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Clickbait Is Over — for Now

Here’s why Facebook should stay out of the business of telling consumers what’s good or bad.

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

At the beginning of August, Facebook made an unusually shocking announcement: The social networking giant and reluctant media institution declared that the company would crack down on the various types of “clickbait” headlines that “intentionally leave out crucial information, or mislead people, forcing people to click to find out the answer.”

“We want publishers to post content that people care about,” Facebook vice president for product management Adam Mosseri told the New York Times, “and we think people care about headlines that are much more straightforward.”

The best definition of clickbait is a story that doesn’t deliver on its headline, per BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith, usually recognizable with “one weird trick” or a proposition that will “blow your mind.” Fighting against clickbait is generally a good thing: With trust in the media at a record low, deceit and deception are not ideal operating principles for any news organization attempting to develop a stable business model, even if it’s a model that Facebook’s unique structure and stranglehold on the digital news economy precipitated in the first place.

But where does Facebook get off shaping the flow of content we consume on a daily basis through opaque evaluations of “good” and “bad” stories (evaluations that are based solely on the headline)? Besides, modern “clickbait” is merely the contemporary manifestation of the news industry’s historical dependence on sensationalism and curiosity to draw in readers, from the blaring headlines engineered by “yellow journalism” pioneer Joseph Pulitzer (yes, that Pulitzer) to the it-bleeds-it-leads promotional spots deployed by broadcast anchors to keep viewer attention between commercial breaks.

As it turns out, Mosseri is right: It’s not that Facebook clickbait is bad; it simply doesn’t work. In a recent study published by the University of Texas–Austin’ Engaging News Project, researchers presented three types of headlines to a group of 2,057 adults: “traditional” news headlines (“‘Brexit’ Vote Reflects How Diversity Adds to E.U. Pain”), “forward-reference” headlines that inject an element of curiosity into a story (“How Far-Right Groups Are Using Orlando to Turn LGBT People Against Muslims and Immigrants”), and “question-based” headlines (“How ‘Kooky’ is Trump’s Keystone Pipeline Proposal?”). The researchers presented these headlines to subjects alongside news sources from BuzzFeed to USA Today,and across policy issues like Congress and the economy.

The clickbait economy has reached its saturation point.

The results, contrary to the classic clickbait construction, won’t surprise you one bit. The researchers found that question-based headlines lead to more negative reactions from readers, decreasing “anticipated engagement” compared to both traditional headlines and forward-reference headlines. This frustration among readers regarding question-based headlines is probably the same impulse that led technology journalist Ian Betteridge to lampoon such formulations with his self-coined “Betteridge’s Law”: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no.’”

But it wasn’t just a matter of headline construction. The researchers found reactions to certain headline formats differed depending on topics: Readers had negative reactions to question-based headlines when paired with stories about Congress, but had a positive reaction to such headlines when paired with stories about immigration. (Stories about the economy garnered positive reactions regardless of headline construction.) Similarly, source matters: Headlines from partisan news sources or digital-first outlets like BuzzFeed prompted negative reactions and expectations compared to the same headline from, say, USA Today.

What does this all mean? It suggests that, while the advent of clickbait headlines may be the natural evolution of the media’s audience thirst, their widespread and aggressive proliferation isn’t totally appropriate for every topic and audience. As in any evolutionary game, media outlets are adapting the best possible strategy on every article (for example, the acceptability of forward-reference headlines has also led to its rapid proliferation, as a 2015 Journal of Pragmaticsstudy revealed in an analysis of some 100,000 headlines from 10 different Danish news sites). But the result is an audience more aware of and, in turn, immune to clickbait. This puts media outlets at a major disadvantage: While 62 percent of Americans get their news on social media, according to the Pew Research Center (mostly through Facebook), consumers aren’t particularly loyal to one given media outlet, especially as they graze a curated stream in the uniform and ubiquitous Facebook NewsFeed.

All of this is to say that the clickbait economy has reached its saturation point. The average news consumer is smart enough to recognize a bad headline ploy when they see one in a classic coordination failure between media outlets. It’s no wonder that venture capital funding for media start-ups has hit a four-year low as Facebook’s stranglehold on news has grown — the audience isn’t buying the same old tricks. Clickbait may be a short-term fix, but it’s not a sustainable strategy.

So if this iteration of media curiosity will inevitably fade from the digital landscape, why should Facebook even bother with a crackdown? Well, maybe it shouldn’t: If the social networking company wants to be the infrastructure of online media, it can’t act like an editor and a publisher — especially given how well that’s worked out in the past.