Have you ever sat down to get some work done, opened up YouTube to watch just one video before buckling down, and resurfaced 3 hours later watching a ‘How I lost 5kgs in a week’ video in which the latter actually doesn’t happen?
I know I shouldn’t get sucked in by these clickbait-y video titles – I’ve grown up practically living on YouTube, so what is it about these sensationalised titles and eye-catching thumbnails that are so goddamn clickable!?
If you haven’t been so lucky (sarcasm) to encounter the root of all evil on the internet – clickbait, let me quickly lay it down for you. Narrowly defined as when a webpage (article, video, link, or what have it) doesn’t deliver on its headline’s promise, clickbait is essentially that: a bait for clicks. So, when a link entices you to click on it merely through the words used in the title and the images that accompany it, only for you to discover it was outrageously misleading, I’m sorry to say, you have been unable to resist the (click)bait.
Whilst there are many forms of clickbait on the wonderful world wide web, let’s keep our focus on YouTube for a moment, a platform literally driven by clickbait – to the point where popular YouTubers specifically comment on the fact that “clickbait titles, catchy thumbnails, and shareable content” is what’s necessary to stay afloat in the digital world.
Allow me to introduce Tana Mongeau, an American YouTuber famous for her clickbait-y “story time” videos, and most arguably for her “I got banged with a toothbrush: storytime” video, which has over 5 million views. Tana’s numerous uploads perfectly reflect the extreme lengths content creators will go to in order to survive and stay relevant online.
But why does it work?
While most people can agree clickbait is annoying, studies show that thanks to the role emotions play in decision making, as well as our lazy brains, the power of clickbait works – even when we are aware of it! In fact, actual research has found that 78% of people are aware clickbait, with – perhaps unsurprisingly, 50% of users still succumbing to its power.
I know you might be thinking, “what’s the harm?” If we all know it’s clickbait, let’s let little Tana Mongeau tell her sensationalised stories to her 3.5 million subscribers. However, in a world practically run by social media, such attention-grabbing practices are now being adopted by ‘traditional media’ online.
And it’s no wonder with social media sites becoming the preferred source of news media, with Facebook and YouTube at the forefront of current platforms – online forms of traditional journalism simply can’t keep up. I suppose with drastic times comes drastic measures, but if you thought YouTube clickbait was annoying, clickbait journalism is a whole other level.
It’s all in the name
Something crazy I have noticed is the increasing use of ‘clickbait-y names’ by online journalism sources in a bid to compete with the more social forms of media, such as YouTube, and generate revenue.
Let me show you a quick example.
If you have any more of a life than me, you might not know who PewDiePie is; a Swedish YouTuber known for having the most subscribed YouTube channel, with over 66 million subscribers. You might even know him from his recent run ins with traditional media over the past 2 years and vocal frustration with clickbait.
Now, I have a pet peeve for the word scandal, but when PewDiePie was scrutinised for a distasteful video (I’ll let you research that one on your own), the name PewDiePie almost become synonymous with the word scandal in the eyes of online journalism.
With a huge online following, online journalism sources such as the Wall Street Journal, used PewDiePie’s name to get clicks and traffic, with the majority of articles bearing his name in the headline taken drastically out of context, sourced by uncredited authors, or just so evidently plain clickbait.
And it’s not just PewDiePie, social media celebrities by the likes of popular YouTuber’s Jake and Logan Paul, and even social media phenomenon’s like memes, are increasingly becoming the centre of online “news”, and I’m really not here for it.
Although this era of ‘fake news’ might seem like a relatively modern phenomenon (probably thanks to Donald Trump), academia indicates an unbiased and factual press has actually long been a mere myth.
In fact, ‘clickbait media’ has actually been around for a lot longer than you might think, with newspapers using bold headlines, large graphics, and sensationalised stories – often reliant on unnamed sources – to attract attention and increase readership since the mid 1890s.
For some, this form of journalism, coined as yellow journalism, has long been synonymous with propaganda and negative connotations. However, in times where we can so easily fact check anything with a simple google search, how much harm does online clickbait journalism actually do?
Well, in fact, phycologists actually warn of the dangers of clickbait, including increased releases of dopamine associated with viewing or sharing clickbait causing our brains to become addicted to such headlines, as well as clickbait’s inherent appeal to our subjective emotional brain instead of evolving our objective, intelligent human brain, leading to further numbing and dumbing our of brains.
But perhaps most obviously, clickbait attributes to the diminishing accountability and transparency of journalism sources by polluting the public sphere with electronic rubbish that I just can’t seem to get away from.
So how can we stop this? Or should we even try?
With honest, ethical journalism still necessary to deliver objective news in today’s digital world, many stress that the prominence of clickbait articles cannot be taken lightly – we should not let elite journalism die. And with that, I cannot help but ponder the future of online journalism and the elusive clickbait media.
As it seems, like with everything in the modern world, the solution is more technology. Whilst research by Oxford University predicts in the near future, journalism is among the jobs least likely to be replaced by machines, artificial intelligence (AI) may be the answer. With intelligence robots now possessing the ability to quickly churn out readable, flowing copy, AI can be tasked with publishing financial reports, sports commentaries, and a myriad of other articles freeing up trained journalists to focus on higher-minded pursuits.
Who knows, soon we could be reading about how AI saved the future of journalism (not clickbait).