A month ago, Jake Beckman started a Twitter account: @SavedYouAClick.
@SavedYouAClick, on the model of @HuffPoSpoilers and @UpworthySpoiler, was a one-feed fight against clickbait. Beckman, 25, wanted to do more than highlight the obnoxious tweets of a single publication. So he created @SavedYouAClick “for the whole internet, not really focusing on one target,” he said. “I thought this was a problem that was permeating the whole industry.”
Yesterday, @SavedYouAClick had about 600 followers.
By this morning, it had 15,000 followers
By the afternoon: 30,000 and counting.
Beckman attributes the sudden spread of his feed to the work of a handful of influencers, among them Ahmed Al Omram, Wall Street Journal Saudi correspondent, Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing, and agency R/GA.
Beckman abides by a pretty simple model: he quotes the tweets of the news organizations he’s mocking, and puts the facts they intentionally leave out right at the front of his tweet. “A lot of these clickbait tweets can be answered with a simple yes or no, or a brief sentence, or a little tidbit of information,” he said. “I like to position it before the original tweet, because I think, a., it helps put emphasis on the information instead of the clickbait, and b., it also helps illustrate… how easy to would have been to just tell you the answer.” The tone is dry, blunt, a little snarky, with just a tinge of exasperation.
Clickbait is a new name for an old idea. “There has always been shout-y journalism out there, [going back to] your paperboy on the corner yelling out ‘Extra! Extra!’,” said Beckman. “I think that the news business is getting people’s attention.” News organizations have been luring readers in with the “keep ’em wanting more” model certainly since the dawn of newspapers, and also maybe the dawn of time. (“I went to the top of Mount Sinai. You won’t believe what happened next.” -Moses, probably.) Headlines have enough heavy lifting to do, especially in print, where you can still get away with puns and NYT-style prepositional phrases. The tweet that teases the headline is another entity entirely. It’s the Newsies, 2014 style: Headlines don’t sell papers, Twitter sells papers!
This is the clickbait conundrum: everyone hates it, but everyone clicks on it. As long as it continues to be an effective way of getting readers off Twitter (where little to no revenue can be made) and on the news organization’s website (bring on those ad dollars), publications will keep trying to convince readers to close that curiosity gap. Much has been written about the sinking revenue of print, the not-catching-up-fast-enough revenue online, and still-high cost of producing quality journalism. It’s all a bit depressing and scary, if you’re the kind of citizen who believes excellent reporting is vital for a functional democracy or if you are trying to making a living in news.
Alex Mizrahi is the 31 year old creator of @HuffPoSpoilers. He started the feed in August 2012; his follower number hovered around 19 people until April 2013, when “all of a sudden, it exploded” to 10,000 followers. Now @HuffPoSpoilers has just over 35,000 followers and almost 6,000 tweets to its name.
“What the Huff Po Twitter feed does is overpromise and underdeliver,” said Mizrahi. “They say, ‘You won’t believe what happened to this celebrity,’ or ‘you’ll never guess x or y,’ and then you click, and it’s some very mundane thing you could have guessed, or would believe.”
But Ryan Grim, Washington Bureau Chief of the Huffington Post, argues that “you can’t get one outlet to stop it unless you get everybody to stop it, because it works. At the same time, it’s not sustainable if what you’re delivering after they click wasn’t worth it… If the quality is there, then readers are going to be forgiving.” As for @HuffPoSpoilers, “I thought it was great,” he said. “A lot of times, it’s not going to actually deliver everything that the article will. But sometimes, they do.”
Mizrahi, who majored in journalism at George Washington University but never worked at a news organization (he’s a social media associate at Blue State Digital), is a fan of Beckman’s. “He’s taking my idea and running with it.” That said, “I don’t think it’s an industry-wide thing.” The worst offenders, he said, “are insecure. They feel like they need to be a little misleading or deceptive or omit things, because they’re insecure that people won’t click.”
“People are curious and are going to click, unless there’s a better way to get [information,] and that’s where the account comes in,” said Beckman. “Another thing I always do is remove the link from the tweets. I never want to actually be contributing to clicks on clickbait tweets, almost as an ethos. I want to show both the readers and the social media editors that you could have put this all in a tweet and you’d get really great engagement. It just shows that if social editors gave readers what they wanted or needed to learn, they’d maybe go further with their tweets.”
Beckman is using a relatively new medium to achieve a classic journalism ideal: reader service. “I don’t think [clickbait] is really useful for the reader,” he said. “And I think that, if the readers were conditioned to expect more from their feeds or from tweets, then maybe [news organizations] would get better engagement and more discerning readers.”
But Beckman dreams of a brighter, clickbait-free day: “Maybe there will be a news organization who abandons clickbait in favor of more reasoned or thoughtful tweets.” Wire services like AP and Reuters are doing this already, he pointed out, and the popularity of feeds like @SavedYouAClick serves as evidence that readers are tiring of the Upworthy model.
A glimmer of hope: “I will say, candidly, in the past month or two,” said Beckman. “It’s been getting harder for me to find good examples of clickbait.”