COLM O'REGAN: Why it's so hard to escape the clutches of clickbait

THREE hours — that’s how long that particular new year’s resolution lasted, writes Colm O’Regan

It was just so tempting. I was on Facebook, minding my own and everyone else’s business, when one of the media pages that I ‘like’ displayed a link to one of its articles.

It had the usual structure: “REVEALED: [Sportsperson] SLAYS [other sports person] WITH THIS HILARIOUS COMEBACK”.

For those literalists among you, don’t worry. Slay no longer means to ride in on horseback, kill someone with a sword, and then torch their village. It now means to say something vaguely witty to someone else as a put-down.

I knew the article would be as flimsy as a free plastic bag. I knew the hilarious comeback would be devoid of hilarity. But I still clicked it. I had fallen for it. The hook of shite was wedged firmly under my tongue and I was the wriggling pike. I had fallen for clickbait.

For those of you who you like your news presented in a format that is tangible, tuckable under the arm, and useful for starting the fire, clickbait is a technique by which news websites get you to click on a link by piquing your curiosity just enough to see what the link is about. They do it because they make money from advertisers when you visit their website.

Sometimes the story they are tempting you with will be worth reading — like “You won’t believe these methods of medieval torture” but most of the time you will be disappointed. It won’t be crushing disappointment. Just a vague sense of having been let down yet again, and annoyed with yourself for falling for it. Like when you ate meringue.

There’s nothing wrong with teasing the reader with the promise of an eyeful if they’ll step inside their media bric-a-brac shop. Everyone does it to some extent. Newspapers will continue a front page story on page 4 (or pages 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 15, 16, 17 in the case of some). Tabloid newspapers do it with large headlines designed to grab attention at the news stand. But to be fair to tabloids, there IS a gangland crime problem and that woman at the end of the telephoto lens WAS wearing a bikini.

Irish mothers could be said to be originators of one type of clickbait. “You’ll never guess who died” is a technique to get us all to extend the phonecall. But again, someone did die. And maybe it is a funeral you should be at.

It might seem a bit rich for me to criticise what media organisations publish — I once wrote here extolling the virtues of a nice biro. A website has a right to try and entice you in. It’s not dishonest, just annoying. But you have a right not to be annoyed.

Maybe it’s too late for me. Maybe the internet has hardwired my brain to make it impossible for me to resist the curiosity gap. But I can help others. So if you are on Facebook or a similar social network, spying on the wedding photos of someone you went to primary school with, and a link pops up, consider the following:

  • Is it about sport? The story will be disappointing. Nearly all sports stories are disappointing. Think about it. Most sports games last two hours. You can only do transfers between soccer clubs twice a year and a manager probably gets sacked once a fortnight. The rest of the time there is nothing happening. So the story is very likely about nothing.
  • Keep an eye out for the following words or phrases: “What happens next …” Lookit, we know what happens next. The homeless man gives the woman back the wallet she dropped. The old person is really good at breakdancing.

Hilarious” It won’t be. “You won’t believe” Maybe you won’t believe, but you certainly won’t care.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go. I see an article promising that what happens next will change my life.


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