Why linkbaiters are doing it wrong and always have been.

appleFor the past five or six months, my Facebook news feed has seemed intent on telling me all the things I’ve been doing wrong.

First it was apples. Have you labored under the delusion that there is, in fact, a core? WRONG.

Tic-tacs. Do you open the spout on top and shake a few into your hands? WRONG.

Bananas. Peel ’em from the stem? WRONG.

Eating Chinese takeout? Opening ketchup packets? Consuming oranges? Putting a straw in a soda can? Hard-boiling eggs? You, dear world, are doing it wrong.

The first time one of these articles – the “just go ahead and eat the apple core” one – came across my feed, I was intrigued enough to click over. The second and third times I saw a similar admonition about my eating techniques, I felt mild interest and clicked to see what I was missing out on (as it turned out, I was already eating my oranges the so-called “right” way.) By the fourth and fifth times, I was tired of them.

But by the tenth time or so, my initial curiosity and later, boredom with the concept had been replaced by irritation.

And then this morning, I saw this:

Screen Shot 2014-01-05 at 11.44.05 AM


And that’s when all my low-level annoyance and irritation, er, boiled over.

I’m not sure why this one drove me to the breaking point. Maybe it’s that I think my hard-boiled eggs are actually pretty good.

Maybe it was that snotty, presumptuous Facebook headline. “You think you know how to boil eggs — but you don’t.” Oh really, NPR? How do you know? Why don’t you come to my house and prove it?

Maybe it was the fact that I felt like NPR should be above such link-baity tactics. Isn’t it their job to report real news? 

Or maybe it’s the fact that I have been bombarded by these stupid headlines for months, and what was once clever and at least very unexpected (what normal person would even consider eating the apple core?) has become predictable, banal, and devoid of originality or creativity.

Actually, I think it’s all of the above.

Look, I see why clickbait works. Sensational and aggressive headlines get people talking, as evidenced by the apple core and orange peel discussions I see – and, yes, once participated in – every time I log into Facebook. They get people clicking. At first, they seem fresh and fun, and they can become a legitimate part of an emerging Internet language, filled with beloved phrases like “I can’t even” and “feeling all the feels.”

But after a while, the endless spinoffs just start to get on everyone’s nerves. 

As it turns out, we are very receptive to the idea that a collection of kitten photos will change our lives or that we don’t know how to open containers or that this is the only James Franco video we will ever need. Once or twice.

But as an idea is repeated over and over – and endlessly copy-catted – it becomes less clever, less creative, and less worthy of a click.

The problem is that, just as the original audience grows weary of a concept, a new rush of readers is just finding it. And sharing it. And then as that group tires of the concept, another new group finds it and discusses it and shares it. In that way, articles we’ve grown thoroughly tired of continue to pop up in our Facebook feeds for months, years, which would be no big deal if said posts weren’t a mix of dishonest, obnoxious, and combative.

Think it’s a stretch to call a blog post title “combative?” I’m not so sure. Consider my reaction, this morning, to being told that I don’t know how to boil an egg (no, I just THINK I do.) I’m guessing that a year ago, that title wouldn’t have bugged me nearly as much, if at all. But the cumulative effect of being told for months, over and over, that I don’t know how to eat food just becomes too much of something that wasn’t that great to begin with.

So what’s the solution? After all, writers and publishers can’t control the flow of information on social media channels, or the cyclical nature of post-sharing. And we want our stuff shared; that’s why we’re here, and with the pressure to create viral everything these days, I see why it’s tempting to jump on whatever bandwagon seems to be working for other people.

But is an Internet full of copycats and clickbait really what we want to create? Is the short-term payoff – a flood of transient traffic, a boost in advertiser revenue – really more valuable than establishing publishing brands based on quality, consistency and service?

I’m no buzzkill (and I love Buzzfeed.) I don’t believe all Internet news needs to be “important” or serious. But I do think that many publishers are having a serious identity crisis, trying to be who they aren’t, and trying to push a model that won’t work for anyone in the long term.

I consume a lot of different kind of  media, from fluff to serious journalism. And when all those diverse streams focus on what they do best, it works beautifully together. But they have to be who they are. There’s a good reason that NPR jumping on the food-shaming bandwagon sent me over the edge: I expected something different. If Better Homes and Gardens suddenly started putting up Buzzfeed-style lists of animated gifs, I’d be equally confused. There is room for everyone to do their thing, unless everyone tries to do everyone else’s thing. Then that “thing” just becomes tired, played out, and annoying.

Who am I to tell these huge conglomerates what to do, you might ask? True, it seems to be working for them. And also true, I have no experience running a huge media empire like HuffPo or NPR. I run a smallish blog that is not now and likely never will bring in millions of dollars in revenue.

