Who would have guessed when Justin Timberlake uttered the famous words: ‘It’s my dick in a box’, he would be describing the state of headline grabbing journalism we see online today. Okay, so maybe he isn’t exactly the advertising visionary I’m making him out to be, and yet here we are five years later with this exact problem dominating the online space – nicely presented and promising headlines leading to a not so pleasant experience. For proof, take a quick look at your Facebook news feed, you’ll see sensational attention grabbing headlining urging you to ‘click here for more information’ which is now as common as puppy videos.
So what exactly is dick in a box headlining? Well an alternative PG name which you may be more familiar with is the word clickbait. In other words, a piece of content - be it copy or visual that is of a sensational or provocative nature which effectively makes you want to click the link. The goal of clickbait is to draw attention and entice visitors into clicking into a post, article, or web link (let’s also not forget the new expression listicle, list + article).
This in itself is not a problem, after all, attracting consumers is an integral part of advertising and there is a certain skill to creating great headline copy, but where it does become a concern is when the snapshot you see comes at the expense of the quality or accuracy of what you find on the other side. Nowadays, more often than not, we’re discovering online content does not live up to the expectation created from the preview. We’re drawn to the nicely wrapped box with a shiny ribbon around it.
This loss of credible journalism was bemoaned by Mike Hudack, Facebook’s Director of Product, in an online rant he posted:
Personally I hoped that we would find a new home for serious journalism in a format that felt Internet native and natural to people who grew up interacting with screens instead of just watching them from couches with bags of popcorn and a beer to keep their hands busy.
And in a way he’s right.. The internet has become our main source of information because of the lightning speed in which news is reported. But as a by-product, it seems to have affected our taste in readings too. The truth is, as screens get smaller and gadgets get more portable, the screen format inherently lends itself to a shorter read, thus our consumption habits continue to change. We’re constantly bombarded with messaging every minute and the little time we have between train stations or pedestrian lights, we choose to use on content we find entertaining and easy to consume. You only have to look at the data on how loading time effects website dropout rates to know how impatient the modern web user really is.
The other side of the problem, is that the big guys like Facebook and Google aren’t exactly helping the cause. The Facebook news feed for example may use a complex algorithm to determine what to show you, but at the end of the day, the main reason why sensationalised headlining continues to be used is because simply put, it works. Mike himself acknowledges that it’s hard to point the blame in any one direction, and with trending posts being such a large part of Facebook’s news feed they have to accept part of the blame in facilitating the success of clickbait. It does however, look like Facebook is doing something about it, they recently announced that they would be implementing features to crack down on deliberately false or misleading stories. It’s a great start but not enough for me to decree the end of clickbaiting is nigh, so this may well be a case of ‘if you can’t beat them join them’. The next time you write an article or blog post you may want to consider a grossly exaggerated headline that links to your very own listicle!