Future Tense

What Jon Stewart Gets Wrong About Clickbait and the Internet

Jon Stewart should take a closer look at BuzzFeed and Vice.

Jon Stewart should take a closer look at BuzzFeed and Vice.

Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Jon Stewart has had it with clickbait. In an interview with New York magazine this week, he put it this way:

When I look at the Internet, I feel the same as when I’m walking through Coney Island. It’s like carnival barkers, and they all sit out there and go, “Come on in here and see a three-legged man!” So you walk in and it’s a guy with a crutch.

That’s a wonderful simile for the types of manipulative headlines that have spread across the Web and social media like a fungus:

As my former Slate colleague Farhad Manjoo argued in the New York Times this week, these cynical ploys are partly a product of an online-media business model that revolves around page-views and banner ads. They’re the social-media equivalent of the sensational “screamer” headlines that dominate the front pages of print tabloids. And just about everyone agrees that they’re terrible, even those of us who occasionally dabble in the form ourselves.

The great thing about Stewart’s “carnival barker” analogy is that it accurately pinpoints the defining feature of a clickbait headline. It isn’t so much the tone, or the volume, or the use of the “curiosity gap” to pique our interest. After all, the point of any headline is to draw readers into a story. Rather, what makes clickbait clickbait is the letdown you feel when the story doesn’t deliver on the headline’s promise.

To put it another way: The word “bait” implies a trap. If you’re tossing juicy worms into the fishing hole without a nasty hook behind them, that isn’t bait. It’s lunch.

Still, Stewart did get one thing wrong about the clickbait scourge in that New York magazine interview: the identities of its perpetrators. The question that prompted his “carnival barker” analogy was whether Stewart reads BuzzFeed or Vice News. His answer implied that he sees them as emblematic of the Internet’s clickbait problem. In fact, they’re among the sites working hardest to solve it.

BuzzFeed and Vice are in the vanguard of media companies that are looking beyond the banner ad, and beyond the page-view, to a different business model—one based on “native advertising” that is designed to be as attractive to readers as the editorial content whose form it mimics.

As Manjoo notes in the Times, this is the type of advertising you’ll find on popular mobile apps like Facebook and Instagram, like the pretty Levi’s ad dropped in among your friend’s photos. It’s more aesthetically pleasing than a banner ad, because its intent is to entice rather than distract.

And because native ads generally don’t reside on the same page as journalistic content, they reduce the incentive for headline writers to trick readers into cheap clicks. As BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith noted in a blog post on Thursday, “BuzzFeed has never sold a banner, and I couldn’t even tell you how many monthly page views we get.”

Some on Twitter were quick to ridicule Smith for his post, which was headlined, “Why BuzzFeed Doesn’t Do Clickbait.” But he’s mostly right. From the start, BuzzFeed’s goal was to find and produce content that would go viral on social media. As Smith rightly points out, clickbait is rarely conducive to virality:

The best way to ensure your readers won’t choose to share a story or a post is to trick them. Anyone who has spent the last 20 years online knows the specific disgust that comes with a headline that doesn’t deliver on its promise. It’s the kind of taste you get in your mouth from a glistening but spoiled peach. The publisher got the page view, and ComScore doesn’t record your flash of anger. But you’re hardly going to subject your friends to this experience. (Maybe your enemies.)

BuzzFeed probably isn’t quite as innocent of hyperbolic headlines as Smith would like to think. As an example of the site’s “extremely direct” headline style, he cites a post called “31 Genius Hacks For Your Elementary School Art Class.” It’s true that the story delivers 31 hacks, but a bunch of them are just different kinds of containers you can use to store leftover paint. Mildly clever, perhaps, but they aren’t going to win you a MacArthur Prize.

That said, a scroll through the BuzzFeed homepage should be enough to convince you that Smith has a point. You may not find all the content edifying, but it’s hard to deny that the headlines accurately represent it. Contrast this shameless “curiosity gap” headline from Newser …

Newser clickbait

Screenshot / Newser

… with BuzzFeed’s approach:

BuzzFeed clickbait
Not clickbait.   

Screenshot / BuzzFeed

This is not to say that BuzzFeed has always been a paragon of journalism ethics—it hasn’t—or that native advertising is a cure-all for what ails online media. Native ads come with pitfalls of their own, like the way they blur the line between journalism and paid promotion. And while viral candy may not be clickbait, it isn’t exactly vegetables either. (Vice, for its part, has a penchant for serving substantive international news slathered in desensitizing hot sauce.)

Still, both BuzzFeed and Vice are demonstrating that there are ways to subsidize original reporting—including serious investigative work—that don’t involve festooning it with auto-play video ads or “one weird trick” scams. And if either of those sites ever runs a headline like “Come on in here and see a three-legged man,” chances are that’s just what you’re going to see.