Words by: Sam Herriman
‘I called BuzzFeed and – good news! – turns out they’ll write about anything’
–Diane Nguyen, BoJack Horseman
I started cleaning up my Facebook news feed a few years ago because I came to the pretty sudden realisation that I was often scrolling, and scrolling, and scrolling down the page to find the first bit of information I actually cared about. A lot of it was Facebook deciding which of my friends’ content to show me (something which has since been counteracted by a fairly liberal use of the ‘unfollow’ button) but perhaps more so it was the disturbing rise of ‘clickbait’ articles.
It’s apt then, that just before I sat down to write this article I was reading a brilliantly insightful review of the season finale of Netflix’s fantastic original program BoJack Horseman via a link on Facebook. Underneath that link it was suggested that I also check out BuzzFeed’s elucidating listicle ‘6 Reasons You Should Be Watching BoJack Horseman,’ which was sandwiched between a ‘Which BoJack Horseman Character Are You’ quiz and the horrifically daunting ‘136 Hidden Jokes You Probably Missed On BoJack Horseman.’ Despite my best efforts clickbait still managed to sneak through the cracks.
Although primarily attributed to the website of all evil BuzzFeed, other websites such as Upworthy and Distractify are also guilty of perpetrating the now ubiquitous trend of snappy headlines and listicle-heavy content known as clickbait. Clickbait is a generalised term that refers to any article or website that purposefully uses a vague or sensationalised headline in order to entice the reader into clicking the article to find out more.
That might sound like every article ever, but whereas a reputable publication will lay the lead of the article in the headline – such as the barely newsworthy, yet sensibly titled Malcolm Turnbull Live Tweets Public Transport Trip To Geelong – a clickbait website’s headline would barely hint at the content of the article – such as the bizarrely desperate Malcolm Turnbull Is Catching Trains And It’s Perfect Trolling.
The headlines might also advertise a ground breaking video, or other such media such as a heart-warming letter or a life changing picture. The headlines for these articles almost always insult the intelligence of the audience by telling them exactly how to feel about the article or video before you’ve even clicked on the link, like the frustratingly coy video-article called ‘Here’s A Video That May Make You Pay Attention To The World Around You.’ Don’t tell me how to think, dammit!
The headlines almost always speak in superlatives and absolutes. This article contains ‘the best,’ or something you ‘need’ to see or something that is ‘perfect’ or something that concerns ‘all people.’ It draws us in because when something is hyped up to that extent we can’t help but indulge our natural curiosity. However, the result is almost always a letdown.
The other type of clickbait is less inherently insidious but is used at a much more destructive extent. Yes, the dreaded listicle (an amalgam of the words ‘list’ and ‘article’ as opposed to a play on the words popsicle or testicle) has grabbed the internet by the balls and is refusing to let go. These are the articles formatted like ‘19 Best Things About Being A Short Girl,’ or ‘14 Things That Happened At The Wong Vs Bernardi Marriage Equality Debate.’ While they vary in content they generally follow exactly the same format – a set number of points or examples relating to the advertised article, often with a picture or gif accompanying each one.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the concept or format of a ‘listicle.’ If the content of the article demands the use of the listicle format then fantastic. If the listicle encourages a wider audience to engage with an important issue then great. There is definite merit to the use of the format as a legitimate literary form.
It has been well documented that human beings love to organise things into tidy, neat little lists. Wikipedia even has a page devoted to list of lists of lists. As academic Arika Okrent says ‘there is comfort in knowing ahead of time the configuration of the path you are about to go down and how you will get to the end, even if you have no idea what information you will gather along the way.’
What is concerning then, is that there does appear to be a growing trend of otherwise reputable publications resorting to listicles in order to generate virality in their content, in a sort of ‘if you can’t beat them join them mentality.’ As Okrent goes on to say ‘there are good reasons to object to the rising ubiquity of the listicle. It caters to our Internet-fed distractible tendencies, critics say, replacing complex arguments and reasoned transitions with snack-packs of bullet points.’
It is that last point that is most worrying. As many of its competitors start to imitate BuzzFeed’s signature style, nuanced and complex issues that require detailed, delicate and thorough discussion are relegated to a series of tangentially related, bite-sized bullet points. This trend devalues the art of journalism, and while it may make it more appealing for the reader, it also forces the writer to condense what might be a sprawling issue into neat little boxes.
Furthermore, BuzzFeed’s candy-coloured website and origins as an entertainment only publication mean that while they are attempting to branch out as a more serious news website they remain committed to a standardised clickbait formatting. This journalistic equalisation means that the article ‘223 Thoughts We Had During ‘The Bachelor’ Season 3 Premiere’ (sidebar: That’s far too many thoughts to have about a mindless show that even the producers don’t take seriously) sits awkwardly underneath an article titled ‘Three Other Black Men Have Died In Altercations With University Of Cincinnati Police.’
But why is BuzzFeed so intent on garnering clicks? It’s all founded on a – you guessed it – click-based business model. All they care about is clicks and views in order to increase their online advertising appeal. Basically the only way for websites to get money is to hire out advertising space, and the only thing advertisers want to know is how many people visit your website. They don’t give a shit about the quality of the content. BuzzFeed produces an almost critical mass of articles with the deliberate intent of grabbing your intention so they can be as marketable as possible to potential advertisers. The difference between BuzzFeed and other purely money-making websites, however, is that BuzzFeed has a carefully constructed sheen of legitimacy.
It’s a scary world we live in, and it’s a daily struggle to resist the temptation to take the quiz ‘How To Tell If You’re A Hipster In Three Questions’ (three questions? Really BuzzFeed? Do you know the intricacies of my personality so well that you can tell if I’m a hipster by asking three generalised questions?)
I think the pitch-perfect parody website Clickhole has the best idea, when it urges us to take our mind off it all and ‘Masturbate To These 8 Pictures Of ‘Harry Potter’ Stars Who Are Hot Now’.