Does BuzzFeed engage in clickbait? That depends on your definition

3 Comments

So BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith wrote a post on Thursday about clickbait, a post that appears to have been triggered by a dismissive comment that Jon Stewart made about the site in an interview with New York magazine, in which he compared BuzzFeed to a carnival barker on Coney Island. The upshot of the post is that Smith doesn’t believe BuzzFeed engages in clickbait — or at least not the kind of clickbait that he and others are thinking of when they use the word.

Not surprisingly, Smith’s defense of his website’s motives sparked a spirited debate among media types on Twitter about a) whether BuzzFeed does clickbait and b) what the definition of clickbait is. I’ve collected some of that debate in a Twitter custom timeline, which I’ve embedded below. What’s interesting about it is that there is very little agreement on those questions. Clickbait is actually a more complicated issue than most admit — and one that highlights a weakness of online media.

For many of the journalists and media theorists in my stream, the term clickbait refers to a kind of bait-and-switch approach to content: in other words, a headline that promises one thing, but leads to a post or story or listicle that fails to deliver on that promise.

The curiosity gap

The classic form of clickbait, according to this definition, features what some call a “curiosity gap” headline — the kind that says “A little boy met some baby pandas, and you’ll never believe what happened next,” or something like that. As more than one person pointed out, BuzzFeed has often used exactly this kind of headline construction, or similar terms that arguably qualify.

Jon Stewart’s description of clickbait, the one that Smith was responding to, is also a pretty good one for this version of the term: although he doesn’t actually refer to sites like BuzzFeed and VICE specifically, he says that many websites are “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.”

The problem is that not everyone defines clickbait in this limited way — and a number of people, including Dan Sinker of Mozilla’s OpenNews project, argued that Smith deliberately chose a definition of clickbait that doesn’t encompass what BuzzFeed does, i.e. the failure to deliver on a promise. In a sense, Smith is saying: “If we have a headline that says you’re going to get stupid cat GIFs, you will damn well get a post with stupid cat GIFs.”

https://twitter.com/gitagovinda/status/530481600493281280

A more popular view of clickbait, however — or at least one that seems to be common outside the media sphere — is anything a site does that tries to trick people into clicking on a link, whether it’s hyperbole, exaggeration, the use of celebrity names, irrelevant but titillating images, etc. By that definition, much of what BuzzFeed does (with the exception of some of its serious longform journalism) probably qualifies as clickbait.

Old media invented clickbait

As a number of people have pointed out — including Smith himself — this form of clickbait is as old as newspapers themselves, and probably older. A Deadspin writer found some amazing examples of articles from the 1920s that were either outright lies or involved horrendously exaggerated claims, something that tabloids still engage in to this day as a form of what Jeff Jarvis called “coin bait,” or an attempt to get people to actually pay for a newspaper.

So why are we still having this conversation? Jeff Jarvis and Slate writer Will Oremus have put their finger on part of the answer: because clickbait — regardless of which definition you use — is inextricably linked to the media’s desire to drive traffic to their websites, in order to generate enough advertising revenues to remain in business. Even though BuzzFeed doesn’t have banner ads, which Smith argues makes it immune to this kind of pressure, it is still trying to generate interest in its native advertising skills, which amounts to the same thing.

In the end, as Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab put it, clickbait seems to be the term that both readers and media professionals use to refer to something that they don’t like. The headlines and articles that use similar methods but match their expectations are just called “news.” And regardless of what we call what BuzzFeed does, Mandy Brown of Editorially makes a good point: if using stupid cat GIFs can generate enough revenue to pay for some serious journalism, then more power to them.

https://twitter.com/aworkinglibrary/status/530514614820544513

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Thinkstock / Huchen Lu

3 Comments

Jason Lopez

“Clickbait… …seems to be the term that both readers and media professionals use to refer to something that they don’t like.”

This is assuming there are disparate views on this headline: PRESIDENT NOMINATES LORETTA LYNCH FOR A.G.; with this headline: 14 CONFUSING MOMENTS OF RELIEF FOR EVERYONE WHO LOVES POPPING PIMPLES. Both are currently heads on Buzzfeed’s splash page.

The first head is news, the second is clickbait. It requires no interpretation.

“Look, if you can use cat listicles to underwrite journalism, my only response is godspeed.”

Lowest common denominator news-telling has been around forever. It drives the lowest CPM and is ultimately the hardest business to defend, since the bar to entry is so pathetically low for competitors.

Veasey Conway

re: Mandy Brown’s “Look, if you can use cat listicles to underwrite journalism, my only response is godspeed” tweet — I interpreted it as more critical of BuzzFeed than Ingram does. Ingram interpreted it as saying “more power to them.” I interpreted it as saying “You do you, but I’m not going to play any part in it.”

Veasey Conway

Ben Smith’s coy, misleading and troll-y post is a great argument for the need for an ombudsperson at BuzzFeed.

It’s telling that:
1) There was such pushback and disagreement in the post’s comments and on Twitter 2) The topic of spirited discussions that took place on Twitter wasn’t really broached in the original (and detailed, may I add) post. It’s like he was talking about one thing (“how should we define clickbait?”) but too afraid to say that outright.
3) His follow up responses on Twitter were meager at best, and nonexistent anywhere in the original post. To me it signals a lack of respect for the scores of commenters that were virtually unanimous in their disagreement.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with clickbait (in its broadest definition), it’s just that Buzzfeed chooses to employ it to point to low-quality content. BuzzFeed, low-quality content, and clickbait have become synonymous with each other, and Ben Smith’s nutty attempt to argue otherwise doesn’t change that.

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