Story Matters

On Craft

Clickbait Culture

Are cheesy headlines and listicles ruining the content experience?

Newsroom ethnographer Angèle Christin writes in Nieman Lab:

“The obsession with clicks is said to be responsible for a degradation of online content.”

She goes on to condemn “clickbait headlines, listicles of best burger places, and videos of adorable kittens that do little to turn readers into enlightened citizens.”

A few of our staff members share their thoughts.

Justin Schroeder

There is a serious disconnect in digital publishing between the business, the readers and quality content. As the article points out, the ease with which we can collect metrics in the digital age has pushed content creators toward the wrong goal post; clicks, page views, likes and retweets have become the driving economic forces behind so many online publications. 

Sadly, readers lose their value as individuals in this economy. Subscribing to a publication says something about you as a person; you are identifying with a way of thinking—and often a way of life—and over time, loyal readership builds a bond between the publication and its readers.

Publishers should garner their readers’ trust and following by creating quality content that caters to their well-tuned audiences. But when the currency is an ephemeral click, it’s unfortunately far more effective to just be louder than the next guy. Trust, loyalty and quality are all casualties in the battle of outrageous headlines and skin-deep reporting. There are no readers. There are only clicks.

At Journey Group, we’ve been trying to reposition and empower publishers to reject the click economy and rediscover that reader–publisher relationship that is so fundamental to quality content. We’re constantly pushing our partners toward building trust with their readers, even if it comes at the cost of a few page views. The fact is that technology will change, metrics will change—even the click-economy will change—but relationships and quality will weather those storms.

Melanie Kitchens

Content has always been controlled in some part by consumption. But it wasn’t until recently that we’ve had more accurate metrics to gauge what kinds of content people are willing to engage with, and for how long. With metrics on metrics on metrics, it’s easy to give the people what they want. Right?!

The hard part is finding the right content and getting it to the right people. We’ve all fallen victim to adorable kitten posts, endless Twitter rolls and Facebook black holes, but the reason is that we’re all hungry for good content. We’re searching it out daily, weeding through masses of information to find content that is curated with intention, that has a worldview that challenges or agrees with ours, and that rewards our curiosity about the things going on around us. 

The fast-paced world we live in begs for us to lose focus. And yet people still read books and eagerly wait for the next episode of the “Serial” podcast, showing that our bar for good content is high; it just needs to get us to stop clicking and start engaging. We all have trusted channels for that, and we are always eager to find the next one. Until then, we’ll keep clicking. . . .

Jodi Macfarlan

While I certainly think it’s true that the desire to go viral or get more clicks can lead to less-quality journalism, there’s definitely a place—and a demand—for things like listicles and kittens. That’s not a degradation of content, to my mind; it’s just a different type of it. Who doesn’t enjoy a little mindless escape now and then? After all, if we only read things that turn us into enlightened citizens, we might smile a whole lot less.

The issue at hand, as I see it, is when that desire for clicks leads to shoddy journalism. An example is the November 2014 Rolling Stone article about sexual assault at the University of Virginia. I won’t go into all of the details here, but I do believe that the desire to shock the audience and garner more attention for an incredibly important issue seemed to outweigh elemental standards of journalism. Because expectations for basic reporting and extensive fact checking were not met, the story’s credibility was lost, the alleged victim’s trustworthiness was shaken, and advocacy efforts were unfortunately less potent than when the article first peppered our news feeds.

While we found ourselves enlightened, enraged citizens for a few weeks, we’ve now settled back into complacency—a reality that’s far more lamentable than any puppy meme or flashy headline.

Zack Bryant
Strategy Director

This observation rings true. Consumers of online content have been easy targets for manipulation by marketers. In an attempt to translate the business models of print media onto the web, we incentivized the least edifying kinds of content. Considering the vast majority of innovation in “online content” comes from the adult entertainment industry, I might suggest that clickbait and kittens are a step in the right direction. 

Mostly, I think we humans are still trying to adjust to the new reality of persistent media. Our desires are still catching up with the technology. We’re beginning to recognize the sorts of digitally oriented behaviors that make us healthy (or not). And the more we understand our capacity for personal and cultural formation by seeking out things worthy of our attention—rather than merely amusing—the more enlightened our clicks, and the content they lead to, will be.