Why haven’t we lost our taste for clickbait?

Julian Baggini
Dec 14, 2020 · 5 min read
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How to stop getting reeled in

Clickbait. If you think about, that’s a pretty nasty concept. Bait is used to entice prey, not to feed them. Clickbait is the same. It’s designed to draw readers in, not to nourish them. We all know this, but still we keep biting. Why?

It’s not as though it’s difficult to see what’s going on. When I open up Medium, I swim in a sea of clickbait. That in itself proves people are biting: all these articles are at the top of the page because they’ve drawn in the largest number of readers. If they are as effective on you as they are on most people, then in providing you with the links below I’m as good as inviting you to stop reading this and head off elsewhere.

I hope you are more discriminating. After all, these hooks for readers are depressingly formulaic. Most dangle the promise of amazing positive transformation, based on the authority of first-person experience (“How I Quit My Job Mid-Pandemic And Made $20,000 In 30 Days” or “5 things I learned when I cut my body fat in half in 6 months”). Others offer negative lessons, warning readers what not to do to (“7 Common Words That You Are Using Incorrectly” and “7 Things People Expect to Make Money From That Never Works Out”). Notice how many of these are lists, all following the standard advice for them to be an odd number, since even numbers suggest the list has been artificially rounded up. This is deeply ironic: writers are contriving odd-numbered lists because they look less contrived than even-numbered ones.

When Theodore Sturgeon came up this law that “ninety percent of everything is crap”, the percentage was only that low because there wasn’t yet an Internet.

Another trope is distilling the wisdom of the greats into edifying short reads, like “7 Quotes by Albert Einstein That Will Change How You Think” and “The Surprising Lessons that Buddhism and Cynicism Can Teach You About Being Present and Happy”. Note the use of the adjective “surprising”, which is another cheap ploy. My rule of thumb is that if an article promises to reveal something “surprising” or “unexpected”, expect to be unsurprised.

So why haven’t we learned our lessons? Why do we keep going back for more, when we must know that there’s rarely any meat the other end of a juicy bit of bait?

One possibility is that my cynicism is misplaced, and not because these links reliably link to great reads. Most clickbait leads to disappointment, but so do most headlines. When Theodore Sturgeon came up this law that “ninety percent of everything is crap”, the percentage was only that low because there wasn’t yet an Internet. Does clickbait provide a kind of reasonable first filter in this ocean of dross? You might reason that if you have something interesting to say you should be able to capture the essence of it in a headline. So it is reasonable to click on the most intriguing links, even if you know most offer false promise.

There might be something to this. If I look at which of my articles gets the most views, it’s clearly the ones that promise most, such as “Why you make so many wrong decisions” and “Who wants to be an authorpreneur?”, which speaks to a large constituency of struggling writers. Other articles such as “How to disappear” and “Why expensive coffee is no luxury” might be more original, but it seems reading for pure interest is a luxury few readers feel they can afford. They want a helpful take-home, preferably in less than six minutes.

If you hang out where the bait is hanging, of course you’re going to get caught.

That, incidently, could be why one my own articles which I judge to be most useful hasn’t attracted as many views as others. “Why putting problems in perspective doesn’t always help” just doesn’t sound, well, helpful. There is, in fact, positive advice in the piece but not in the bait.

However, the idea that you have no choice but to base your clicking choices on headlines doesn’t fully explain the attraction of clickbait. Anyone using headline information wisely simply would not click on these articles that over-promise, on subjects that have already been written about to death. They would select articles that look like they might just tell you something you don’t know, like “Why Engineers Cannot Estimate Time” or Joe Biden’s “Statement on the Status of the Hagia Sophia”.

The problem is that scouring my Medium front page these are literally the only two articles I could have offered as examples. And that’s the nub of the problem: you can’t click what you can’t see, and you can only see what sufficient others have clicked. And what gets the most clicks? Clickbait.

I would like to believe that this doesn’t reveal which articles people find most interesting but what interests most people. It’s the lowest common denominator in action: almost all of us are a little curious to know how some people manage to make a lot of money online, but what most interests us personally tends to be more idiosyncratic.

But looking at the numbers of claps the articles get, I have to admit I’m wrong. I may think the bait isn’t worth taking, but thousands of others do. The articles I mentioned above generally have around 2–6k claps. People genuinely seem to think these articles are informative.

If, like me, this makes you despair, how do we get round the problem? First and foremost, we have to wean ourselves off clickbait, so that writers stop getting rewarded for offering it. This is like saying we should eat fewer cookies and snacks, when the whole problem is that they are designed to make you want them. It takes effort and the recognition that we are not as discerning and resistant to the temptations of ordinary mortals as we would like to think.

The best strategy is simply to avoid exposure in the first place. Go to newspaper and magazine sites with well-selected content, and subscribe to Medium publications you like rather than browse the platform’s aggregated feed, or those of others. If you hang out where the bait is hanging, of course you’re going to get caught.

Julian Baggini is a writer and philosopher. His latest book is The Godless Gospel: Was Jesus a Great Moral Teacher? (Affiliate link)

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