ClickBait: Good or Evil?

Posted by David Hoffman in blog | December 28, 2015

“17 Facts You Won’t Believe are True”
“20 Signs You’re a 90s Kid”
“Dermatologists Hate Her! Local mom exposes shocking anti-aging secret”
“Man Calls to Order a Pizza. You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!”
“This is the Most Important Photo You’ll See All Day”

Sound familiar? If you’ve used the internet sometime within the past decade, there’s a very good chance you’ve experienced some form of what society now refers to as “clickbait.”

The Oxford Dictionary (yes, the Oxford Dictionary) defines clickbait as “content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.” If you’re surprised that the dictionary has already added the word, you shouldn’t be – it’s really that common.

Let’s be clear on one thing: the internet did not invent clickbait. What it did do, however, is make what was once referred to as “Yellow Journalism” quicker to produce and easier to access.

For those unfamiliar, the term “Yellow Journalism” comes from a time when New York City Newspapers were competing so fiercely for circulation that each edition became an arms race to see who could put out the most sensational headlines or non-news content. These sensationalist pieces opened the door for false information, misinterpretations and just plain bad reporting. To make matters worse, Yellow Journalism became so out of hand that it’s believed to be one of the causes of the Spanish-American War [1]. And here’s another fun fact: Ironically, the man behind this controversial story, and one of Yellow Journalism’s biggest culprits, was Joseph Pulitzer, whose last name you might recognize from the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for outstanding journalism!

Now that the history lesson is over, let’s focus on my main point: Whether you like it or not, clickbait is a powerful tool. Clickbait illustrates the power of words and plays off of our human curiosity. But, is it good or evil? The answer, in my opinion, both.

I’m certainly not going to weigh both sides equally, because clickbait has proven itself to be quite a menace to many internet users, serving as little more than a pay-per-click ad revenue machine that creates rabbit holes where users often forget what they were trying to find out in the first place. And, although I don’t think any of today’s clickbait articles are going to have enough influence to start a war, they definitely do have the power to mislead or misinform, selling unsafe or untested products, encouraging sign ups for scams – or only letting you get to number seven on the list of the top ten childhood celebrities that committed heinous crimes.

What about clickbait being used for good, then? Believe it or not, it already has. Over the past few years, social causes and Kickstarter campaigns have benefitted tremendously from clickbait-style features on sites like Upworthy. A number of these causes have ended up raising hundreds of thousands of dollars after being shared by thousands of people, causing them to flood partner sites and social media. [2] The Matchbook Creative team even participated in one of these causes, writing Christmas letters to Safyre, a young girl from New York who lost her family in an arson attack.

Regardless of whether you love it or hate it, there’s a good chance that clickbait will continue to fill sidebars of popular websites and our newsfeeds on social media. Thankfully, however, like with most digital content, the power of change lies with the actions of those who consume it. So, if you want to see more cause-related headlines that accomplish great things, engage with credible content that promotes these behaviors. But, if you’d rather learn crazy tricks that will make doctors, scientists and lawyers hate you – expect to see a lot more of them in the future.