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Episodes: Clicked bait


Emily VanDerWerff

Jun 30 2016

5 min read



(I would absolutely read that one about the 1875 mansion, fwiw.)

It is, for some, the gravest insult that can be leveled against a piece of online writing: clickbait. The hackles go up. The body shivers. Surely, it's not clickbait.

And yet "clickbait" is increasingly becoming a meaningless term. I mean, yes, it has a somewhat official meaning, which is: "an article that does not deliver on what the headline promises," and a more colloquial meaning, which is: "an article that wants me to read it too desperately," and an increasingly irritating meaning, which is: "an article I disagree with." But for the most part when somebody calls something "clickbait," I tune them out.

But the reason the term survives is because we can feel on a visceral level what it's supposed to mean, which is, "anything that does not live up to my high standards." And we've all seen sites that seem to just coast on tossing out utter dross in bulk and hoping the chum will attract enough internet sharks. (This metaphor is going nowhere.) Such is the traffic game.

But if you think about it, the term "clickbait" is completely ridiculous. On some level, it means, "an article that wants you to read it." and, uh, that's true of every article on the internet, no matter how esoteric or limited its audience. As an example, I wrote a thing about a book that was published in the 1940s, then fell out of publication, and I had literally no expectations anybody would read it, but you'd better believe I hoped some of you would. So I guess that article was technically clickbait.

Drill down a little further, and what the real complaint seems to be about is twofold. The first is choice of topics, which I'm not sure anything can be done about. The kinds of people who complain about clickbait also tend to have radically different ideas of what sort of content is "acceptable." One person's Vine account of auctioneers backed by rap beats (which is amazing, btw, if you haven't checked it out) is another person's tap dancing dog. (I would also enjoy watching a tap dancing dog.)

Where the real disconnect seems to come is in headlines, which drive people crazy in ways I can't quite understand. Even as we all can admit that headlines inevitably lack nuance (and especially in a social media age where we have to work under space constraints worse than the ones Twitter allows), there still comes a moment when, say, readers get mad about a piece largely because of the headline.

A friend once said to me that his job was to write the piece that acknowledged all of the nuance and subtlety inherent in any argument, then allow himself to write a headline that sold an honest version of the story, yes, but also the most "commercial" version of that story. That might mean making the argument sound slightly less nuanced, or playing up some aspect of it that's not at the core of the piece, or something else. Sort of verging on that "can't deliver on the headline" aspect but never quite crossing over.

Anyway, it's that "commercial" part that seems to drive some readers nuts. I think there's a belief among some that headlines would be better if they were simply bald statements of the story type. (Review: Independence Day: Resurgence.) And there are publications that still do that sort of thing. But even those will increasingly craft specific headlines for Facebook and Twitter, where clickable headlines are necessary.

But my larger point remains: There is a weird resentment I've found from some readers of online media over the years that we expect and hope to make money doing this. I think it's because the internet was, for so long, just a kind of kooky place where people hung out around mutual interests. Even if that hasn't been true for years and years, there's an idea that money has corrupted this sphere. And, honestly, I've felt twinges of that, too.

But we do need to make money, if only to continue shocking my various relatives as to the fact that one can make a living writing for the internet. I think there are responsible and irresponsible ways to make that money, and I think that we can have those discussions. But I also feel like, increasingly, when I hear the word "clickbait," I just tune it out. Like pornography, it seems everybody knows it when they see it.


Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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