What are the Repercussions of Clickbait on Society?
Has the internet turned us all into attention merchants?
The democratization of self-expression and the proliferation of online platforms has a lot to answer for.
Absent traditional gatekeepers tasked with maintaining editorial standards, anyone can become a writer. And many do despite lacking credentials, training, or knowledge of basic ethics professionals are duty-bound to abide by.
Never has the ambiguous job title of writer meant so much and so little at the same time, causing professionals and hobbyists alike to jostle for clicks and bucks. Because the competition is fierce and the bottom line matters, many end up sacrificing meaning for shock value.
This is how the internet gets clogged up with filler content designed to elicit strong emotional responses in readers. Written to intrigue, shock, or titillate, those sensationalistic pieces are endemic to digital life and symptomatic of a new problem: We don’t how to read anymore.
Instead of focusing and reading thoroughly, we scan and skim an ever-increasing amount of content. From mainstream media to social media via alternative news outlets, everyone wants us to look at them.
Worse, they only have a few seconds to make an impact.
Hence headlines that pack a punch and sometimes sound like two sweary brickies having a cuppa in a greasy spoon mixed with text speak (or two salty builders sharing a beer down the local dive bar and talking in TLAs, if you’re in the US).
In short, the race to capture eyeballs has encouraged the dumbing down of written communication.
Do you know what AF, FML, DQ, and DTF mean?
As I discovered, AF isn’t just the shorthand for the worldwide network of French cultural institutes known as Alliance Française or for France’s national carrier, Air France.
FML required some investigating after I came across it in a personal essay and failed to infer its meaning from the context, and DQ foxed me. In the US, it is shorthand for a nationwide fast food chain so its presence in a piece of writing that had nothing to do with burgers or ice-cream proved unfathomable to me.
As for DTF, Google is your shepherd here if you don’t know what it means (I’ve lived on the internet since the mid-90s and I did not until a few weeks ago).
And no, I’m neither an ancient troglodyte nor ill-informed.
But I am, I readily admit, a klutz who has little knowledge of pop culture because most of it feels irrelevant to me. If content doesn’t inform, educate, or entertain, I don’t squander my attention on it because I value my intellectual health.
If I don’t, who will?
Feeding our brains poorly written trivia in heavily formatted listicle format and overwrought personal narratives riddled with typos that also ignore the basic rules of grammar and punctuation is unlikely to help us be and do the best we can.
Be it as individuals or as a society.
In this respect, dumbed down content is my kryptonite, both as a reader and as a journalist. This is because journalism demands information be presented in an accessible, fair, and accurate manner. Once those habits have been drilled into you, they tend to stick.
But journalism also created clickbait.
And with it the monetization of trivia and gossip long before the internet even existed. Those magazines at the grocery store checkout have always been to print what clickbait is to the internet.
The internet simply adapted an already popular concept.
For journalists, the ubiquity of clickbait is a cause of much concern and consternation.
This is how stories devoid of social value or informative content end up online to keep publications profitable.
The end result is a global discourse that panders to the lowest common denominator and is slowly sinking into mediocrity, much to the detriment of our shared understanding of what it means to be a human in the world.
Or confidence in the media.
Clickbait cheapens language and human communication by undermining our daily interactions. Further, it ruins the reputation of those who write it and of the publications and platforms that publish it.
Clickbait also compromises our shared awareness of societal issues at domestic and international level. As a rule, servicing echo chambers with polarizing views is a lot more lucrative than getting people to think. And the more clickbait we produce and enable, the more we lose the ability to apply reason, argue, and compromise.
In the end, there’s so much noise signal gets lost as everyone tries to shout louder than the next person. For anyone whose currency is attention and for whom writing is self-serving rather than service, clickbait is a popular option.
Because it pays.
Follow the money and clickbait becomes self-evident.
While some practitioners will launch into impassioned pleas to defend what they do and how they do it, they seldom have the honesty to admit why.
Or the role their barefaced greed plays in the global erosion of fellow feeling.
As long as those clickbait ogres get paid, they don’t care; clickbait is the evil child of capitalism and individualism, the very embodiment of who we are becoming.
And when profiteering takes precedence over information, consequences can be tragic.
Would Donald Trump have become POTUS without the press enabling him? By painting him as a buffoon and not taking him seriously, they failed the American people but lined their pockets in the process.
And continue to do so while the rest of the world watches in disbelief.
In a similar vein, we’re witnessing the weaponization of the personal essay. As more and more writers discover that victimhood culture is lucrative, echo chambers are more airtight than ever.
Alas, not everyone making a living out of words will push back against clickbait because dissent can result in othering and loss of income, especially when you have few skills or education to fall back on.
Or live in a country where there’s no social safety net like America.
And yet, it is the very moral fabric of society that is at stake, our ability to relate to one another, our communication skills, and our grasp of language, too.
This doesn’t bode well for future generations.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.