Facebook can’t kill clickbait because listicles and annoying headlines are all its fault

Can’t stop the clickbait.
Can’t stop the clickbait.
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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Last week, Facebook announced a new crackdown on clickbait—and you won’t believe what happened next.

The social media giant announced that it has tweaked its news feed algorithm to punish headlines that “intentionally leave out crucial information, or mislead people, forcing people to click to find out the answer.” I suppose this is a good thing. I get tricked by clickbait and enter its inevitable shame spiral as often as the next person. Anything that prevents me from worrying about whether I have any of the 12 signs of a magnesium deficiency is gravy in my book.

But there are two issues with Facebook’s approach. First, getting rid of clickbait headlines won’t banish cheap, aggregated content from our feeds. Second, Facebook itself has created the conditions necessary for clickbait to thrive. Through its design, policies, and drive to monopolize our attention, the ubiquitous social media platform has weakened the bonds between readers and publishers and placed articles in direct competition with entertainment. In a way, these problems are manifestations of the same underlying issue. Facebook views writing on the web as a simple, closed system: groups of inputs (headlines and display ads) and their necessary outputs (clicks and impressions). The reality is more complicated.

Clickbait isn’t just about annoying headlines

What do we define as clickbait? I’m not so much of a snob that I would write off entire forms of online storytelling. A gif-heavy listicle, for example, might offer a valuable analysis of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy, just as a stodgy, 10,000-word opus on the topic might seem vacuous.

A better way to define clickbait is to think about why it was created. A good rule of thumb: If the piece aims neither to inform nor convince nor entertain; if it seems to serve no other purpose than for you to see the associated display ad(s)—then it’s probably clickbait. All manner of pieces fall under this umbrella: The hot take, the analysis-free John Oliver aggregation, the Wikipedia-sourced explainer. Of course, venerable publications also want you to see their ads. But their headlines, while enticingly written, are supposed to afford the readers a bigger payoff in return for their attention. Under this definition, to know whether a piece is clickbait, you have to actually read the piece and then decide, using your subjective human faculties, if you thought it was good.

But Facebook, with all the arrogance you’d expect from a massive tech startup, finds the locus of clickbait in a headline. This move is typical of the company’s reductionist approach to the world: Break an article up into its component atoms, take the least complex and the most easily studied of its parts, and muck around with that one. A good article can lie beneath a clickbait-y title, and a cheap article can be lurking behind a sophisticated headline.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Facebook would approach a hydra-headed problem like clickbait in such a reductionist manner. After all, this is how engineers think. But it’s also how content farmers think. That is to say, it’s the very same logic that brought us clickbait in the first place.

A click, a click! My kingdom for a click!

Facebook is powered by the attention of over a billion people. All of them want to look at pictures of their friends and family, cat videos, and, of course, the news. It’s by harnessing this attention that Facebook sells its advertisements and makes its many billions of dollars. So in order to survive, Facebook must curate our lives by interposing itself between users and the media. It’s working: Nearly half of Americans discover news on the platform.

By mediating this relationship, Facebook weakens the bonds between reader and publisher—both by dint of mediation (I saw that on Facebook instead of I saw that on the New Republic) and also by cutting the anchor lines that keep articles moored to their contexts. Facebook’s design gives all the articles that we see in our feeds the same relative importance—whether it’s a hard-nosed piece about the election or a sponsored listicle about Scientology. Articles in our feeds all look exactly the same, and they all put the publisher and author of the piece in grey, tiny text at the very bottom of the link—literally minimizing two once-essential signifiers. The most prominent pieces of an article in the feed are its headline and its featured image, two pieces of packaging that are almost never chosen by the author of the piece.

As Facebook accumulates ever more attention on the web, publications know that they need the platform to reach readers. This loop is self-reinforcing in more than one way. In the first, seemingly innocuous loop, publishers push their content onto the platform. In exchange, Facebook sends them views, which through the broken, alchemical process of display advertising, become money for the publisher. To get even more clicks, publishers hire social media editors and pour resources into their Facebook presence, which results in even more content—and more things for users to pay attention to on the platform. Sounds like a win-win!

Meanwhile, the second loop is underway. Facebook erodes the relationship between publisher and reader. Readers stop coming to the publisher’s site directly, and publishers stop focusing on cultivating their native audiences. The publisher is forced to spend even more resources on its fickle Facebook audience, competing side-by-side with baby pictures and Kim Kardashian beauty secrets, and so it resorts to cheaper and cheaper writing and framing. It stops worrying about building a loyal audience because Facebook isn’t conducive to that kind of slow and steady growth.

In this way, Facebook creates the conditions in which it’s only natural for clickbait to proliferate. In the past, we have trusted our favorite publishers not to farm for clicks. Their reward for this commitment to editorial integrity was our attention. But Facebook has interrupted that direct relationship. The more dominant it becomes, the more it will have to struggle against the perverse incentives creates.

This is how everyone loses

Facebook might succeed in making our headlines less annoying. But meanwhile, the takes will only get hotter, and mindless writing will grow ever more commonplace. As long as Facebook works to untether readers from publishers, our online lives will float uneasily atop a sea of clickbait.

There’s another danger here too. We won’t just be drowning in a sea of cheap writing. As readers lose relationships with publishers, we lose our ability to easily discover more of the writing we value.

I have, depending on my resources, subscribed to dead-tree magazines. When Harper’s or the New Yorker or the Atlantic arrives, I read them cover to cover. Often, I find myself reading something I wouldn’t have normally sought out myself.

But on the web, when do we give an unusual or slightly surprising piece a chance? The answer is that, unless we trust the publication, we don’t. And so, as our feeds become polarized, we risk missing out on articles that show us new ways of thinking about the world—which we are much more likely to find when we are pushed to read something new.