"A revolutionary new medium promised to upend learning and news–You won't believe what happened next." And, if you'll forgive the nod to those annoying headlines, it's true: it is a bit unbelievable. The Internet was supposed to be a bright new world that democratized information – and what we've instead ended up with is waves of headlines that are meant to tease, entice, get you to click and sucker you in.
The dream of a Web that democratized the distribution of information has been tarnished by "virality," that phenomenon that seeks to measure success by how many times an article or video is shared on Facebook. Not only do sites like Upworthy, Viral Nova and Buzzfeed peddle in schlock, they do it through headlines meant to appeal to our base desires of morbid curiosity – and they seem to be ruining the definition of newsworthiness in the process.
Yet for all the reasons for gloom a crop of new "clickbait spoiler" Twitter accounts, of all things, provides a glimmer of hope. It seems possible that because of the nature of digital virality can only end up eating itself.
Though "viral" is thought of as something organic that spreads because of its inherent interestingness, that idea is mostly a ruse. As outlined by John Wibley in Pacific Standard, much of the viral content we see is in fact seeded by traditional media. In a similar vein, Upworthy – the site responsible for all those "You Won't Believe What Happens Next" headlines – craft their headlines specifically to get people to share. The term "viral" is inadvertently right: these things infect the mediascape like a disease.
What underpins it all is the desire to make sharing and pageviews the standards by which the worth of things is measured. Take FB Newswire, a service from Facebook aimed at journalists to help them discover important "verified" viral content. Yet, if you scroll through their Facebook page or Twitter feed, you'll find a curious mix of stories: very serious pieces about shootings or violence across the world are followed right after by personal interest stories or even cute videos of animals. It's like someone cut up the sections of a newspaper and then threw them in air, letting them land where they may.
For both good and bad, traditional news was and still is organized by editors who determined a hierarchy of importance. The upside is that people in the know let you know what is relevant; the downside is that "relevance" is, well, a relevant term. We all know the feeling when a story important to us gets overlooked by the media.
Social news was supposed to fix that by democratizing how we arrived at what was relevant; that which gets the most clicks and shares must be what people are interested in. But beyond the corruption of that process described above, examples like FB Newswire, which are designed to encourage journalists and news outlets to share certain kinds of content, hijack that already flawed process by fostering a culture of virality that prioritizes "shareability" over newsworthiness. When that happens, you get social feeds full of Upworthy headlines or Buzzfeed quizzes.
Happily, many people reject these tricks to get people to click, and they have also stared to respond. Most interesting amongst them is the Twitter account @SavedYouAClick, which takes those baiting headlines, which often appear in the form of a question, and simply answers or "spoils" them. If a headline asks "Why you should take notes by hand, not laptop," @SavedYouAClick simply responds "because you'll remember the information better," leaving you with little reason to then click. In a similar vein, satire site The Onion have now launched a parody site Clickhole, which makes fun of viral sites with brilliant headlines like "5 Iconic Movie Scenes That Were Actually Fake" or "16 Pictures of Beyonce Where She's Not Sinking in Quicksand." Their stated mission: "We strive to make sure that all of our content panders to and misleads our readers just enough to make it go viral."
These are fun, satisfying bits of snark – "that'll teach those damn click-baiting jerks!" – but they also point out a serious truth about digital media. Divorcing the delivery of simple information from media outlets is so easy that, in a sense, the quest for virality eats its own tail. Some of this reader bait offers information so flippant and ephemeral, it can be delivered in a tweet, rather than an article, making the value of the website pushing the information questionable at best.
For many years, media people have talked about buzzwords like "disintermediation" or "atomization" – the facets of digital that can interrupt or break apart what used to be wholes. People read articles or aggregators rather than newspapers, or follow writers rather than magazines. But if you base your media on drawing people in to read a simple bit of information, you can also separate basic facts from articles, taking "atomizing" a step further: That which is simple can be conveyed with little need for the media outlet at all. It's already starting to have effects as people wise up: both Buzzfeed and Upworthy have seen their share of Facebook traffic drop in just the past year.
It's unclear as how to any of this gets fixed. Digital media is stuck in the business of needing readers to drive pageviews, which in turn drives how much they can charge for ads. But in chasing those very views, the push for viral content has undercut itself, and Upworthy-style headlines have had the perverse effect of both cheapening media and, at the same time, making it incredibly easy to disrupt.
Yet the solution isn't simple either. Some believe selling ads against cheap and easy to produce mocking or humourous content – the Clickhole model takes that idea to its extreme – squares that circle. For serious public-interest motivated media an advertising model that relies solely on numbers has to change. And maybe most importantly, digital media outlets have to figure out what they can offer than cannot simply be co-opted by a snarky Twitter account, and that instead, offers real value and depth to people who want to know what is going on in the world and what they think about it.