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13 ways of looking at a clickbait

I was of three minds, like a tree in which there are three blackbirds
I was of three minds, like a tree in which there are three blackbirds
Curt Hart

1. One of the concerns we hear at Vox.com is that there is too much clickbait on the internet — and on our site — these days. So I thought it would be useful to say a few words about how Vox thinks about what clickbait is, and what it isn't.

2. When we talk about clickbait internally, we tend to focus on the idea of under-delivering on a misleading headline. The risk that a reader will feel she has been duped into clicking.

3. Others often seem to be using "clickbait" as a free-floating term of derision. There are many reasons one might dislike an article but calling it clickbait has become an all-purpose way of expressing that disapproval.

4. The fact is we are trying to write headlines that make you want to click. We want you to click and read (ideally share on Facebook, Twitter, email, or the social network of your choice) the articles we publish! What we don't want is for you to regret having clicked once you see what is behind the link.

5. Getting people to read (much less share!) wasn't always the point of headlines. Newspapers are built to be scanned, not read, and feature summary-style headlines intended to work as an alternative to reading the articles. That's tied to the newspaper's business model. Most web publishers have a business model that only works if readers click, and lately, if they share.

6. You'll be less disappointed that websites don't operate exactly like newspapers if you remind yourself that lots of things — magazines and books, for instance — also don't operate like newspapers.

7. Because Google and OS-level widgets now dominate the commodity information services (weather, sports scores, stock quotes, movie showtimes, tv listings) that used to sell newspaper subscriptions, all websites are more like ultra-high-frequency magazines than like newspapers.

8. Magazines, which were traditionally bought off of newsstands packed with other magazines, are really good at choosing appealing headlines and striking images, and promising content the reader will enjoy reading. Lists weren't invented by Buzzfeed — they're all over the cover of every magazine.

9. More broadly, human beings have been making ideas more digestible by organizing them into lists since at least the time Moses brought the 10 Commandments down from the mountain.

10. A problem any general news site faces is that a broad audience means people with very different tastes. One person's clickbait can be another's favorite article.

11. A publication that only ran stories that appeal to everyone would end up being extraordinarily shallow and, paradoxically, full of "clickbait."

12. This is true even at the most premium of publications. Every New Yorker subscriber in America has a pile of unread issues lying around the house, awaiting sporadic cleanup. People subscribe for the sake of the great articles that they do read, not for the issues they never got around to opening or for the pages they scanned and decided to skip.

13. The dream of every tech-savvy publisher in America is to develop algorithmic distribution tools that will know who you are and what you will like, ensuring that you are served all and only headlines and articles that you find both clicky and pleasing to click on. Thus the scourge of "clickbait" will someday be eliminated from the earth.