Editor’s note: Occasional correspondent Bruce Lohof typically writes about politics and international affairs. Today he turns his attention to a more mundane but no less maddening subject.
Clickbait, according to Merriam-Webster, is that internet thing that’s “designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink, especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.”
Clickbait might not mean much to you — or at least not as much as you’re willing to admit — but it’s important to publishers. In the age of the internet, clicks are evidence of circulation. It may even be said that clicks are circulation.
A major online publication is major because of the major number of clicks that it attracts. True, you may be clicking a newscast or an aria on YouTube or the State of the Union address while I’m clicking on “6 tax breaks for pet owners you can actually get.” But we’re both clicking, both to a publisher’s benefit.
So, adopting the style of the genre, let’s look at the seven certain signs of clickbait. Beware; it’s an unsavory collection:
One, a clickbait headline usually begins with a numeral, a modest numeral, usually smaller than 10, and usually an odd number: 3, 5, 7, 9. Although many of us are innumerate, we’re drawn to numbers, particularly if they don’t involve mathematics or even simple arithmetic.
Why are the numbers usually odd? We don’t know; we find it odd. But, of course, any small list of things — 3 things, say, or 7 — can attract our attention without triggering our Attention Deficit Disorder, which is a side-effect of this info-drenched internet age. “There are only 5 things on this list,” you tell yourself, “and one or three of them may be important to me.”
Two, one or three of the things on the list may be important to you. Take “7 tips for online safety,” for instance, or “5 tips for losing weight” or “9 worst money mistakes people make in the name of love.” Since you’re online as we speak, you’re eager to know that you’re following the 7 tips and that, therefore, you are safe. Losing weight? Who among us isn’t hungry for those 7 tips? In the name of love? You’ve already (a) made money mistakes and (b) been in love. What was that about? You may be a click away from knowing.
Three, clickbait, as we’ve just seen, is often about money. Witness “9 reasons your health insurance premium is skyrocketing” or “10 signs you’re not saving enough for retirement” or “how to live comfortably on minimum wage” (whoops, where’s the numeral?) or “6 signs you need to check your credit report ASAP.” Money is the second most persistent subject on the average Montana mind. I’ve forgotten what’s in first place, but you’re not surprised to see that clickbait has money on its mind.
Four, clickbait is often local: “15 best restaurants in Montana” and “50 richest people in each state” and “5 best dentists in each state” and “states where people spend the most on towing” (whoops, the numeral has disappeared again). That sort of thing. Clickbait’s focus on the local is easy to understand: local is where we live. Is one of these fifteen restaurants located near me? Or one of those dentists? And who are the 50 richest people in Montana?
Five, unfortunately, clickbait often tells you something you already know. For instance, try to find “Tips for Online Safety” that don’t include these provisos on passwords: make each password unique, change passwords often, and don’t use QWERTY (duh!) or your high school mascot (which you’ve already shared in your Facebook pages). And you don’t even want to open “10 signs you’re not saving enough for retirement.” Trust me. You’re showing all of the signs and, no, you’re not saving enough for retirement.
Six, if clickbait doesn’t tell you something you already know, it usually disappoints you. None of the “15 best restaurants in Montana” is within a 100 miles of your location. Ditto the “5 best dentists in each state.” And those “50 richest people in each state”? Your name is not on the list … any list … in any state. Neither is the name of anyone you know. As Tallulah Bankhead famously noted, “There is less in this than meets the eye.”
Seven, beware of the clickbait that feeds — or feeds on — your anxieties (“States where people spend the most on towing”). Or that feeds on your greed (“10 sources of nontaxable income”). Or on civil discontent (“11 bizarre things the U.S. government spent money on”). You will seldom close clickbait calmer than you were when you entered.
That’s the top seven, folks. As I warned at the top, it’s an unsavory collection. Perhaps I should have thought of that before I clicked on “The 7 Certain Signs of Clickbait.” While I’m here, though, I’ll quickly visit “6 Tax Breaks for Pet Owners You Can Actually Get.” What’s with that?
Bruce A. Lohof is a native of Montana. A former professor and a retired diplomat, he lives in Vienna and in Red Lodge.