The Click, Bait, And… Switch? A Brief History of Clickbait and Exploration of What Comes Next
A Brief History of Clickbait and Exploration of What Comes Next
Human attention is the ultimate commodity. It’s what billboards, media, SEO, and brands fight over breathlessly, and their tug-of-war only becomes entangled by our shrinking capacity to hold a thought. It only makes sense, then, that from the content snake pit only the tiniest morsel should emerge victorious: the headline. As the attention economy narrows, content bends and performs a gymnastics of brevity to try and best fit our tiny pea brains — kidding, but, you know what I mean…we do judge an article by its headline.
Headlines are book covers, first impressions, and the fuchsia petal in a bee’s periphery. Naturally, readers and editors alike obsess over these single introductory phrases. Even Drake wrote a song about them. People have been trying to figure out succinct one-phrase storytelling for a long time — from “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn” all the way to “10 Lifehacks You Won’t Believe.”
So, how did we arrive at the contemporary headline? What has shaped and reshaped these powerful little phrases? And to what end?
In the mid-2000s, Gawker first officiated the shotgun marriage between SEO and shock-value to produce its attention-thirsty lovechild: clickbait. Between 2012 and 2016, we collectively saw this headline strategy rise and plateau, adopted by the likes of Buzzfeed and Upworthy. Within the content farm, clickbait was the product of a well-oiled machine — one editors and writers consistently relied on for views. Now-classic head-turners like listicles and life-hacks were employed again and again hoping to strike the carnival-like hammer game in our brains, pinging upwards to activate curiosity and heighten click-through. As you might know, click-through has been overwhelmingly prioritized over content, as most digital outlets increasingly rely on ad-based business models rather than subscriptions. Clickbait became the catch-all phrase to define the contemporary headline.
By 2014, though, clickbait started receiving blowback from readers, who were tired of being spoon-fed these cloying signature cocktails. BuzzFeed’s then-EIC Ben Smith defended the outlet against claims of clickbait-indulgence, at the same time defining the controversial term as “tempting, vacuous, ‘curiosity gap’ headlines” originating from a history of “don’t-touch-that-dial antics of television and radio. Because you won’t believe what happens next — after the break.” To paraphrase Ben Smith, clickbait was used to taunt reader curiosity to the edge of a cliff before cartoonishly rescuing it back up.
From 2014–2016, some research found that clickbait made up over a quarter of headlines. This was around the same time that everything came crashing down for notorious clickbait-heavy sites like Buzzfeed, Gawker, and Upworthy. Upworthy, which was once dubbed the “fastest-growing media site of all time,” held at one point, 80M monthly visitors. However, when Facebook began penalizing “gotcha!” headlines with its new algorithm, Upworthy suffered tremendously and the website’s viewership drastically shot down to 20M unique monthly viewers in November 2014.
If you remember correctly, this is around the same time Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith penned the aforementioned piece denying that the publication ever relied on clickbait for views. A few months later, Upworthy’s co-founder apologized for the gross overuse of clickbait, admitting the outlet had “unleashed a monster.” Next year, Gawker fell from grace as well, for more political reasons than clickbait. Many cheered.
So, with the major figureheads for clickbait websites either fighting against user claims or filing for bankruptcy, clickbait died down…kind of.
While frowned upon, this format still lives on in formats employed by websites of various genres — from business to tech to lifestyle. Sure, it’s less in-your-face than before, but it still relies on devices like listicles and cliffhangers. However, the formerly upfront reliance on shock-value, extreme generalizations, and leading questions has decisively waned.
No More Clickbait Please
Today, traditional clickbait reads as dated. It’s embarrassing, eager, and pushy. We’ve collectively seen this strategy past its pubescence, and its telemarketer-y patterns have become second nature to readers. As a result, communicators are left without a crutch to stand on, forced to find more dimensional ways of grabbing attention.
So, when the clickbait safety net is pulled out from under us, where do we land?
Where clickbait got it right was in its succinctness, immediacy, and colloquial language. Looking back, these are elements we can extract and use to shape a new wave of headlines.
To me, what best captures a roadmap for headlines are newsletter titles. Take CB Insights, whose authors seem to have taken a page out of the clickbait catalog, but this time, provide actual follow-through. Every afternoon, their push notification enters my inbox led by a lowercase, intriguing, often silly phrase. These similarly build on anticipatory momentum as clickbait does, but use subtler phrasing and provide content that ultimately delivers:
illegal ice cream
no more startup drama pls
Similarly, Vox’s Sentences newsletter pivots from three to six words, playing on its readers’ desire to fill the alluring information gap — all without lengthy questions forcing extended suspense. Like most newsletter copy, it’s the quippy quickness that leaves us hanging. Recent Vox newsletters look like this:
A terrestrial invasion
Planes with no pilots
Fire in the water
Their ambiguity is almost poetic and absurdist, moving away from the exclamatory and pushy.
I’ll leave you with a similar sentiment as Vox, hopefully inspiring a move away from the spontaneous combustion of clickbait and towards a more subdued, lingering form.
what makes you click?