Bait Shaming

An evolution in the battle against clickbait

I hate clickbait.

In case you aren’t familiar with this term, here’s what Wiktionary has to say about it:

Website content that is aimed at generating advertising revenue, especially at the expense of quality or accuracy, relying on sensationalist headlines to attract click-throughs

In other words: Headlines that are deliberately crafted to withhold just enough information that people click on the link; because generating a page view is really all they’re after.

Headlines like this one:

Want To Learn A Word That’ll Give You Meaning And Impress Your Friends At The Same Time? Yea You Do.

(I need to know this word or my life is over! *click*)

Or, this one:

7 signs you’re not as ethical as you think

(Oh, no! I better make sure I am, in fact, as ethical as I think! *click*)

Not only is it a disgustingly deceptive practice, but it reduces journalism, writing, and publishing to the equivalent of supermarket tabloids, clamoring for attention without investment in quality content.

So, I decided to come up with an idea to combat it.

clickbait-cycleThe clickbait cycle

To attack this problem, we have to look at what forces are driving it.

Clickbait is a systemic issue driven by the page-view economy. Online publishers generate incremental revenue for each ad impression, which means they have strong pressure to generate more page views from each piece of content they publish.

In an economic sense, clickbait is a response to false market “demand”. Headlines that generate the most clicks should represent the most-popular kinds of content. But, this is manipulated by misleading, fearmongering, and sensationalized headlines that drive more page views based a knee-jerk click reaction.

Ultimately, the quality of content suffers under these pressures. Intelligent articles and hard-hitting journalism take a back seat to listicles, quizzes, GIFs, and other forms of content that lure in readers by preying on their most vulnerable sensibilities.

And, users are left to sift through the drivel.


downworthy-screenshotMy idea for Baitshaming idea was inspired by the release of Downworthy. Downworthy is a browser extension created by Alison Gianotto (Snipe) that replaces the sensationalized phrases often found in headlines from the site Upworthy (hence the name) with more-subdued versions. The results are often hilarious.

But, as much as I like Downworthy, it’s really just a critique on the clickbait epidemic. Only users who install the extension — those who likely already avoid clicking on obvious clickbait  – see these altered headlines.

It serves its purposes to mock the practice, but doesn’t help educate more people about clickbait and why it’s bad for publishing or to reduce the number of people who click on these sensationalized headlines.

Cue: Baitshaming, my idea to extend Downworthy into a platform that actively combats clickbait through education and public ridicule.

Rethinking the battle

To solve this problem, I asked four questions:

  1. How can I educate more people about the deception of clickbait to discourage them from clicking it?
  2. How can I increase public pressure on publishers to avoid using clickbait?
  3. How can I create something that is easy to use and spreads organically?
  4. Can I use the attractiveness of clickbait headlines to my advantage?


Breaking the cycle

The core economic incentives that drive clickbait are simply out of our control. With time, new models for online publishing are sure to emerge that break the tie between page views and revenue.

But, if we stop the flow of traffic to clickbait-y headlines, then we can break the cycle.

We can do this by educating more people about the negative effect that clickbait has on media. If more people see these types of headlines as negative, they will be less likely to click on them in the future. And, at the same time we can use this opportunity to expand the Bait Shaming system.



Native integration

Downworthy’s brilliant use of a browser extension is an idea that I’ll borrow for Bait Shaming. It will allow users to quickly and easily combat clickbait from the browser, by adding native functionality directly into social media interfaces. See here how a button will be added to Twitter to allow users to Bait Shame a tweet with one click.


Bait and switch

From here, the extension will take over. After clicking the link, a new tweet will be generated that looks like a standard retweet of the initial article. But, instead of using their link to the bait-y article, we’ll generate our own link that directs back to the Bait Shaming website.


Behind the curtain

Our main weapon against clickbait is education. We’ll pass data about the original link and headline to a landing page that explains why we are fighting against clickbait and what problems it creates.

This page is also a chance for us to grow the audience of Bait Shaming. Once we’ve explained the issue, we can drive them to install our browser extension and help our fight.


Public ridicule

What better way to put pressure on publishers than to keep a tally of how many times their clickbait articles have been shamed?

A Shame Board will track the domains from the original clickbait links and then rank which domains get shamed most frequently.

Let’s make it happen

I’m passionate about finding solutions to complex problems. Unfortunately, I don’t always have the skills necessary to bring the solution to life. This is one of those cases.

So, if you want to make Bait Shaming a reality and have the technical knowledge to pull it off, please reach out to me. Let’s fight clickbait together.

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