A Plea for High-Quality “Clickbait”

I have recently watched a TED talk concerning the phenomenon of “clickbait.” Clickbait, for those who have been hiding in a cave for the past few years, are links crafted to lure and often trick people into clicking on them, thus the name. They are notoriously sensational, often titillating, always intriguing, rarely honest titles to articles full of useless trivia or shameless shills. If the title contain the words like “The Shocking Truth About…”, “The Top [a number between 4 and 12] Most Extreme…” or a thumbnail of a woman in a provocative pose, it is most likely clickbait.

The speaker in the talk argues how we should avoid clickbait, because it propagates low-quality content on the Internet. In general I agree, because the quality of thought on the Internet is generally so poor that it does a disservice to society to use various tricks to draw people to poorly cobbled lists of random facts or salacious details of certain groups of people or celebrity. But I see problems in this approach.

The main problem is that it is very difficult to get people to stop an activity they find fun. To be honest, even I find myself being seduced by clickbait from time to time and find it difficult to stop chasing down article after article because I was intrigued by the clickbait-y titles. More than that, I often find myself trying to employ some of the techniques of clickbait while creating the title of my articles. Therefore even though I think it’s a problem, I am also hedging my bets by bargaining with the devil.

Even though it has often been presented as an Internet phenomenon, the techniques used to create clickbait has been around for as long as newspapers and magazines. Newspapers and magazines often created headlines that sensationalize and exaggerate their stories decades before the existence of the Internet. Yet many of these old-media practices are not criticized nowadays because they are old and therefore command more respect than the Internet which is still going through its childhood.

Perhaps the answer to clickbait is not to avoid it altogether, but to create high-quality clickbait. Does the Internet really need that many galleries of fat people at Walmart or things that look like Hitler? Instead of using our talent to construct alluring titles to articles that contain nothing but drivel, we should do it to attract attention to ideas and information that can expand people’s minds. If you can lure people into a higher consciousness by appealing to their lower nature, you can turn a vice into a virtue. After all, there are enough wondrous things in the world that would captivate people’s imaginations and improve them in a fundamental way.

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