Matt Yglesias no doubt thought he was being very clever when he published, 13 Ways of Looking at a Clickbait. Of course, he makes some good points. One is that people have taken to claiming that any article they don’t like is “clickbait.” That certainly is not true. But I think that Yglesias is wrong to try to turn “clickbait” into an all purpose word meaning “effective headline writing.” The word is a pejorative and it should remain one.
To me, clickbait is a form of false advertising. And it usually consists of opinion. “The 30 Best Game of Thones Characters.” People only click on such articles to make sure that Tyrion Lannister in listed at number one. But the worst — and most effective regarding myself — are lists of things I supposedly do not know. “17 Hollywood Stars You Didn’t Know Were Gay.” There ought to be a law against such headlines. They abuse the disabled. My disability is that I know everything that is worth knowing. And while it is true that I won’t even know who 14 of those “stars” are, I will most certainly know the ones I recognize are gay.
But the whole thing did get me thinking about headlines here at Frankly Curious. I hate writing headlines. But Yglesias is right: it is a new world and websites are like magazines. The purpose of headlines are not to summarize the article but rather to entice the viewer to read the article. For a long time, I’ve been under the spell of Jakob Nielsen — the usability guru. His point has always been that people come to a website to get information. But that isn’t so much true of Frankly Curious. But to be honest, I’m not sure why people come to the website.
One thing that I’ve noticed is that the articles that get a lot of attention do so because the content is good, original, provocative. Ultimately, I think that is what most matters on any website. But it probably is true that this site doesn’t get as much traffic as it would if the headlines were better. There is a problem here though.
Frankly Curious does not publish articles about the ten best ways to fight belly fat or the eight greatest generals of the Civil War. Most articles here are broadly essays. They are not about stuff — they are about my reactions to stuff. And what is the best way to entreat a potential reader to follow along? I really don’t know.
Then again, I don’t have a clue what people want to read about. So I simply write — generally at a furious pace. And I figure that some people will be interested in some of what I have to say. And given that I don’t know what people are going to want to read about, I don’t see how I can be expected to write headlines that will encourage them to even try. It would probably take me as long to write a good headline as it does to write an article.
But there is a difference. If you go over to Vox or Crooks & Liars, you will see that all you are offered are headlines. This is a big trend on the internet to make websites more like magazines. But Frankly Curious not only has the actual articles on the front page, it rarely puts any of the articles “below the fold.” So people can just scroll down the page and see if anything looks worth reading. So maybe headlines don’t matter so very much — at least not here.