By Spencer White
Scroll through your Facebook feed for more than ten seconds and you will find any number of people sharing articles with headlines desperate for your attention. “You’ll Never Believe What This Ten-Year-Old Girl Did in Her Bedroom!” “Your Life Will Change Once You Watch This Video of a Baby Rabbit Curing Cancer!”
These headlines and the articles they link to are examples of “clickbait.” Clickbait is one of the unfortunate bastard children of the new Internet age, like memes on Facebook and Google knowing you want Chipotle before you know you want Chipotle. When you click on a link to a website and increase that site’s traffic, that site appears to be more attractive to advertisers and investors–it appears popular, because lots of people are clicking on links to it. However, this is the age of web 3.0, when internet integration in our lives is ubiquitous and we swim in a sea of information beamed down from on high. The people who run websites have figured out that it is a lot easier to dress up shitty content–or no content at all–with a headline so intriguing you cannot help but click on it than to actually produce good content. So now our news feeds are clogged with clickbait.
I would hope that most people avoid this in favor of Facebook’s true purpose: stalking and judging the people we know from the comfort of our smartdevices. But, unfortunately, that is not the case, and a lot of people read these articles. A prime offender, Upworthy.com, is the 146th most-visited web site in the United States. While Upworthy at least spews socially conscious swill, most clickbait is lowest-common-denominator trash, and it is infected the news sites of legitimate journalistic enterprises.
If you grew up in white America in the 90’s-2000’s, chances are every week a new issue of TIME magazine or its conservative counterpart U.S. News graced your coffee table. While TIME is no stranger to sensationalism, it still also reaches about 3 million people every week. Time.com now features articles with clickbait headlines like “China’s Economy is Slowing, and We Should All Be Thankful,” “One Stat To Destroy Your Faith in Humanity.” (Am I undoing my work here by providing links?).
Science reporting clickbait is even worse, as preliminary results are hailed and misleading headlines wrought out of otherwise legitimate studies.
What is the problem with all this? So what if websites want to succeed or become more visible? So what if TIME magazine is pandering?
The problem is that now that the internet is so integrated into our lives, so essential to our everyday life, that the form dialogues take on the internet is a huge part of public discourse, and the way we communicate to each other in general. My problem with clickbait headlines is that they incense you immediately. They get the emotional embers stirred, ready to burst into angry flames, without actually providing you the details on the topic. Often, the combination of an artsy picture with a clickbait headline is enough to communicate a simple-yet-misleading idea–China is scary!–or give undue importance to issues–preschool bullying is the most important issue facing America today!– and I believe this subverts the public discourse. If you automatically reach a conclusion in the time it takes the page to load, your mind will be a lot harder to change. This distracts people from the real issues in life, and there are very real issues affecting our lives every day that need to be addressed.
Face it: it is 2014, and our Facebook feeds are our portal into the public discourse. If we scroll through them looking to find what our peers are talking about, and they are distracted by meaningless factoids and fruitless emotional appeals, it is a lot harder to focus on what is important.
Given the huge role the internet plays in our communication, and that the American people now know for a fact that the government is spying on all of those communications, the clarity of the public discourse should be a cause much closer to our hearts. In a Congressional election year, the people must be able to debate the correct course of action in a lucid and concise way, and the internet will play a huge role in that. News organizations and other websites have the social responsibility to aid that discourse.
So from where does my distaste for clickbait ultimately stem? It is less about the sanctity of Facebook as a place to find interesting content (if that is why you go on Facebook, well, good for you, you are easily entertained), and more about the way we communicate in general. If your daily Facebooking leaves you incensed over the treatment of whales at Seaworld while ignorant of unrest in Ukraine, something is wrong. When journalists report on drone strikes killing innocents half a world away, or report on war crimes in Syria, they are contributing positively to the public discourse. But when the discourse is subverted for the purposes of turning news websites into moneymakers, it does a disservice to America at a vital time in history.
Photo by Spencer White