Several articles published Monday morning drew conclusions from the fact that a handful of big-name journalists are jumping ship with some frequency from traditional publishers to web-native media outlets. They paint a picture of a bright future for online journalism, with its tech-enabled ability to tell the news not just faster--but also better.
You might just assume we're at the dawn of what might just be a golden age of online media. But there's something that needs reconciling here. Something online news needs to come to terms with. And it's powerful. It's lucrative. It's proliferating. It's known as the clickbait headline.
You've seen it before; it's the kind of headline that is either frightening or uplifting to the point of absurdity. A sample headline on the homepage of ViralNova Monday: Here Are 25 Times People Shocked Everyone When The Worst Was Expected. A Must See. They're the sorts of headlines that might give you FOMO if you don't click.
Jonah Peretti, the founder and CEO of Buzzfeed, has been talking--and I mean delivering formal presentations--about the potential for emotional pull of a single headline being nearly irresistible to a mouse-click for years now. But in recent weeks, with the advent of more and more sites whose singular goal is creating viral online hits that drive surges of traffic, click-bait seems to have reached a breaking point. Heck, even The New Yorker ran a piece pondering its proliferation. On Twitter, individuals are waging boycotts against headlines in the hyperbolic, heartstring-tugging style made popular by sites such as Upworthy or ViralNova.
Click-bait headlines boycott.-; Pitchaya (@pitchaya) January 23, 2014
CLICKBAIT HEADLINE Controversial statement Dubious facts supporting statement Ass-covering disclaimer Comment-bait question-; Chris F. Holm (@chrisfholm) January 27, 2014
Others are simply making fun, creating information-dense, bombastic, and, well, sort of irresistible headlines for subjects of emails or titles of classic works of literature. (Herman Melville's "They Told Him White Whales Were Impossible To Hunt. That's When He Literally Went Crazy," anyone?) There's even a fake online Upworthy-headline generator.
Marketers, publishers, and anyone on social-media should take notice: The backlash is officially here: Upworthy is now down-worthy.
And one enterprising hacker has created an antidote to the rampant click-bait. Yes, it's appropriately called Downworthy.
The Chrome brower plugin works by replacing often-used hyperbolic words or phrases from clickbait headlines with more realistic--and more cynical--takes. For instance, "literally" becomes "figuratively. "Incredible" is transformed into "painfully ordinary." "Will blow your mind" becomes "might perhaps mildly entertain you for a moment."
It's the brainchild of coder Alison Gianotto, who's also known as Snipe. She blogs frequently, and has created other projects that mix utility with social commentary, including a profanity filter and CrankyHaiku, an online dashboard of ill-spirited poetry ostensibly aimed at helping individuals channel anger into something of an art form, rather than a social-media rant. Or at least it might draw a smile.
Gianotto's day job entails managing technology for a New York City based creative agency called Noise--and that requires her to spend a lot of time on Facebook. There, she said, the clickbaity headlines just came "one after another after another," to the point where borrowing common phrases from the viral content "became a running joke because it was so frequent."
"When you see this kind of bombastic thing so frequently, it becomes meaningless, and it dilutes the potential for meaning," Gianotto says. "When everything is so overblown it doesn't mean anything."
She says after joking about countering Upworthy with "Downworthy" on her very active Twitter account, a friend urged her to actually create it. A couple hours coding, and the browser plugin was uploaded in beta, with a library of about 80 words or phrases (including variations of those words or phrases, which is can account for) it targets for replacement. More than 5,000 people downloaded the plugin within a couple of days.
Downworthy has produced a few gems so far, including translating Viralnova's "Nothing Could Prepare Me For What's Revealed When This Glacier Lake Melts. OMG" into "Does Anyone Fucking Care About What's Revealed When This Glacier Lake Melts. No One Cares. At All."
Gianotto says what she's building--and the fact it's becoming popular before she's even perfected it (Downworthy is still in beta)--is a sign that an online audience's patience for clickbait is indeed limited. I suggest to her that traffic makes dollars and dollars make sense for these media upstarts. Let's not forget that the ViralNova strategy is extrordinarily effective in terms of drawing traffic. At eight months old, it's the seventh-most-popular site on the Web. And with that popularity comes ad-revenue. It wouldn't have that without the clickbait. I asked her whether it's possible, all that considered, that we will actually see this trend fall away soon.
"I feel like we have to see a turning point. It's like an arms race. One country arms itself and the other arms itself a little better," she says, referring to the proliferation of the bombastic headline to new sites--each taking its emotional pull a step further. "As every article headline becomes this bombastic thing, we will grow blind to them."
Here's hoping for détente.