"Social media is radically changing the consumption of news," University of Melbourne media writing lecturer Doug Hendrie tells me.
"Facebook and Twitter have become the default ways in which we experience news and have led to radical loss for the [news media] homepages of old... Now it's the stuff that goes viral, good enough to share with your friends: the flagship that may then lead you to extra content. It's a loss for the gatekeepers in the sense that the editors sort of selecting what to prioritise, now we through our social media we are determining which ones go large. "
Hendrie's observations explain how the competition among media outlets to be the first to "break news" has only becomes one thousand times more ferocious with the shift from traditional media to social media in news consumption. Social media's capacity to reach enormous audiences through the share function means producers often try to write the most tantalising headlines in the hopes their content will be shared and shared and shared until they've spread so far and wide as to be considered "viral". Desperate in the competition for eyeballs, we’ve seen traditional news outlets start to adopt this trend, called "clickbait."
"A big part of the shift online towards clickbait I think is towards that sort of provocative, sort of radically interactive stuff so if you were trying to set out to go viral—if you're aware that social media, Facebook and Twitter, and even Reddit now matter—then you sort of set out to game the system wherever possible," explains Hendrie. "Sometimes that's through the classic sort of clickbait techniques of provoking responses, which may well mean being a little bit dishonest about how true the story actually is or the angle that you put on it... Because there's that demand for clicks and audience engagement and share ability, it does lead down the path of trying to game the system."
These traditional outlets have come under fire for their emulation of digitally-native sites like Buzzfeed, the pioneers of clickbait. It's that dishonesty found in clickbait that makes it so annoying, and there's something about a traditional news media outlet's use of it that gets under our skin furthermore. The persuasive clickbait turn of phrase makes one suspicious of the quality of the content: if the news is so big, why would one have to try so hard to lure readers in? There's just something tacky about it, as xkcd author Randall Munroe well illustrated in a cartoon featuring re-imaginings of 20th century headlines if they were written to get more clicks:
Guardian reporter Steve Hind, sympathetic to media outlets in their struggle for attention, is unconvinced all clickbaiting is bad. When advertisers measure attention by amount of clicks, it’s simply no longer enough, he says, for media outlets to simply announce the news.
Clickbait at its best, he admits, is consistently demonstrated by Buzzfeed, whose articles sporting unashamedly click-baiting headlines pique interest, and then within the article the crux of the issue is creatively explained in a playful way before leaving the reader with a link to a more serious, in-depth report on the same issue.
Hind believes it’s a win-win situation when a reader, risking his precious time with a click, finds his interest instantly gratified with clever content and is further impressed when the clickbait article offers up a link to more sophisticated content in conclusion.
But what does this mean for traditional news outlets? Must they lower their brows and surrender to clickbait or face being left in the digi-dust, as Hind suggests?
I asked Doug Hendrie whether he thinks clickbait is the way of the future for online news:
As people become increasingly aware of the inherent disappointment in clickbait, we've seen popular twitter accounts emerge dedicated to poking fun at media outlet’s clickbait headlines:
Unlike their legacy newmedia rivals, outlets like Buzzfeed are able to throw up alluring articles like “31 Creative Life Hacks Every Girl Should Know,” and invest the revenue in cultivating a highly-skilled team of journalists dedicated to more sophisticated reportage. It’s in the lack of expectation outlets like Buzzfeed exploit their chief advantage over traditional media outlets. “Serious news consumers expect clickbait from Buzzfeed, and are delighted when they venture into serious content. If and when traditional outlets stray off the serious path, they risk being pilloried,” Guardian's Steve Hind admitted.
It’s a bit of a catch-22, then: bait for clicks you must, but if you’re a traditional newsmedia outlet prepare to be ridiculed.
In frustration people have called traditional outlets out like an embarrassed son pleading his dorky dad to “Stop trying to be ‘hip to the jive’!” We don't want our father figures, our mentors and leaders to be “hip to the jive”: we want them to be mature. We trust them because they’re intelligent and experienced. They don’t need to say things like, “You can learn to ride a bike with this one cool tip!” or “You’ll never guess how to get a good job!”—doing so only weakens the trust that was already there to begin with.
@HuffPoSpoilers articulated this plea in less than 140-characters: