We all know what I’m talking about. It’s that video that promises “What happens next will blow you away!” It’s that article with a shocking title like “I’m Southern Baptist, and I Love a Man” that’s not actually about a gay Southern Baptist but about Christian friendship (oops, that was my article). It’s those Buzzfeed articles that insist you will be wowed by “25 Things You Forgot Were A Huge Part of Your Childhood.”
That’s what they call it. It’s a pretty accurate term. On the internet, everything is about click-through rates. If you cannot get users to click, you cannot get users to view. It seems everyone from bloggers, to corporations, to buzzy viral sites are using clickbait to try to…well, bait you into clicking their link. Is this morally suspect?
There are people out there who love to cry foul, especially when the Christian community is passing around a viral article based on a concept that makes perfect clickbait. These people will go on social media and post something to the effect of: “I thought [insert Christian website] was better than this clickbait garbage. smh”. While the rest of the Christian community is busy passing the article around, sharing it, and praising it, this minority stands on the sidelines with arms folded, completely disappointed that any true Christian would sink to such desperate and underhanded ways.
Are Christians wrong to package their articles in this way? Is it wrong for Christian websites to fish for clicks?
What’s the Motive?
There are sites out there who are churning out absolute drivel, then tagging it with a sensational title that is sure to make people click through. All of this is meant to drive people to their site so that they will generate greater ad revenue. The motive is profit, not quality articles. This is one group. Clickbait for them is a means to generate revenue. In a free economy, a business is absolutely guilt-free in using this kind of marketing scheme as long as the title is not a lie about the content of the article. People will click if they want. That’s supply and demand.
Now, if your titles are lies, and the clickbait is telling the consumer a lie about the product (article) you are trying to sell them, that is morally wrong.
However, there is another group of online publishers who are genuinely seeking to produce good content. They use clickbait titles every once and again to try to get people to read the good articles they are producing. Their intention is not to bait users into viewing their site to boost ad revenue, but to generate interest in topics and concepts that deserve the attention of the general public.
Know Your Medium.
This last group recognizes something that many of us are unwilling to admit: the internet is not a library or a theological society or a seminary classroom. The general public does not troll the internet looking for arduous articles on obscure topics. Before you read this article, you probably watched a cat video, and while in the middle of this article you will probably look at a silly picture of your cousin on Facebook. The internet is not a place for intense academia. We have to recognize that the medium shapes the way we share the message.
What’s the point of writing thought-provoking, quality articles on your site if you cannot get anyone to read them? Using clickbait titles is not ethically wrong. It is a recognition of the medium. The internet squeezes your quality article into a feed of absurd memes, pictures of friends’ babies, and endless twitter updates about Lebron James.
If you expect your readers to click on your article when you’ve given it a title a Puritan would be proud of like “An Exploration of the Ways and Means of Boosting Click-Through Rates While Remaining Biblically Sound and Morally Upstanding”, you are kidding yourself, and you don’t understand that the medium necessarily shapes the message.
It’s like kids and vegetables. Parents want their kids to eat more veggies, and sometimes they will even stoop to hiding them in desserts and unexpected places to trick their kids into eating something that is good for them. Is it wrong for a parent to hide carrots in a carrot cake to convince the child to eat what’s good for them?
In the same vein, is it wrong for a Christian online publisher to package a high-quality article on a pressing issue in the Christian world with a title that will convince users to click through and read something that is good for their growth in Christian maturity?
On top of that, the whole argument against the reprehensibility of clickbait is suspect. If the article didn’t deserve the viral status it has attained, people wouldn’t share it. Clickbait only gets an article so far. Shares on social media are what truly drive up the number of views–but people don’t share an article because it has a clickbait title. People share an article because they clicked through, read the article, and found the article’s content to be worth sharing.
It’s a Joke.
A clickbait title appended to a well-written article turns the article into a joke–and I mean that in a good way. Once a reader clicks through and reads the article, he understands the title in a new way–he is now in on the joke. The user shares the article with others, because he thought the joke is worth retelling. He wants others to also read the article and be in on the joke. This is who we are as humans. We share; we retell. When an online publisher goes out of his way to generate a clever title, he is providing not only quality ideas, but he is presenting it in a way that a user will enjoy reading himself and sharing with others.
Theology and Christian discussion do not have to be dull and drab. Good ideas do not necessarily guarantee good writing. A good author must take delight in sharing those ideas in clever and interesting ways–and part of that is having a good title.
You’re the Problem.
Finally, if you don’t like clickbait, stop clicking it. The internet is a free market. Those of you who are smh at the article must have clicked through to read the article. Once people stop clicking clickbait, then the bait will have to be changed or discarded. If you want Puritanical titles a mile long, only click articles with titles a mile long.
But let’s not kid ourselves. The internet is not a place for intense scholarly research. Your twitter feed is not a veritable buffet of arduous reading. Recognize the medium, and don’t fault Christians who produce quality material for trying to get people to actually read it. Lighten up.
Now go watch a cat video.