Every Major Website Clickbaits, But Not as Much as You’d Assume

What Percent of Stories on These 14 Sites Are Actually 'Clickbait'? 

Last week the New York Times published a piece on internet slang that was shared on Twitter with an appropriately demonstrative, abbreviated tease: “This.” You might not fault an exasperated fellow user of internet slang for simply replying “No.” The tweet was a high profile example of so-called “clickbait,” a prime example of social media jargon that’s become so ubiquitously employed it’s almost lost all meaning.

A recent piece on Deadspin titled “Shut Up About ‘Clickbait’” illustrated how confused we’ve become about what the term actually means. For as long as there has been media, Tim Marchman wrote, publications have used eye-grabbing headlines to pull readers in. A similar post on io9 made the case in “A History of Clickbait: The First 100 Years.”

Both pointed to purported examples of clickbait from the pre-internet era, such as a 1922 story from the Lawrence Journal-World using a sensational headline about a man who had one of his testicles stolen. That old headline, they said, is no different than the type of headline you’d see today and dismiss out of hand as clickbait.

Not exactly. The real problem with the term clickbait, Marchman went on, is that it’s become so broadly overused that it no longer means anything anymore. “Used as an epithet, the word ‘clickbait’ presents a tautology as a criticism. You published something, and want people to read it, too.”

He’s right that no one seems to know what it means anymore, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

In a piece for the Guardian last year, “In Defense of Clickbait,” Steve Hind also missed the mark. Traditional publications should take notes from the likes of BuzzFeed, he wrote, because their reliance on clickbait actually works for driving traffic.

There’s obviously nothing shameful or unethical about trying to get people to read the stories you’ve produced, but all of these arguments misrepresent the insidiousness of true clickbait. Clickbait isn’t a spit-shined sales pitch meant to lightly elevate the quality of your genuinely decent goods and services, it’s often a blatant lie designed to disguise the goods’ irreparable shoddiness. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with wrapping a gift in a nice package, but if it’s a turd inside of a jewelery box, the recipient is going to feel supremely disappointed when they open it. A story could be wasteful nonsense, but if the headline does what it says on the can, that’s not clickbait. Let me rephrase: All clickbait is stupid and a waste of your time, but not everything that is stupid and a waste of your time is clickbait.

The meaning is right there in the term itself: bait. It’s a lure twinkling in the internet waters meant to resemble the informational nourishment we want. Once we’ve bitten down, it’s too late, the trap has been set. Then we’re tossed back into water, unfed, and disoriented.

Marchman and his colleagues in the Gawker universe took quite a bit of heat in the comments on the piece, with many readers saying this sort of thing is standard operating procedure for them, but it’s certainly not unique to their group of sites. Clickbait, the conventional wisdom tells us, is pervasive, even the norm now, with the ascendance of sites like Upworthy and BuzzFeed.

Clickbait, for the purposes of my inquiry means it must be one of the following:

  • A deliberately misleading headline, i.e. the prevalence of outright lies posing as news on “satire” sites:Bill Murray Stops Bank Robbery In Tokyo, Accidentally.”
  • Unearned hyperbole:The 41 Most Awkward Things That Have Ever Happened.”
  • Hate-clicking, which can be either an affirmation or denial of the audience’s presumed leanings: Just Look At This Couple And Then Tell Me That Marriage Equality Should Be Banned.” This encompasses the #SlatePitch, something that seems so obviously counter-intuitive that you have to click to find how what this jackass is talking about.
  • Willful withholding of information that could have easily been included in the headline: a tactic most common on social media sharing: “14-year-old girl stabbed her little sister 40 times, police say. The reason why will shock you.” This also includes headlines in the form of a question, for which the answer is inevitably no, as well as omitting the subject of the piece. “This One Guy…” “And This Surprising City…”
  • The ellipses (or implied ellipses):Officer Tells Texas Man Openly Carrying Rifle He’s ‘Free to Go’ – It’s Hard to Believe What Happened Just Two Minutes Later
  • But just how common is actual clickbait, and who’s engaging in it the most? I took a look at 100 random headlines on a variety of popular news sites — ones with bad reputations for clickbait, and a few of which I have contributed to myself — and tried to determine who is guiltiest of the practice. The results may surprise you.

