Face it; we're all suckers for a cheap thrill. Whether humorous, dramatic or downright disturbing, it'll do the job. It just needs to be short, snappy and emotive.
And these cheap thrills take many forms, and have dominated social media for the past few years – easily digestible and disposable image memes, baby videos and catsagram shots.
They allow us to connect, albeit transiently, through the shared experience and brief discourse around the content piece. They offer a fleeting break from daily pressures, and allow us a sense of micro achievement when shared and enjoyed by others.
But where the above takes the cake is the almost never-ending expansion (and financial boom) of Upworthy. I think it's fair to add a small disclaimer at this point: I despise Upworthy
. I find it brainless and lacking charm in its approach. Does this mean it's not successful or noteworthy? No. I'm just an elitist. But I'm also fickle, so my views might change. For now, however, I'll sit comfortably perched on my high horse.
Let's take a step back and consider why Upworthy has thrived. It was started by Avaaz.org cofounder, Eli Pariser (who knows a thing or two about building a loyal fan base) and Peter Koechley, the former managing editor of satirical news site The Onion
and was soon funded by the perpetually boyish-looking Facebook founder, Chris Hughes.
Taking a decidedly liberal slant, which resonates rather well with the current zeitgeist, Upworthy soon began hosting inspirational videos with hyperbolic titles such as "She's Just A High School Girl Pursuing A Dream, But The Odds Aren't In Her Favor" and "At First You'll Be Confused By The Story In The Beginning, But Then It Hits You Like A Ton Of Bricks". That's a real headline by the way. You can't make this stuff up.
These irresistible headlines all play on human curiosity. Throw an underdog story or the promise of a surprise twist into the mix, and it becomes feel-good digital crack – easily consumed and moreish.
This isn't a contemporary trend either. Aristotle put forward that three key principles - ethos, pathos, and logos - ensured an orator's speech would be heard, processed, and shared with others. In other words, content should have an ethical appeal, an emotional appeal or a logical appeal. If content contains all three aspects… Jackpot!
But as you can imagine, this strategy is divisive; more clicks, more views, arguably poorer quality writing with a touch of self-importance.
It's definitely working from a financial and business point of view; Upworthy is, according to Fast Company
, "the fastest growing media site of all time" and the number of Facebook interactions trumps other sites like Buzzfeed
hands down. In fact, it's proved so successful that notable news enterprises including CNN
and The Washington Post
have to some extent emulated the strategy – to the derision
of their peers.
But for how long will the attention-grabbing headlines work? There is already a marked trend against blatantly obvious clickbait and a discussion around this strategy has popped up in mainstream media.
In fact, a nifty Google Chrome plugin called Downworthy
has been created Alison Gianotto (@snipeyhead
) which turns these over-the-top headlines into something a tad more honest. For example:
- "Literally" becomes "Figuratively"
- "Will Blow Your Mind" becomes "Might Perhaps Mildly Entertain You For a Moment"
- "One Weird Trick" becomes "One Piece of Completely Anecdotal Horseshit"
- "Go Viral" becomes "Be Overused So Much That You'll Silently Pray for the Sweet Release of Death to Make it Stop"
- "Can't Even Handle" becomes "Can Totally Handle Without Any Significant Issue"
- "Incredible" becomes "Painfully Ordinary"
- "You Won't Believe" becomes "In All Likelihood, You'll Believe"
Gianotto justifies her plugin as such: "These articles are, in general, not nearly as bad as their titles - but the titles have become SO overblown, they're meaningless and annoying. But people still click, so the trend continues. Consider this me doing my part to stop the insanity."
In South Africa, we saw a Twitter-based hashtag doing the rounds. The tongue-in-cheek #LinkBaitBible had Twitter users taking well-known Bible stories and reimagining them as short, punchy headlines.
Take a look at a few:
Upworthy themselves have acknowledged this criticism in a post
, and attempted to justify the strategy:
"We write at least 25 of them for each post. We test them rigorously. Sometimes, we even make up a word to catch your eye.
Why? Because for us, headlines are an important means to an even more important end: drawing massive amounts of attention to topics that really matter, like health care costs and marriage equality and global health.
And good news: It's working. Last month, 87 million people visited Upworthy for videos about racial profiling, gender bias, reproductive rights, and other issues. We're constantly amazed and inspired by our community's desire for really meaningful content.
But coming up with catchy, curiosity-inducing headlines wasn't the reason Upworthy had those 87 million visitors. It was because millions of members of the Upworthy community watched the videos we curated and found them important, compelling, and worth sharing with their friends."
However, Facebook (intentionally or not) put a dent Upworthy's supposedly bulletproof traffic. As noted in these Salon
articles, a change in Facebook's content serving algorithm late last year saw Upworthy's reach drop 25% - from 87 million to 67 million – during December. In January, traffic dropped to 48 million people. This is a massive 46% drop in just two months. Ouch.
As put by Salon: "The purpose of the Facebook change was to encourage the sharing of more "high-quality" news content — that is, to make sure you are more likely to see it when "high-quality" news content is shared, because Facebook's news feed algorithms do as much hiding as highlighting — and the result seems to have been an immediate decline in the traffic of all the sites that spent 2013 mastering the art of blowing up on Facebook."
What does this mean for the future of viral publishers? I can't wait to see, and hopefully, I'll be able to gleefully smirk in knowing.
So there's the long and short of it. Clickbait headlines, while hyperbolic by nature, do contribute to the sharing and viewing of arguably useful and meaningful content.
I'd love to know your opinion on clickbait headlines – pop a comment below to get the discussion going. In the meantime, I'll leave you with this excellent excerpt from a New Yorker article
"The irony, of course, is that the more data we mine, and the closer we come to determining a precise calculus of sharing, the less likely it will be for what we know to remain true. If emotion and arousal are key, then, in a social application of the observer effect, we may be changing what will become popular even as we're studying it. If everyone is perfectly implementing the best headline to pass on, it's not as effective anymore. What used to be emotionally arousing simply isn't any longer."
About The Author
Jason Warner joined the Cape Town Quirk office in early 2010. Jason naturally gravitated towards a life online after spending many hours on his dad’s computer playing Duke Nukem 3D and he has found himself behind some screen or another ever since. Now, he works as a Content Strategist within the agency, soaking up the web one day a time.