The future of Clickbait: You won’t believe what happens next…


George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 contained a futuristic reality filled with terms and concepts that are relevant in the modern world. Yet, he failed to predict the prevalence of persuasive online media, more specifically ‘clickbait’. Defined as internet content of a sensational or provocative nature whose purpose is to attract internet traffic to a particular web page, it is a familiar concept to almost every individual with access to the internet.


Take Facebook for instance, anybody with an active account will find hundreds of almost procedurally generated links to articles and videos all designed to encourage you to divert your attention to their website. It’s biggest success story is Buzzfeed, one of the UK’s most popular websites. This a firm that describes itself as a ‘social news and entertainment company’ and built its entire business around clickbait media and diversion of internet traffic. It had an annual revenue of $167m in 2015 and is valued at around $1.5bn after recently receiving a whole host of investment. But how have sites like Buzzfeed utilised a simple technique to earn itself billions?


The success of this technique stems from the early days of the internet. In 1993, the first clickable banner advertisement was sold to a Silicon Valley law firm and the multi-billion dollar industry was born. From there began the exponential rise in advertising on the internet. It allowed individuals to turn site popularity and traffic into financial gain. It gave firms the chance to spread awareness of their brand and sell products across a platform whose user base was spiralling upwards. The dotcom bubble then turned the concept into madness with web pages being covered from top to bottom in banner ads and pop-ups. At one stage individuals could even install a programme that showed ads on every page in return for a monetary reward for their screen sacrifice.


Fast forward to today and the value of banner ads is far lower than it was during the dotcom bubble. Google AdWords, the most popular pay-per-click advertising platform in the world, pays website owners through AdSense. The amount it pays the website owner to show ads on their site is dependent on the type of ad, the relevance of the site to the ad displayed and the choice between pay-per-click and pay-per-impression. Irrespective of these variables, site owners have the potential to earn vast sums of money without even close to the number of issues that other industries have with large volumes of customers.


However, unlike other industries there is little incentive to produce serious content of any value as the sole aim financially is to earn clicks. This causes websites to focus more on the marketing of the content they’re producing rather than the content itself. So, is there any scope for enhancing the quality of the content published on the internet instead of maintaining the current stream of reaction articles and ‘top 10s’ which offer very little intellectually?


Undoubtedly, this is an industry that will be very difficult to prevent due to the addictive and reactive nature of its marketing techniques. Yet, there are inevitably solutions to ending this farcical style of media. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter could take action to reduce adverts that lure users to click under the promise of a sensationalist headline only for them to find a site covered in advertising. Unfortunately, the addiction of consumers to clickbait media causes them to continue to return to Facebook and Twitter again and again and that itself causes more views and advertising revenue for these social media giants. This means that whilst reduction of clickbait on social media is beneficial, it is entirely unrealistic.


To combat clickbait media, the solution lies within changing attitudes towards it. Tyler Hakes, founder of the campaign ‘Bait Shaming’ is looking to do just that. His claim is that we need to break the seemingly never-ending cycle of clickbait to page views to advertising revenue by educating individuals that clickbait acts as false market demand. This would ideally cause people to view these headlines as negative. He has gone even further by creating a browser extension that allows users to post the site to a ‘bait shaming’ leader board. After switching the original link to the link to the leaderboard through Twitter and Facebook replies, the intention is to name and shame clickbait abusers and in return change attitudes towards sensationalist media to a highly negative one.


Although ‘Bait Shaming’ is a highly ambitious project, it is one that if serious momentum is gained could ultimately cause the demise of clickbait media. We may begin to see fewer titles including the phrases ‘You won’t believe what happened next…’ or ‘the results are terrifying…’, and in return move towards a broadsheet social media over the current tabloid set up. This may cause time spent on the internet to be more about widening and deepening all knowledge than merely short term shocks and entertainment. Intellectually, this can only be a good thing.

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