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Alright, I understand how lame that title joke is, but can you blame me? This style of title has been a cliche for at least a decade now, and yet every time I start going about my daily internet habits, there it is again! So, this got me wondering; where did clickbait come from, and how is it still being used?
Well, the ideas and ideologies behind it are considerably more complex than I anticipated, and three coffees later, I think I have some answers. So, unlike most clickbait, let’s live up to that title.
Whilst the term clickbait didn’t exist until the 1990s, given that the idea of “clicking” something probably wouldn’t have made a whole lot of sense previously, the concepts behind it have a much longer history. Around the year 1895, the term “yellow journalism” starting to make its way into the mainstream vernacular. This generally-pejorative phrase was used to describe journalists that utilised sensationalism and exaggeration to sell stories that otherwise contained little-to-no valuable information.
Given that, at the time, print journalism was the only/primary source of news for many individuals, criticism came hard and swift for those that were accused of sensationalism and deception. However, while that may be the case, newspapers that were being accused of yellow journalism were often seeing high readership comparative to their contemporaries. Publications such as New York World, who were repeatedly criticised for focusing more on fear-mongering than “legitimate” journalism, were the highest-selling newspapers in their respective areas.
A name, taken from the term pharmaceutical companies used to use when referring to compressed tablets, “tabloid” was, at one point, used to describe any compressed variation on something. However, over time, this word would become synonymous with a certain type of journalism (referred to, unsurprisingly, as tabloid journalism).
This form of journalism tends to focus less on providing reputably-sourced information and is generally an outlet for celebrity gossip, crime stories, testimonials and subjective political views.
As you would expect, this has led to a wide array of slander and misinformation lawsuits from affected individuals. This list includes Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, Britney Spears, and many more. Yet, to this day, tabloids and gossip magazines are still in heavy circulation.
So, why am I telling you all of this?
Well, all of this backstory tells us two things. Firstly, people have been using sensationalism and misleading headlines for over a century. Secondly, despite being ridiculed as terrible journalism, this method worked. Of course, this type of thing has been happening in various forms since far earlier than 1895, but this is when people really started to pay attention to a phenomenon that would come to define the blogging age.
In George Loewenstein’s paper, “An Information-Gap Theory of Feelings About Uncertainty” (found here), Loewenstein discusses one possible answer to this question. Simply put, the information gap occurs when there is a gap or missing link between what we currently know and what we want to know. This perceived deprivation and curiosity can create an emotional response that drives us to fill that gap.
Bringing this back around to clickbait, this explains why information that we know to be unnecessary or dubiously sourced can still be so appealing. That promise of an answer that we simply will not or cannot believe drives us to fill that informational divide, often against our better judgement.
There are also several theories as to why the listicle works so well as a mode of providing this information. From Umberto Eco claiming that we are drawn to lists due to our own fear of mortality, to the human brain’s incessant need to categorise information, people like their knowledge to be easily digested and understood. I won’t go too deeply into this, as quite frankly, The New Yorker did a much more thorough look into listicles than I could hope to accomplish here.
So, the big question still remains: If clickbait is so transparent and overused, how do journalists still rationalise it?
While the internet may not have the same monetisation system as newspapers and magazines, given that the information viewed is usually free for the reader, it’s more similar than you may initially think. Like print publications, online media makes a large portion of its revenue from advertising. This can come in the form of sponsored posts, banner ads, pop-ups, or a variety of other mediums, but the outcome is the same. The more people who visit a page, the more ad revenue the website gains.
Because of this, journalists and editors are incentivised to create titles and write about topics that have the broadest mainstream appeal. This has raised concerns over journalistic integrity, such as those aimed at the UK newspaper publisher Trinity Mirror, who planned to introduce “click targets” for writers. After the backlash, Trinity Mirror decided to abandon the idea. However, the issue still stands.
This, once again, is part of a broader economic problem. Given that one of the largest difficulties faced by digital journalism in recent years has been how to effectively monetise their output, these less-than-desirable sensationalist tactics can seem like a necessity for larger publications to stay afloat. Therefore, until publications can find a sustainable way to make money from their service, this situation is likely to get worse, rather than better.
With that said, there is always hope. Content creators across the full media spectrum have experienced difficulty with making a financially-sustainable transition into the digital landscape, and in recent years, it feels like headway is being made.
The internet was once seen as the death of financial support in the world of music. However, with the success of platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music, the tides appear to be changing. Similarly, video content creators are now being assisted with services such as YouTube Red, Netflix and more. Additionally, for independent or smaller-tier creators, services like GoFundMe and Patreon have brought the arts and creativity even further into the realm of financial viability.
Clickbait is a symptom, and if it’s going to go away, there needs to be a sustainable cure. Journalism is one of the most important forms of internet media that we have, and if it’s going to survive as a money-making endeavour, a solution must be found. I suppose my final words on this would be that you shouldn’t blame journalists for doing what they need to do when making a living. Online media is still in a transitional period, and it’s going to be exciting to see what it transitions into.
I’m sure we can’t believe what happens next.