Welcome to the Age of ClickBait: Click Here to Find Out If It Will Kill You

Risk fish

I watched from afar last week as an institution that was a major part of my childhood and young adulthood evolved into something new. They evacuated their landmark building at 17 w. 12th Street and moved down the block to a much smaller space more befitting the form they are currently taking. The folks who still remain in the employ of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (and believe me the staff of the LE is drastically smaller than it was during my time there) choose to style this evolution as a choice they have made to embrace the changing media of the 21st century. The reality is, however, that these choices are being made for them by the shifting landscape of media in our culture. Analog newspapers are a dying beast, and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if the LE ceases the print publication entirely and shifts into digital-only publication by the end of this decade.

One of my many jobs there was to increase circulation, because the folks in advertising needed circulation to set their ad rates. All this was monitored by an organization newspapers belonged to, and we all agreed on what was legitimate circulation and what was not. It was how newspapers did business for years, and for years circulation was the most accurate measure you could have on your readership. Then USA Today came along, and they didn’t give a damn about paid circulation or conforming with the circulation standards of other papers. They did something that was ABSOLUTELY unheard of when they started. They gave their paper away. They gave it to hotel guests, travellers, students, ANYONE they could give their paper to. Pretty soon they made their paper so ubiquitous, that no one cared what their certified circulation numbers were. USA Today was everywhere and everyone knew it. They set their rates how they wanted, and the advertisers paid. This has pretty much been the analog model that the digital models are emulating now…with a few major papers putting up a “pay wall” with varying levels of success.

The evolution of media, and it’s transition from analog to digital, was put on the fast-track with the emergence of social media. Reporters used to spend their lives in competition with their colleagues to see who could land “above the fold” in each edition of the newspaper. While the analog version still exists, I’m sure that continues to be valued real estate in a journalist’s mind. A more direct measure of their reporting can now be taken, however, just by looking at how many shares, likes, clicks and comments they get on their link.

As advertisers demand content that generates clicks, somehow the quality of journalism is beginning to shift into a specific dynamic that courts clicks. They want to create clickbait. Clickbait gets you noticed. Clickbait drives users toward advertisers, and advertisers are by far the biggest generators of revenue in the online world.

What exactly is clickbait? According to the Wiki definition; Clickbait is a pejorative term describing web content that is aimed at generating online advertising revenue, especially at the expense of quality or accuracy, relying on sensationalist headlines to attract click-throughs and to encourage forwarding of the material over online social networks. Clickbait headlines typically aim to exploit the “curiosity gap”, providing just enough information to make the reader curious, but not enough to satisfy their curiosity without clicking through to the linked content.

You can even see it in the media in Columbus, in much more subtle ways than the dramatic downsizing of the LE and their move from their iconic digs. You may have noticed that our local media outlets have developed a tendancy to publish links with really disturbing headlines, but fail to tell you where it happened so you will click-through to find out if it was Columbus. Some outlets publish links and statuses that serve no apparent purpose other than to generate controversy or promote hyperbole as fact. Editorials meant to inflame ignorance, stories carefully constructed to embrace an ulterior agenda, fear mongering, headlines meant to advance a narrative but at odds with the conclusion of the reporting, salacious content meant to appeal to our most base instincts; these are just a few of the methods of clickbaiting in practice now, and I am sure some evil super genius is thinking up a new way to clickbait us even as I write this. And don’t even get me started on the mug shot posts…it seems no one in Columbus can resist seeing who got thrown in the pokey and why. Including me.

What makes clickbait even more insidious and dangerous is how we respond to it. There is such a large volume of content available to digest, all that clickbait we are swimming in, that the casual user of social media rarely explores a story or link beyond the headline and *maybe* the first paragraph or two. Then that clickbait somehow becomes fact and starts getting passed around as such.

SO…beware the clickbait, my friends. If something sounds too crazy to be real, too good to be true, or too much *exactly* like what you want to hear, QUESTION IT. Read other sources. Read beyond the headline when it is important to you, and learn to recognize the most egregious clickbaiters and don’t fall for their game. In my maybe-not-quite-humble opinion, the truth is so much more stranger than any fiction that can be created. But when you discover someone is trying to clickbait your rabble into getting roused, just take a deep breath and let your better angels prevail. What we put into our brains is just as important as what we put into our bodies.

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Peace and Love, Yall


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