Opinion / Editorial
There is a principle in behavioral psychology known as variable ratio reinforcement. Simply put, it’s a method of addicting a subject by using randomized results for input. It’s what ensares gambling addicts, tobacco smokers, and all your idiot friends who have infested your social media feeds with the foulest pestilence to befall the internet since the email chain letter, clickbait.
Every link you click is like pulling the arm on a slot machine. You might get a quality, informative story; you’re more likely to get a hot pile of garbage on a platter covered with a thin layer of schmaltz to hide the smell. If it’s Buzzfeed, you may get a bunch of GIFs that supposedly explain the author’s point of view, all of which contain shirtless Chris Pratt for some reason. And if it’s UpWorthy, you’ll get all the white guilt of fundamentalist Catholicism delivered with all the subtlety of a hydrogen bomb.
There used to be a time, before the Redditification of the the industry, when news aggregation sites were pretty good about keeping their headlines descriptive and their ledes concise. I was an early adopter of the internet, and a loyal reader of early newsgatherer sites like Slashdot; sites built specifically to tailor to the tech-savvy RSS user. Not anymore. Now everyone has to implore you to “Watch What Happens Next” because “This One Weird Trick” “Will Shock You”.
It’s an infection that leaked in from the advertising world. Most sites these days will have a section set a side for the same stupid “sponsored content” (AKA those stupid ads that look like blog posts). Just take a sliced-open kiwi, slap on a cryptic phrase, and voila! Advertising genius. Don Draper, they ain’t. And slowly this same philosophy has begun metastasizing into the regular news world.
I’ve previously held local news web sites up as paragons of proper headline writing, but those days are over. If your local affiliate is owned by a Raycom or Media General or Sinclair, count how many out-of-market stories get posted as filler, with no indication in the headlines that they occurred hundreds of miles from your location.
I blame Google ads for a lot of this. Impression-based ad sales have overtaken click-based for generating revenue and therefore it’s in webmasters’ best interest to stretch out the view counts of their pages as much as possible per visit, and to cram as many ads into each page as the human eye can tolerate. From a design perspective, it’s atrocious. From a quality assurance perspective, it’s tacky. And I’ve had enough.
I’m sick of clickbait. I’m sick of pictures of cats; I’m sick of site thumbnails designed to look like embedded videos. I’m sick of Weird Tricks and Watch What Happens Next and things that Will Shock Me. I’m sick of aggregators that present pure conjecture as confirmed news. I’m sick of preroll videos on YouTube starring hipster douchebags with compensator cars and condescending Asian muscleheads and English women who are ashamed of their destructive bowel movements. And I’m sick of click-through lists that load a single image on individual pages that contain more ads than content.
It’s not going to be easy to combat this problem, sadly. The most effective way to stop the madness is to merely stop posting this garbage to Facebook. But let’s be real, folks: your friends and family are morons. They’re not going to stop because they don’t know any better. So the other solution is to educate yourself on how to spot clickbait, realize it’s worthless, and not click on it. Again, your friends and family are morons, and they’ll keep clicking. So you, dear reader, need to start calling them out.
But more importantly, “new media” needs to be held accountable by its older, stodgier siblings. You don’t see the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post putting this not-even-good-enough-for-a-tabloid pablum in their newspapers, do you? There are good reporters working in online news, dammit. They’re better than this. We deserve better.
And I swear by all that is holy, if I see another Despicable Me Minion show up in my feed, I am going to start delivering electric shocks.