    We’ve created a helpful infographic to demonstrate what I found, based on the above criteria:

    Obviously this isn’t an exact science, so I’ve provided examples for each of the sites I looked at below to help illustrate the findings:

    Gawker: 9/100. I counted a lot fewer instances of potential clickbaiting on a recent random sampling, including “FedEx Driver Is Lucky This Delivery Didn’t Go Even Worse,” and “The Ten Worst Public Transit Experiences You’ll Ever Hear.” Certainly there were plenty of silly stories, but that has nothing to do with clickbait. A piece about a cat in a Bane mask was, as promised, a piece about a cat in a Bane mask.

    BuzzFeed: 13/100. While one could certainly argue that everything on BuzzFeed counts as clickbait in the sense that each post is more pointless than the last, a story being dumb doesn’t have anything to do with clickbaiting if the headline earnestly projects its frivolity. Most headlines here qualified under the pointlessly superlative proviso, such as “17 Most Vicious Puppy Attacks Ever,” none of which were particularly vicious. Since there’s no way of actually determining that anything is the most anything ever, hyperbolic headlines like these are always untrue.

    And as infuriating as their relentless stream of quizzes may be, the fact is, “Which Late Night TV Talk Show Host Are You?” isn’t trying to trick you. The stupidity involved in clicking on that link is all on you. Engendering a sense of curiosity, or putting a number in a headline may seem like they’re always clickbait, but they’re merely relatedly disappointing, albeit successful, editorial choices. “19 Times ‘How I Met Your Mother’ Restored Your Faith In Love,” on other hand, is a blatant lie. It did no such thing, and we all know it.

    Slate: 9/100. Definitively determining what counts as clickbait or not is often a matter of opinion. One recent example on Slate illustrates this problem. “Amazing Time-Lapse Video Shows Every Storm that Pummeled the East Coast This Winter” is, in fact, a time-lapse video of the year in storms, but is it “amazing”? I don’t think so. It’s…interesting. Count it. Another way of misreading clickbait is by retroactively applying the term in regards to your impression of the article’s persuasiveness. You may not come away from reading “How Evolutionary Biology Explains Vladimir Putin” having been convinced by the author’s argument, but it honestly attempted to do what it stated, so therefore does not count. As for “Is the Question Mark Disappearing?” No.

    Upworthy: 40/100. If this were a count of smarmy headlines that you’d want to punch in the face that number would inch closer to 100%. The poster children for the most pervasive style of clickbait of the day, they mostly live up to their reputation. “I Wouldn’t Eat That If I Were You… It’s Not Poison Or Anything, It’s Just…” confounds with its dastardly ellipses. Other examples, like the “Here’s What One Guy Did After XYZ…” type are still in regular circulation as well, as are the often-mocked “This Thing Will Blow Your Mind/Surprise You” trope.

    ViralNova: 93/100. No surprise that a garbage site uses almost all garbage headlines. “Some Kid Heard Barking On Their Way Home From School. They NEVER Expected To Find This” is a classic example of their ellipses-based clickbaiting. Likewise with “You Might’ve Seen This Photo Before… But Nothing Can Prepare You For The Truth Behind It. Wow.” Wow, indeed.

    Time: 14/100. Venerable old Time has slouched into a format of regularly pointless stories, lists, sensational headlines, and general nonsense of late. Oddly, a scan of 100 recent headlines pulled up only a few instances of clickbait, including of the anger-baiting variety with “Dear Anti-Vaxxers: You Want Pure Nature? OK, Die Young.”

    See Which Auto Company Has Had the Most Recalls,” and “This Chart Explains Why You’re Not on Snapchat,” withhold information that could have easily been included in the headline.

    Vice: 5/100. As their reputation suggests, they’re not above a few dirty tricks. But most of their headlines, while the very definition of sensationalized, dealing as many of them do with sex and drugs (“Talking to a Swedish Crutch-Fetish Model,” for example) do exactly what they promise. “This Man Has No Butt Crack” loses points, however, because he has a butt crack, it’s just not a traditional one. “Let’s Get Rid of Climate Scientists” tries to make its case, so its not particularly offensive, but the headline is obviously designed for a hate-inspired click, so I’m going to count it.

