Clickbait schemes

Andras Kornai wrote me on Tuesday to comment on a prominent pattern he’d seen in online clickbaiting, exemplified by:

You Won’t Believe What This Cop Did When The Cameras WEREN’T Rolling. WOW!

Man Attempts To Hug a Wild Lion. What Happens Next Stunned Me

He’s collected hundreds of similar examples and wondered whether others had noticed the pattern (many have in fact been annoyed by it) and whether it had gotten a name (not so far as I know). In this particular schema, the “hook” is an expression of astonishment or surprise, which can be expressed in a number of ways, referring to the reader (“you won’t believe”, “you’ll be amazed”) or to the presumed writer (“… stunned me”, “I couldn’t believe”), in a variety of syntactic constructions. As a temporary expedient, I’ll refer to this as the SURPRISE! clickbait scheme.

The scheme is “semi-formulaic”, in a way that’s reminiscent of the precursors to snowclones (see “The natural history of snowclones”, here): a culturally significant idea is given a number of formulations; one version achieves special status (in a formula); and then this formula serves as a template for new expressions. The SURPRISE! scheme hasn’t yet crystallized as a formula, but it’s nevertheless recognizable by its form(s) and functions.

Kornai is hoping

to build an autoclassifier and award “This is stupid” ratings to websites based on this, so that the segment of the population that is irritated by this kind of crap could actively filter it out.

A laudable but non-trivial task.

As in the world of snowclones, their precursors, and their relatives (in particular, playful variations on formulas), there are many species of clickbait schemes. These have several sources, but BuzzFeed is a major contributor. From the NYT Magazine on July 6th, the piece “794 Ways in Which BuzzFeed Reminds Us of Impending Death” by Heather Havrilesky, which begins:

Sometimes I forget that I’m going to die someday, and then BuzzFeed reminds me. In its frenzied onslaught of yellow “LOL”s and “fail”s and “10 Dogs Who Went as a Different Dog for Halloween” lies an existential evasion so strained that it can’t help inadvertently evoking the specter of death. The site’s effortfully whimsical tone and its compulsion to quantify and classify everything represent the apotheosis of American trivia-focused escapism, served up with an overabundant garnish of “trashy” and “cute” and “yaaass.”

The title of Havrilesky’s piece and “10 Dogs Who Went as a Different Dog for Halloween” both exemplify another clickbait scheme, which I’ll call Numerical for short.  Later:

This eternal, unnervingly upbeat present tense — those exploding bits of pop trivia and instantly expiring news items and celebrity-gossip nuggets and enticing cultural quizzes — certainly wasn’t invented by BuzzFeed. This approach arose as part of a long tradition of manic enthusiasm that can be traced, at least in part, to the dawn of radio — the first popular medium that combined advertising jingles and patriotic slogans and Judeo-Christian optimism into a distinctly American soundtrack of mandatory cheer.

Havrilesky goes on to connect John Updike’s Rabbit novels, the “American soundtrack of mandatory cheer”, and the specter of mortality. But here I’m going to stick to the clickbait schemes.

Buzzfeed is given to using Numerical to attract attention not only to pop-trivial stories but also to perfectly straightforward news and feature stories. So we get not only “The 14 Hardest “Would You Rather” Questions Any Thirtysomething Could Ever Be Asked” (here) and “The 14 Worst People You Meet In Your Thirties” (here), but also the piece “10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About “The Giver” ” (here), with the description:

BuzzFeed spoke with author Lois Lowry about her famous book turned movie. Here’s a few things we learned about The Giver.

(This is a straightforward interview, but framed with a BuzzFeed Numerical clickbait title (with possibly a hint of SURPRISE!). Incidentally, I know Lois Lowry and imagine she had no idea the interview would be framed this way.)

Hybrid clickbait schemes are not uncommon. Here’s a combination of Numerical and Cute Cats (who can resist cute cats?), with  tributes to the late Nobelist Nadine Gordimer bizarrely tacked on:

7 Cats Who Are Getting Their Summer On, Dedicated To The Memory Of Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014) (link)

(Hard to know whether to laugh or cry. Disregard the cute cats and read Burger’s Daughter and July’s People.)

Still another scheme, very popular on BuzzFeed: the Quiz, either in combination with Numerical — “How Many Of These Authors’ First Novels Have You Read?” (link) — or in the variant Which X Are You?:

Which Disney Princess Are You? (link)

Which “Friends” Character Are You? (link)

Which of the Seven Dwarfs are you? (link)

I am not making these up. But their vapidity is notable enough to have inspired a parody. From Havrilesky:

BuzzFeed so typifies our current mode of social engagement that it inspired The Onion to spin off a parody site called ClickHole. [AMZ: What a wonderful name!] Where The Onion once lampooned the “area man” argot of local newspapers, ClickHole spoofs the relentless exuberance of BuzzFeed’s nonsensical hierarchies and shrieking enticements. But ClickHole, in spite of its appropriately abyss-conjuring name, can only touch the hem of BuzzFeed’s bizarre signature house style. (ClickHole: “16 Pictures of Beyoncé Where She’s Not Sinking in Quicksand.”) So far, it never fully captures the self-parodying brilliance of the real thing. (BuzzFeed: “22 Celebrities That Look Nothing Alike.”)

Clickhole ranges over a variety of chickbait schemes, including SURPRISE!, as in this killer-Twinkie video, “You’ll Never Look At A Twinkie The Same Way Again”.

Clickhole returned to the pages of the NYT again yesterday, in “The Latest News That Isn’t: John Oliver and Clickhole Take Fake News in Opposite Directions” by Jason Zinoman:

… in a disruptive Internet era marked by constant change, our fake news organizations [note that there’s a whole world of fake news organizations; you can’t trust what you read] have often clung to the same old forms, satirizing familiar targets. In a hopeful sign, that’s changing with “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” a weekly HBO show led by this ex-“Daily Show” correspondent, which had its premiere at the end of April, and Clickhole, an online offshoot of The Onion that went live last month.

These exciting new players come from good homes, and while the influence of “The Daily Show” and The Onion is quite evident, so is an anxious sense that they must innovate and distinguish themselves. They are, albeit in opposite directions.

Clickhole, the first outlet to take a full satirical swing at the viral-or-bust online clickbait of the social media era, mimics the bite-size stories of BuzzFeed and Upworthy, while Mr. Oliver’s extensive deskbound polemics demonstrate a focus and sustained thought. Clickhole parodies the short-attention-span news media; “Last Week Tonight” shows how to do it differently.

Ah, which fake news organization are you?

4 Responses to “Clickbait schemes”

  1. Chris Zable Says:

    I would love it if someone wrote a “which fake news organization are you?” quiz.

  2. Robert Guido Says:

    I’ve been seeing this template a lot among headlines sampled by Google News:
    “Everything you need to know about <topical >”

  3. Ben Zimmer Says:

    The “7 Cats…” one is also from Clickhole, so it’s safe to laugh instead of cry.

  4. Stony Says:

    I think the ones that bother me most are the ones that pop up a picture and say “You’ll never believe this”. When you click to go to the story, it’s a one paragraph story broken into 12 pages accessed through the “next” button. Erm erm, erm erm.

    I know they’re just maximizing their ad revenue, but this is just ridiculous. These types of pages need to die and be forgotten.

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