Lately, my news feed has been overrun with sponsored advertisements promising to “BLOW YOUR MIND” — these posts usually discuss topics such as what a celebrity used to wear, or offer a compilation of cats in various poses. Regardless of the subject matter, I have yet to be anything more than mildly amused.
There is nothing inherently wrong with articles pandering to what readers want to see, because it is how these websites make money. But even when a media outlet reduces its content standards to focus on non-news, generally trivial subject matter, they still have a responsibility to provide the content in question in a way that doesn’t simply exploit the viewer. In addition, Facebook and other websites that spread news media content have a responsibility to balance more shallow content with real news, because the saturation of clickbait media is forcing more and more news outlets to change their business models.
Instead, these “clickbait” websites are changing the very structure of their content to maximize advertising revenue at the expense of the viewer. Showing one picture per page with a “click to navigate” button to see more content, they extend “10 facts about these sports legends that will change your life” into a ten-page article with barely ten sentences and ten pictures of actual content, often with advertisements thrown into the mix — and these are in addition to the banner advertisements that already accompany the side of the article. Often, there are so many advertisements that it is difficult to distinguish between them and the minimal content.
Unfortunately, these websites use this strategy because it works. Clickbaiting has become a science: luring viewers in with an ambiguous title promising great content, then forcing them to click through page after page to find it. This makes sense, as Facebook has an algorithm for providing content to viewers that can be easily exploited. But it is as much the viewers’ fault as it is that of the content creators that such poor content is thriving.
Users of these websites, then, need to become more aware of when they are being manipulated versus when they are being provided quality content. Content creators, obviously, provide content that they predict will be read — by refusing to click on manipulative content, viewers can change what outlets will produce. This is easier said than done, as the whole idea of clickbait is based around the idea that it is hard to resist. But by becoming more conscientious consumers of media, viewers can help decrease the saturation of manipulative content that has become so pervasive in social media.
Again, this isn’t to say that all content of this nature is bad. Sometimes you want to consume mindless or shallow content, and there is nothing wrong with that. There is a difference, however, between providing this content and using it to cash out on advertising revenue or number of page views. To improve the content that saturates our social media and the Internet, consumers must prove that they don’t want to be manipulated in this way.
Clickbait journalism and media doesn’t just exploit the viewer, either. As it becomes more and more mainstream, reputable news outlets are having to compete for page views by diminishing their content. Last week, for example, Time magazine published an article titled “This Photo of Kim Kardashian Shows Why Women Can’t Have It All,” criticizing Kardashian for “trying to be every type of woman at the same time” based on one paparazzi photo. Time, a generally professional news organization, should not be posting this kind of content in the first place. What makes it worse, however, is that it seems to have been designed specifically to garner page views, with a buzzword celebrity and a title that hints at interesting content. It’s unfortunate that even a publication like Time has to resort to these techniques to stay relevant.
There are plenty of reasons for this rise in clickbait journalism, with the blame falling on both publishers and readers alike — according to Tony Hailie, CEO of website traffic-monitoring company Chartbeat, there is no correlation between media consumers reading and sharing articles. When people generally just skim articles, it makes sense that the most easily skimmable and most shocking-at-a-glance articles will thrive. But to keep content publishers’ standards high — and to prevent readers from being manipulated by these publishers — it is important to recognize these trends in content, and respond appropriately. Both readers and the social media websites that act as the vehicle for sharing content should pressure these producers to provide the content they advertise, not content for advertising and page views.
Burke Gibson is a senior majoring in economics and is the editorial director of the Daily Trojan.