Why You Love Clickbait (But Won’t Admit It)


Why? Why do you keep clicking? This is the question I ask myself every day. Those of us who write for the Internet want to know what compels you to click on something that you know will make you mad or unhappy. I wish I didn’t have to be so explicit about it. I wish I could avoid this issue, ponder more pressing matters, and live a happier life. I can’t. I can’t get past this. It’s far too illogical, too counter-intuitive to everything I think I know about human nature.

Under the right circumstances, with the right audience, I can write something blatantly inflammatory and get a million page views. If I wrote an article with the title “Corgis Are Ugly, Fat Dogs and Totally Suck,” you’d click on it and register your disgust with me via a comment, a tweet, or an email. Why would you click on that if you know it’s just going to make you mad? What have you gained? Is it morbid curiosity? Do you just need to know what the writer’s thought process is?

The Internet’s dirty secret is that all content exists within a very rigid binary structure. Something is either the best/coolest/most awesome/most wonderful thing ever, or it’s the worst thing ever/the dumbest thing ever/shitty/crappy/lame/wack/stupid. If an essay on the Internet doesn’t have a strong opinion in the title, or some salacious element to it, will anyone read it? The Onion’s new parody site, Clickhole, makes that point every day. It’s a point no one seems to take seriously.

You, as a reader, might find this hard to swallow, but those of us who do this for a living actually want people to read what we have to say. It’s also vital to us keeping our jobs. The editorial balance of an ad-supported website is dictated by many things. One of those things is what you’re reading. You decide what we write about just as much as we do. Welcome to the free market. Supply and demand. We supply what you demand.

The above point has been made a million times, by more talented people than me, but that doesn’t seem to make a difference. Why does it not change? It’s because clicking is an action you don’t even think about. Your snap judgment on the merits of a link always trumps your ability to stop and analyze or consider the relative worthiness of a piece of content. It’s pure and untarnished by your intellect. It’s as close to an instinct as humans get outside of the need to eat, shit, piss, and procreate.

It’s the only way to explain why people get so mad about an article they chose to read, but that’s not even the most unpleasant aspect of this new world order. What’s more interesting is what we choose not to read. People love to complain about being “tricked” into reading something they hate, but no one is tricking them into not reading something that might actually be useful to them. The choice to not read something is just as quick as the converse. Action and inaction carry equal weight on the internet. Every day, an interesting, illuminating article gets ignored by someone who’d rather read a jeremiad about Spongebob.

The people who rail against what is written on the Internet are the same people who get indignant about summer blockbusters, bland TV procedurals, and the omnipresence of pornography. They are mad that a democratic, capitalist society rewards that which is popular. In your home, you can do whatever you want, but step outside into the world and you’re at the mercy of the mass consciousness.

But again, this is something everyone should know, because it’s been said over and over again by every generation who has had the benefit (and burden) of popular culture. And yet, the question, “Why did you write this?” is a familiar refrain. If I were foolish enough to ask, “Why did you read this?” either my head or theirs would explode.

In a perfect world, either writers would all stop writing clickbait, or readers would all stop reading it. This perfect world is a delightful fantasy, because the system is too complicated for our puny human brains to comprehend. The world clearly needs me to write “Hamburgers Are Overrated,” because you want to find out why they’re overrated, and then tell me I’m wrong. You can’t help yourself. If I don’t write it, someone else will come along and write it for me. I don’t want that. I want to write it. I want the glory, the retweets, the attention, and the success.

I also want to make a living. Every time you tell me how horrible I am, how I’m a monster, or a hack, or an idiot, you’re telling me that the service I provide (which people want, by the way) is unnecessary. You’re wrong about that.

featured image – Shutterstock

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