    The Huffington Post: 18/100 Back before BuzzFeed and Upworthy came along, The Huffington Post was the target of all media critics’ disdain for their click pandering. It’s still quite common today, but, as is often said, their sensationalized nothingness – Miley Cyrus Is Topless On A Horse – is mixed in with straight headlines. There’s still plenty of sleight of hand going on, however, as we see in “Nun’s Shocking Statement To Students Sparks Outrage,” “If This Doesn’t Inspire Wanderlust, We Don’t Know What Will,” and “These Guys Were Way Off About Obamacare.”

    Daily Mail: 0/100. Hold on, the math here can’t be correct right? The Daily Mail is often considered the bottom of the barrel of the internet. The place where all useless viral stories originate, right? Yes, and each story here is more tabloid-worthy than the next: “Drunken Mormon woman, 20, froze to death after she and a friend lost keys to their Jeep while hiking in Utah woods in frigid weather” and “Miami woman arrested for killing animals while performing sex acts for horrific fetish videos” and “What happened to selling chocolates?: Bikini-clad woman gets tasered in front of group of men FOR CHARITY” may be puerile, sexualized, sensationalized idiot-bait, but their incredibly long headlines don’t really mislead. In fact, they do the exact opposite.

    Business Insider: 20/100. The chief baiting sin of Business Insider seems to be teasing with a bold pronunciation. And it’s not just for reasons of brevity. “Here’s Why Hillary Clinton Is ‘Deeply Worried’ About The UN’s Damning Climate Report” is a long headline, and yet it still doesn’t tell us anything. There’s certainly plenty of listicle pandering but, by and large, they cover their purported topic, like “The 7 Things Successful People Never Say. The Fort Hood Shooting May Have Been Over Paperwork” counts as it confuses and inspires an emotionally-charged click on a tragic story.

    Mediaite: 10/100. To be fair, you could easily make the argument that 100% of what we post here is clickbait only in that sense that the mere mention of a controversial liberal or conservative figure in a headline automatically short-circuits the rationality center of a partisan reader’s brain. But unless there’s a blatant bait involved, or a misleading headline, I haven’t counted it here. “Louie Gohmert Reveals Whether It’s ‘Personal’ Between Him and Eric Holder,” on the other hand, is an instance of the soft clickbait using a tease. We could have easily said whether or not he thinks its personal in the headline. On the other hand, is this really a “Must-See”?

    The Blaze: 48/100. The Glenn Beck-founded site has a penchant for lengthy ViralNova-style baiting headlines. “Masked Gunman Enters Monastery, Then Drags Elderly Jesuit Priest to the Garden. What Happened There Has the U.S. and U.N. Condemning It,” and “English Teacher Responds to Student’s Profane, Ignorant Letter in Most Amazing Way Possible,” for example. “It’s Extremely Disturbing That These Guys Are Smiling After Being Arrested for Something So Horrific” sounds pretty captivating. If only there were a way to include that info somewhere in big font?

    The Daily Caller: 24/100. This is just a bizarrely tone deaf instance of clickbait that wasn’t even necessary: “Majority of Americans would have sex with handsome stranger for $1.” Everyone was already sharing and clicking on that Paul Rudd video, so there was no need to hide, and lie about, what it actually is. It’s a good example of how instinctual the desire to engage the curiosity gap has become that people do it superfluously. “This is why 72% of Americans want nothing to do with Google Glass” probably could’ve squeeze one more word, “privacy,” into the space leftover.

    Salon: 9/100. Another case of perception being different than reality. 100 random headlines on Salon turned up only nine instances of authentic clickbait. You’d think that would have been a lot higher. Granted, their site crashes my browser every time I try to go there so I haven’t been reading as much as usual lately. The most common type on display is hyper-ventilating declarations of disbelief, as in “8 shocking facts the media doesn’t have the courage to tell you” and “8 countries you won’t believe have it backwards on birth control,” and good old-fashioned over-statement in “The developed world’s least helpful husbands.”

    — —
    >> Luke O’Neil is a journalist and blogger in Boston. Follow him on Twitter (@lukeoneil47).

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