It’s not easy to say universally true things about the internet. As our online experience becomes increasingly customised, increasingly tailored to our personal preferences and vices, it’s getting harder and harder to be confident that your version of the internet will necessarily resemble mine.
For example, is your online news feed as full of clickbait headlines as mine is? Or is mine so full of clickbait because the algorithm has worked out, correctly, that I can’t stop clicking on the stuff?
If I had no source of news besides my so-called news feed, I’d be able to tell you almost nothing important about what’s been going on in the world. On the other hand, I’ve become a big authority on the inane and the irrelevant. I can tell you who threw shade at Johnny Depp last week. I can tell you who called out Kanye.
And I can tell you a few secrets about the dark art of clickbaiting. Lately, I’ve been collecting sample headlines, in an effort to identify some of the genre’s defining features. Let’s start with a striking specimen from a few weeks ago: “Masturbating festival pervert Muhammad Khan loses high-paid job.”
There’s a lot to like about that headline. I especially admire the way it implies that the masturbating festival pervert is a character you should know about already. Apparently, he’s the pervert that everyone’s been talking about – everyone except you.
As clickbait, however, the pervert headline has one crucial drawback. It’s too honest, too forthcoming. It withholds so little information that you hardly need to click through to the advertised story because you already know what it’s going to be about. It’s going to be about a man who masturbated at some festivals then lost his job.
Your better clickbait headlines are more cryptic: “Furious note found on Coles buns.” How’s that for clickbait perfection? Six words, as compact as a haiku, that leave you ravenous for answers. Why would somebody leave a furious note on some buns? What sort of buns are we talking about? And what did the note say?
How’s that for clickbait perfection? Six words, as compact as a haiku, that leave you ravenous for answers.
Learning the answers to these questions isn’t going to change your life, clearly. But not knowing them is going to bug you for several minutes at least. And enlightenment is only a click away…
So, you click and you discover that the buns were hot cross buns. Apparently, a supermarket in Perth started selling these less than a month after Christmas. And because the real world has become a giant YouTube comments section, an aggrieved shopper naturally wrote a note of complaint about this and stuck it to a six-pack of buns. Then someone else took a photo of the note and posted it on Facebook. The sequel was predictable. “Like clockwork,” the story said, “fury was unleashed online …”
If the fury was as automatic as clockwork, why was it news? Because it wasn’t real news. It was synthetic news or junk news. Unlike fake news, junk news isn’t made up. It concerns things that really happened. They just don’t matter. Stories like the bun story exist only because idiots like me keep clicking on them.
Old-fashioned newspaper headlines summarised stories you’d already paid for. Clickbait headlines spruik stories you haven’t yet bought. That’s the sole job of the clickbait headline: to make you click, thereby generating an ad impression. Nothing else matters: not semantic coherence, not substance or pertinence, not common decency.
And not grammar, either. “Tennis star Stefanos Tsitsipas learned of death minutes before French Open final,” said one of 2021’s most gnomic headlines. Did Tsitsipas play the French final minutes after dying? Now that would have been news. To unscramble the confusion, you had to click whereupon you discovered that it was Tsitsipas’ grandmother, rather than Tsitsipas himself, who died just before the final.
At least the Tsitsipas headline wasn’t deliberately deceptive. At its worst, clickbait is exactly that. Last year, when rumours of Roger Federer’s impending retirement were circulating, the following headline popped up on my feed: “‘Sad day’: tennis fans left shattered over Roger Federer news.”
Had the Swiss maestro finally pulled the pin? It certainly sounded like it. But as it transpired, he had merely fallen out of the ATP’s top 10 ranked players.
Was that development really so shattering? Of course not. But here we notice another defining property of the clickbait headline. Reflecting the fevered priorities of the internet, clickbait is written almost exclusively in immoderate, overheated language. In the online world, no turn of events is merely unpleasant or disappointing. Everything is shocking, or vile, or shattering, or devastating.
Or brutal. As in, “Brutal quip after ‘train wreck’ interview.” This headline graced my feed around a month ago, flanked by a photo of the comedian Peter Helliar.
Why? Because a guy named Emmett had been voted off Australian Survivor, and then he’d been interviewed on The Project. And then someone on social media called the interview a “train wreck”, providing another classic clickbait ingredient – the pseudo-authoritative quote that always turns out to have emanated from some nameless amateur pundit.
And what about the “brutal quip”? When Emmett’s Project interview was over, Helliar said, “How did he get voted out?” Was that really so brutal? Not really, but who cared. Helliar had unwittingly made his contribution to the ideal post-modern news item. All that remained was for some hack to write a “story” to go with the headline.
Apart from being morally indefensible, journalistic clickbaiting is surely unsustainable as a business model. How many times can you suck people in with such overhyped junk before they swear off clicking for good?
For me, that time has come. I’ve made a belated New Year’s resolution to stop clicking. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be a daily struggle. Just yesterday I was sorely tempted by this mouth-watering headline: “When nasty windshield notes backfire: ‘fat piece of sh*t.’”
How exactly did that particular note backfire? What form did the fat piece of shi*t’s revenge take? The old me would have been on that link like white on rice.
The new me is content not to know. I’m taking a stand against junk news. But I can’t do it alone. I need your help. Join me, and together we can stamp out this vile and brutal trade. Send these people the only message they’ll understand. Don’t click.
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