, many of which are struggling, have started to utilise sensational headlines, or headlines that are likely to cause the greatest outrage. Issues arise when the headline, designed to capture readers attention, does not fit with the facts of the linked article. In short, they break the cardinal rule of reporting, tell the truth!… A rule that is now being enforced by giants such as Facebook and Google.
What steps are being taken to limit click bait
The concept of “Good Internet” is still rather vague and will vary between platforms. In the case of Google, it wants to create informative and relevant search results for its users so that they can get to the information, or service they need, in as short a time as possible. Facebook, on the other hand, has been criticised for allowing “Fake News” on its platform which has the potential of misinforming millions. To negate this issue they now fact-check certain sources to ensure that such disinformation is not spread which also encapsulates click bait which is rarely a reliable source and relies very much on anecdotal information.
The future of clickbait
So, what is the future for clickbait? Will it be quashed? Will the internet become a holy trustworthy resource full of quality content devoid of sites that take your time but give little in return?
Unfortunately not. As the internet evolves, so too does the ingenuity of people looking to make money, people who put profit ahead of content and although Google and Facebook are working to minimise such poor quality diversions, it also has to leave most control to the individuals using the platforms. Successful clickbait headlines will get shared by people who you are friends with, and so they continue to propagate.
Saying all this, the way in which people use the internet is changing, people are refining their browsing habits, finding resources that they know to be reliably informative, entertaining or useful, bypassing the lower quality links and headlines that promise satisfaction but only deliver more curiosity.
Clickbait, for the foreseeable future, looks set to remain and to be as popular as ever among certain demographics though Google and Facebook continue to work hard toward a higher quality internet for the future.
So there… Did I satisfy your curiosity?
Oliver Kennett is an author and freelance copywriter living in Bristol. A graduate in both law and engineering, he enjoys exploring science, technology and social impact through his writing. As well as clients in the technology, tourism, legal and lifestyle sectors, he has written extensively for charity. In his spare time he writes short stories and novels for children and adults in the horror, sci-fi, fantasy and humour genres.Read full profile