Oops… I did it again.

We’ve all been victims of Clickbait. You’re scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed and you stumble upon a Buzzfeed article titled, “What Does Your Favorite Emoji Say About You?” You’ve never heard such a silly question, but you’re actually intrigued by what the answer might be. Attracted by the article’s first couple of points, you keep reading. 10 minutes go by, and you realize you’re reading about Emojis at work. You feel silly for buying into another distracting Facebook article, but 30 minutes later your reading about the “24 Enemies of Long-Legged People.” Why are Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and other viral content sites so appealing? This guilty pleasure can be explained in one word: Clickbait.

What is Clickbait?

Websites such as Buzzfeed and Upworthy use a strategy called Clickbait. Clickbait is the title of an article or webpage that is vague, yet so appealing, that the reader feels compelled to learn more. These websites invest more time coming up with an interesting headline than on the article itself. Clickbait generates headlines that pose relatable questions that will draw people in through curiosity. Your brain is programmed to be curious and click these articles to learn more. Publishers toy with human emotions of shock, anger, and fear to get readers hooked.

Clickbait Background

Clickbait didn’t start with Upworthy or Buzzfeed. The Clickbait approach has been around for hundreds of years. In the nineteenth century, newspapers were fighting for circulation numbers. They boosted their numbers through a popular comic strip – The Yellow Kid.

The Yellow Kid was a child who lived in the slums who had wacky sayings printed on his nightshirt in “slum talk,” or broken English. People eventually starting buying these papers for the sole purpose of reading Yellow Kid, not getting the news. The Yellow Kid was the newspaper’s form of Clickbait, and it worked. Like today, people got worked up about journalism being misleading, and with the Yellow Kid comic strip driving up circulation, the term “yellow journalism” was born. Since then, newspapers and online content sites have been trying to engineer creative headlines to maximize attention.

Is Clickbait Ethical?

Some argue Clickbait journalists are simply taking advantage of Internet users with short attention spans. Obviously there is nothing wrong with trying to get your readers engaged, but when the headlines are completely irrelevant and misleading, then it gets complicated. There is no code of ethics when it comes to the web. With so much going on the web, we must consume content very quickly. Nearly ¼ of all website visits are less than 4 seconds. We interact with the web frequently, but with less attention. We skim through our twitter feed during commercial breaks. This is why Clickbait is our guilty pleasure. We love shocking headlines that contain short and sweet articles that we can skim through. This is why Clickbait is so successful.

Also published on Medium.