But I am one of the many, many people who make up the mass of “eyeballs” these big empires are trying to reach. I am also a voracious reader, a sharer of information, and a sharp-eyed observer, and I see the way the tides are turning.

My friends – and their friends and the friends of their friends – and I are growing wary of clicking links to posts that turn out to be dishonest attempts to “go viral.” Or engaging with links that promise one thing, and end up delivering another. Or sharing articles that annoy our friends or make us all a little dumber.

And I promise you, advertisers: when we do get roped into clicking over, we don’t even notice your presence anymore. 

Of course, advertisers are growing wise to this. Revenue models based on traffic alone are dying. So at some point all digital publishers, immense and tiny, have to ask themselves a simple question: would I rather be a flash in the pan or a lasting, loyalty-demanding resource?

I may not know how to run a huge publishing company. But I know how magazines and websites can keep me and my fellow readers engaged, not just for a month but for the rest of our lives, while also contributing something of value to the world instead of fighting over meaningless, quickly-forgotten clicks.

And it really boils (ha!) down to a few simple things.

Know who you are. Know why you’re here. Know what you can do to make the internet a better place. And then do that. 

And please, please, stop telling me I’m eating my food wrong.

  • kim

    I have friends who refuse to click on HuffPo and Buzzfeed links (what? some of the latter are pretty funny) an others, myself included, who decline clicking on sites that are notorious for posting articles in the form of dozens of slides that must be viewed individually (Babble, are you listening?), so I agree that for some of us the tide is changing. This (long) article takes a long, hard, and thoughtful look at these issues. http://www.esquire.com/blogs/news/we-broke-the-internet Of course, I appreciate you take on this, too.

  • I’m glad you wrote about this. I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit lately as my feed is naturally filled with the same ‘combative’ link-bait. ‘That fish you’re eating that is actually killing you’ and the like. I was finding myself actually worrying THAT I’M DOING IT ALL WRONG only to find I’m not. But, like you, I’m tired.

    I’m looking for the Internet, my Internet to be smarter, to make me better and to somehow avoid the baiting because it seems to be working for someone else. Witty, intelligent writing and good, intriguing content CAN win.

  • I agree with the sentiment, but as a daily boiled egg eater, I was glad to read the story!

  • I *just* had a similar-ish conversation with my mom, yesterday, about my dad and brother who always share link-bait. It drives me crazy!

    I love the fake HuffPo Twitter account that retweets all of their link-bait with the answers, so I don’t have to click.

    fwiw though, my kids have eaten apple cores since they were toddlers and I’ve never known where they got that idea from.
    Certainly not from Facebook.

  • Et tu, NPR?

  • tired of media clickbait

    Thanks for writing this. Clickbait can be mildly annoying or it can be life ruining. Life ruining, you say? Isn’t that being hyperbolic? Actually, no. I’m dead serious. I’m a woman with a journalism degree. I’m also a stranger sexual assault survivor and I had to quit my job because suddenly putting the word “rape” in headlines became the “thing to do” during the last political season. And the articles that were running were not there to bring awareness about sexual assault but instead lascivious clickbait crap like “I was gang raped” (CLICK HERE FOR PICS).

    People say if you don’t want to read it, don’t click but that isn’t an option when you work in the media. Also, it wasn’t just Buzzfeed and Gawker type sites running these (incredibly insensitive and triggering) stories, but outlets that I expect more from like Slate, Salon or even the NYT. The point is for every story that you find mildly annoying, there is a story out there that ruins people’s days and makes it hard for them to function. All so some media outlet can make “click cash” by exploiting people’s personal tragedies.

    But who cares about that when there’s money to be made, amiright? (sarcasm alert) The point is, at some time in the past 3-4 years the media has lowered the bar to the ground. They simply don’t care whether they are being manipulative, abusive or divisive so long as “the numbers” go up. When I was in j-school in the early 2000s, media outlets weren’t sure how they were going to adapt to the “online marketplace” and unfortunately now we know sleezy clickbait won out.

    I hope that someday the tide will turn and media outlets will regain some sense of decency and standards. Until then I don’t want anything to do with them. I’m happy that I no longer have to work for people who think that writing headlines that exploit sexual assault victims is “good for business” because it pisses people off and makes them more willing to “click” or “share”. It’s disgusting and the only way that it will stop is if people quit clicking on and sharing stories that are meant to outrage instead of inform.

  • Link bait is big business. Cracked, Upworthy, and the list goes on. I think the point is that you may get some very, very superficial attention from posts like this, which works for bigger news sites and “viral sites” that only need traffic for advertising money, and have the platform to get it. But to develop an actual audience that will buy and read your books, you have to go deeper than that shit.

  • Thank YOU! I can’t even deal with FaceBook lately because of this. I mean I’m totally sucked in by a lot of link bait but it does get really old to be told you are doing really mundane things wrong just to get you to click over. I still love a good list post though.

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