Dustin took me aside last year, very tentatively since chronic sleep deprivation has made him an extraordinarily nice person, and he said “Listen up, Wilson.” (As an aside, basically picture J. Jonah Jameson growling and chomping on a cigar. Dustin sounds nothing like this, but it makes the story better). “You write like a contender, but you’re day drunk more than you’re awake and your headlines are terrible. I’ll work your liver into the dust, but I’m going to rewrite your headlines from now on when you shit the bed.”
And he was right. And the clicketies went up as soon as he started fixing them. And he even fixes them less now, because I gradually got a hang of it slightly. See, I always wrote headlines for articles like they were novels or short stories. I would spend 20 minutes coming up with clever and wry Titles (yes with a pseudo-pretentious capital ‘t’), when what was really needed was “Why this movie sucks” instead of a reference to a song lyric or bit of old literature.
It’s something that people bemoan, and that vile accusation of “clickbait” gets thrown around a lot. Everyone hates clickbait. Zombie Mother Theresa hates clickbait, and she loved everyone and everything (except Christopher Hitchens, naturally).
But you and Mother Theresa are wrong.
Yes, there is definitely BAD clickbait, which outright lies in the headline, or posts a picture of DeNiro with a headline “the top ten worst actors evar” just to mystify you into clicking it. But at the same time, good headlines are also fundamentally clickbait at their heart. You have an infinite variety of things to click on, and the headline is necessary to tell you exactly why you should click on this particular piece.
You go into a bookstore and you pick that book based on a dozen other things. The heft of it, the description on the back cover, the name of the author. And the simple fact is that you’re picking from only a few dozen other books, and because you are paying money to acquire this thing, you are willing to investigate it beyond the headline. So headlines can afford to be part of the piece of art itself, because it is only part of the decision process. That cost and limited selection creates a threshold effect: you are willing to invest resources beyond the half-second scan of the title.
On the Internet, you’ve got a million things to click, and it’s all free. There’s no threshold anymore, so you cannot rationally investigate whether you should bother reading each and every thing. You’re going to click on the thing that tells you right up front what you’re getting. That’s not dishonesty in the headline, that’s hooking the reader with a promise of “the way this headline is making you feel, this article will make you feel more of it.”
As an example, let’s look at something that is infuriating because it doesn’t engage in the least bit of clickbait. Here are the top ten trending headlines on Facebook at the moment, which may of course be a biased sample, because you have no idea what terrifying things that Facebook is recording about my Internet activity.
1. #SuperBloodMoon: Hashtag Marks Total Lunar Eclipse Event Which Coincides With Full Moon
2. The Martian: Science Fiction Movie Starring Matt Damon Holds European Premiere in London
3. Pennsylvania Turnpike: Highway Reopens After Closing Due to Fatal Crash in Chester County
4. Jarryd Hayne: Former Rugby League Player Records 37-Yard Punt Return Against Arizona Cardinals
5. Drunk in Love: Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran Perform Song Together at Global Citizen Festival
6. #Quantico: ABC Airs Series Premiere of TV Show Starring Priyanka Chopra
7. Pope Francis: Pontiff Ends 1st Trip to US in Philadelphia, Departs for Rome
8. NASA: US Space Agency to Announce ‘Major Science Finding’ About Mars During Monday News Briefing
9. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: CBS Broadcasts 2-Hour TV Series Finale After 15 Years on Air
10. Military Religious Freedom Foundation: Group Says Sign Should Be Moved From Hawaii Military Base
Notice anything about them? Every single one of them presents all of its information right up front leaving no perceptible reason to click on any of them. There is no promise of an emotional payoff to any of them. “A highway reopened”: whoopty-fucking-do.
But that’s not because that news is boring. The fact that it’s trending means that a lot of people are clicking on the deluge of articles about that thing. And they’re doing it because they’re well-titled. They’re clickbait. Facebook’s algorithm is a terrible attempt to do what Google has successfully done with Google News: automating the headlines. But we never quite appreciated that what Google was managing was that low level clickbait that teases you with the emotional response you’ll get from reading the article.
Clickbait is a tool to elicit an emotional response from a reader, to convince them to read an article to get more of that high. Like all tools it can be used for terrible things. But most writers on the Internet are doing it in good faith, they’re trying to communicate to you why you should read their article using only a quarter of the characters that you get for a tweet. It’s not about getting a few percent more clicks and then getting a Ferrari. It’s about honestly communicating how what you’ve written emotionally resonates.
How will this save your life, as I promised in the clickbait headline? Well, Pajiba now has orbital nuclear weapons mounted on several hundred stealth satellites in low Earth orbit. We hooked the system up to TK’s Disqus login. And TK really hates being told an article is clickbait.