Clickbait

You won't believe what happened next! Also, 7 other things worth your time.

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I am shocked—shocked!—to find out that clickbait headlines are being used on the Internet.

There's an academic study. A trio of researchers from the University of Mississippi and the University of Oklahoma analyzed 1.67 million Facebook posts that had been posted by a total of 153 media organizations.

As described in their article, "Diving Deep into Clickbaits: Who Uses Them to What Extents in Which Topics with What Effects?" (.pdf link) they developed a "clickbait detection model," and tried to figure out whether "mainstream media" or "unreliable media" used clickbait more often.

Here's how they described their method:

Specifically, we use distributed subword embedding technique to transform
the words in the corpus to 300 dimensional embeddings. These embeddings are used to map sentences to a vector space over which a softmax function is applied as a classifier. Our best performing model achieves 98.3% accuracy on a labeled dataset. 

I'm just going to be honest: that's total gibberish to me. I have no idea what they're saying. But that's okay, because the results they came up with are entirely predicable.

In short, they say that both "mainstream media" and "unreliable media" often use clickbait‚ and that it grew in prevalence starting between 2014 and 2016. Specifically:

  • 19.46% of digital media headlines were "clickbait" under their definition in 2014; 

  • 23.73% in 2015; 

  • and 25.27% in 2016.

As one of the study's coauthors, Naeemul Hassan, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Mississippi, told me in an email, they define as clickbait as having two components:

  • "a form of web content that employs writing formulas and linguistic techniques in headlines to trick readers into clicking links, 

  • but does not deliver on promises."

And while this whole study makes me laugh a bit--because yes, I think the findings are kind of obvious--it's also important to focus on the two parts of that definition: both (a) prompting people to click, and (b) also not delivering on promises.

I think a lot of things get caught up in the general definition of clickbait that aren't really clickbait. They're "clicky," maybe, but not deceptive.

And that in turn, is because most serious digital writers want Internet traffic—especially if their operations are primarily advertiser-supported, but they also don’t want to be dishonest.

Now, as it happens—and what clued me into this study—is that I, your humble newsletter writer, was once accused of writing clickbait.

I has interviewed the founders of a litigation finance startup about their strategy of providing funding to litigants in small dollar disputes with big companies—and taking them to small claims court, instead of the federal or state trial courts.

It sounds kind of boring when I summarize it like that--and frankly, I don't know who would be enticed to read the article if I'd used a sort of New York Times-y headline like: 

In Small Claims Court, Plaintiffs Find a Way to Even the Odds

So, I used something that's a little more clicky: 

People Are Suing Equifax in Small Claims Court and It's Totally Brilliant. Here's Why.

Is that unfair? I hope not. It sparked a discussion about the nature of clickbait on Reddit, in fact. Fortunately for me, most commenters defended it.

One of them wrote, "There's nothing wrong with clickbait when the title is accurate." (He or she got upvoted too, so that's a good feeling.)

Honestly, it all comes down to economics—both long term and short term.

Long term, media outlets that don’t deliver won't be trusted. (Sadly, they often drag others down with them, too.)

But, we're still in a position in which most media are advertiser supported, and there's nothing sadder for a writer than pouring heart and soul into an article online and finding that nobody read it.

(In case I’m being too subtle, the reason I’m sharing all this today is that we’re still in my rollout week, during which I’m trying to get Undertandably.com on a solid footing so that we won’t have to chase those kinds of clicks in order to satisfy advertisers.)

Or as the sages at The Onion once put it—Report: We Don't Make Any Money If You Don't Click the @$#%@! Link.

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7 other things worth your time

  • No more masks! Well, with an asterisk, according to the CDC, which basically says it’s no longer advising fully vaccinated people to wear masks in most outdoor situations that don’t involve big crowds. (Axios)

  • Coeur D’Alene, Idaho is the hottest city or town in the U.S. right now, at least as far as real estate goes. “Housing prices have exploded recently, with the median sales price up 47% to $476,900 in March. That is, of course, assuming you can find a house for sale. The supply is so constricted right now that one realtor says every listing gets 30 offers.” (Fortune)

  • President Biden gives his first address to a joint session of Congress tonight. Among other things, he’ll seek $80 billion to fund enhanced IRS tax enforcement of high-earners to help pay for his American Families Plan, which will be unveiled this week. … “The administration believes the enhanced measures to crack down on tax evasion will increase government revenue by $700 billion.” That’s a controversial prediction, though. (Thomson Reuters, CNN)

  • The Indonesian navy released a poignant video showing the crew of a sunken submarine singing on board their vessel. Filmed a few weeks ago, it shows the sailors singing an Indonesian hit called Sampai Jumpa (“See You Later”). The KRI Nanggala, which sank off the coast of Bali on Wednesday, reportedly was found split into three pieces on the sea bed.All 53 crew were confirmed as dead. (BBC)

  • The French government has condemned an open letter signed by active soldiers that said the country was heading for "civil war" due to religious extremism. About 1,000 servicemen and women, including some 20 retired generals, put their names to the letter, which blamed "fanatic partisans" for creating divisions between communities, and said Islamists were taking over whole parts of the nation's territory. (BBC)

  • Apple is rolling out new privacy restrictions that will let users decide whether to let apps track them for advertising purposes. But critics are pointing out that the changes mean advertisers who buy ads through Apple, instead of competitors, will wind up getting more data about ad performance, which of course boosts Apple’s ad offerings in the name of privacy. Pretty smart, if you’re Apple. (WSJ, $)

  • A New York start-up has created the first tattoos that fully disappear after a while, aiming to open the body inking market to new clientele. "It's going to fade so I'm not too concerned," says Abigail Glasgow with a mischievous look in her eye, as the first letter of her fiance's name is tattooed on her forearm. (AFP)


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