Over the weekend, a Twitter user named Dakota Lopez posted a list of the websites that were most frequently called out by a Twitter account called FilmClickbait:
We’ve gone through and tallied up all of @FilmClickbait’s targeted sites from the past year for a probable editorial we’re creating. Their intent seems disproportionately malicious towards @ComicBook @CBR @screenrant and @heroichollywood. pic.twitter.com/1AVVPK9z1U
— Dakota Lopez (@geekritique_dak) January 13, 2019
FilmClickbait quote tweets out headlines from film news websites and blogs, usually revealing the information that is teased. Here’s an example:
He’s happy about it. https://t.co/GVHuSjaWQE
— FilmClickbait (@FilmClickbait) January 13, 2019
I have some thoughts on all this, but here are a few caveats before I proceed:
- Coming in sixth on that list is slashfilm.com, a site I used to write for regularly and that I currently still host a weekly podcast for.
- I have not verified Lopez’s methodology or his final counts, but nothing about the list strikes me as implausible.
- I can’t comment on whether there’s anything “disproportionately malicious” happening, but it seems possible that the sites that rank highest simply traffic more frequently in what FilmClickbait deems clickbait.
Here is the problem with FilmClickbait’s entire modus operandi: There is no widely understood definition of clickbait, and if there is one, it’s not one that seems to match FilmClickbait’s.
In 2014, Ben Smith wrote a piece for Buzzfeed (a site that would know or thing or two about clickbait) explaining why the site no longer used “clickbait.” In it, he defines clickbait as headlines that fundamentally mislead the reader about what the article is about. When Buzzfeed used to do this, they’d generate short term engagement, but they’d destroy user trust. So they stopped:
If your goal — as is ours at BuzzFeed — is to deliver the reader something so new, funny, revelatory, or delightful that they feel compelled to share it, you have to do work that delivers on the headline’s promise, and more. This is a very high bar. It’s one thing to enjoy reading something, and quite another to make the active choice to share it with your friends. This is a core fact of sharing and the social web of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and other platforms.
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.)
Smith even went on to provide tips on how to write good headlines:
Great headlines, meanwhile, tell you a lot about what you’re going to read, and persuade you to click because you know you’ll find a story that will satisfy your interest. The lists that BuzzFeed has long been known for are, as list titles tend to be, extremely direct; “31 Genius Hacks For Your Elementary School Art Class” is just that. As my colleague Ryan Broderick puts it, the goal is often, in fact, to “blow away the curiosity gap.” One of his recent headlines: “A 5-Year-Old Girl Raised Enough Money To Take Her Father Who Has Terminal Cancer To Disney World.”
When you look over Filmclickbait’s targets, there are certainly pieces that fall within the standard definition of clickbait. But there are at least as many pieces that simply don’t adhere to Filmclickbait’s version of a good headline.
Take today as an example. Many websites are writing about Game of Thrones final season premiere date:
April 14. https://t.co/E2lA5hVbCd
— FilmClickbait (@FilmClickbait) January 14, 2019
Nothing in the headline that is being linked to is misleading. It simply doesn’t include the most crucial piece of information that is teased. And while some (many?) might find it annoying to click through to the actual article, it’s important to ask other questions beyond whether that info is in the tweet/headline itself: Does the article provide important context? Does it provide insights and information that you might not otherwise have known?
If no, then eventually readers will decide on their own that your website is not worth reading or sharing, and the laws of Darwin will eliminate the publication from the pool of going concerns. But if yes, then value is still being delivered to the reader. I don’t understand how that could be called clickbait, or if it can be, I don’t understand why that distinction is important because literally every publication does it.
Here’s a screenshot from today’s New York Times about U.S. tensions with Iran. It reads: “Pentagon Officials Fear Bolton’s Actions Increase Risk of Clash with Iran”
It would be ludicrous for a clickbait-like account to simply quote tweet this article and flippantly write, “He asked for military options to strike Iran!” Why? Because the article itself might contain other information that is important to know about! Simply because the headline doesn’t contain all the relevant information doesn’t make it a bad or clickbait-y headline. And sure, pop culture ephemera doesn’t have the weighty importance of national security, but the same concept applies.
I wholeheartedly believe that there are websites that act in bad faith. But by refusing to distinguish between actively misleading headlines and headlines that simply don’t (can’t?) include all the possible relevant information, FilmClickbait throws the baby out with the bathwater. It provides a skewed perspective on what “clickbait” and bad headline writing even is. That’s arguably an equal disservice to the fan community as the prevalence of actual clickbait.
A few interesting things from the web recently:
- In case you missed it, I listed my top 10 films of 2018 in YouTube and podcast form.
- Former Village Voice film critic Alan Scherstuhl shared his do’s and don’ts of film criticism. A must read for anyone who wants to write about art in any form, in my opinion.
- Nilay Patel has an interview with Vizio’s CTO Bill Baxter about how “post-purchase monetization” is essential to making TVs profitable. Regardless of your comfort with this monetization, it’s a good idea to be aware of how our viewing habits might be getting monetized.
- Tommy Tomlinson has written a moving essay for The Atlantic about what it’s like to weigh 460 pounds. See also: Tomlinson’s interview with Brian Koppelman. I’m looking forward to checking out Tomlinson’s book too.
- Here’s a great conversation between Adam Sternbergh and M. Night Shyamalan. While I’m looking forward to Shyamalan’s newest film, Glass, early buzz is not good.
- For Buzzfeed, Anne Helen Petersen explains how millennials became the burnout generation.