What Is Clickbait?

Pixabay / Pexels
Pixabay / Pexels

I’ve been working in the digital media industry for about a year and a half now, and let me tell you an interesting part of it.

Let’s say I work on an article — maybe for hours — trying to pull together some super interesting stuff and package it with a really engaging headline. I find it really funny, interesting, or whatever, and I’m excited to see it go out into the ~world~.

And then I look at the comments, and almost always, someone, somewhere, for some reason, has to respond to the content with a single word:


And it’s not a personal problem either. I would say that almost anything on the internet that garners any significant amount of attention gets this label from someone.

If almost all internet content can be branded as clickbait by someone, then…what is it?

I asked Google, and got this definition:

(on the Internet) content, especially that of a sensational or provocative nature, whose main purpose is to attract attention and draw visitors to a particular web page.

Wikipedia’s introductory paragraph on the subject goes a little further:

Clickbait is a pejorative term describing web content that is aimed at generating online advertising revenue, especially at the expense of quality or accuracy, relying on sensationalist headlines or eye-catching thumbnail pictures to attract click-throughs and to encourage forwarding of the material over online social networks. Clickbait headlines typically aim to exploit the “curiosity gap”, providing just enough information to make readers curious, but not enough to satisfy their curiosity without clicking through to the linked content.

And finally, most lengthy of all, is Facebook’s definition of clickbait and advice to publishers on how to avoid the traffic-throttling consequences of using it:

Clickbait headlines intentionally omit crucial information. This forces people to click through to find out the answer, but they then quickly return to News Feed. We’ve heard from people that they prefer to see clearly written headlines that help them decide how they want to spend their time.

Broad strokes, all three entries seem to bring up these defining characteristics:

  1. Sensationalism
  2. Omission of information in headline
  3. Main purpose is to attract readers

So let’s take it one-by-one here.

When people talk about sensationalist “clickbait,” they seem keen to pretend like the digital age is the first time media outlets have ever wanted to sell news.


This 1906 clipping above is from the New York World, which was a “yellow journalism” newspaper. Which is sometimes where people go next in discussing the origins of clickbait. Some will say that internet clickbait is merely an extension of the dishonest yellow journalism papers that thrived in the early 1900’s and onward.

Historian Frank Luther Mott defined yellow journalism by these five criteria:

  1. scare headlines in huge print, often of minor news
  2. lavish use of pictures, or imaginary drawings
  3. use of faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudoscience, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts
  4. emphasis on full-color Sunday supplements, usually with comic strips
  5. dramatic sympathy with the “underdog” against the system.

Let’s test this definition against a possible “clickbait” article that I recently wrote about Wendy’s hilarious twitter antics.


  1. Not a “scare” headline, though certainly of minor news
  2. There are a great deal of pictures / embedded tweets in the article
  3. Nope
  4. I could give the “full color” criteria a modern translation to “elaborate images,” and the thumbnail does use with both a picture of Wendy’s, with a sample of their tweet convo.
  5. Nope

Now let’s test the yellow journalism definition against this CNN article:


  1. Huge print headline, importance of highlighted item “losing his cool” up for debate
  2. Big picture dominating the screen, with Trump in an angry pose
  3. Nope
  4. Does use a big headline, and provides more interactive links on the side to keep reader busy
  5. Not really

In addition, one can see what links CNN decided to highlight with this main story. Certainly they have elements of what people might consider “clickbait.”

But when testing both my potential “clickbait” article against this CNN article against the definition of yellow journalism — it isn’t clear which is closer to Mott’s test.

At the end of the day, sensationalism has always existed in media. It has existed in yellow journalism media, and it has existed in mainstream media. See below:


And then comes the omission of information in headline criteria. Essentially, this is a criticism of headlines that require you to click to get the “key information.”

But…in some ways, isn’t that every article?

How many articles are there out there were you get full information from the headline? Regardless of this fact, there are huge communities of people who are outraged that they must click to view the answer to a headline “question”. An entire subreddit has been founded with the sole goal of getting the “answer” to headlines without clicking.

But check out the front page of the New York Times today:

New York Times

Is the New York Times a clickbait merchant now as well? And if not, what differentiates them from Buzzfeed, Upworthy, Huffington Post, Distractify, Thought Catalog, etc.?

Maybe it’s all perception. Which brings us the last consideration that clickbait is defined by: the primary agenda being to attract readers.

But it almost feels like I’ve addressed this before getting here. All publications in the history of forever want(ed) to attract readers. That’s the goal. That’s the endgame. That’s why we are all here.

Do some professional journalists feel an altruistic desire to report the news and big stories for public consumption? Sure. But if people stopped reading The Times, or stopped watching CNN, or stopped picking up People magazine — it’s all over. Everyone wants readers. Everyone needs readers.

And because only 18% of you are willing to pay for written content online, digital media companies have to focus more and more on writing what you actually want to read — and not what you say you want to read.

Ultimately, there is no such thing as clickbait.

Now, there are types of internet content that are bad content. Sometimes the headline totally lies — like those spammy ads that promise weight loss solutions or whatever. These articles don’t suck because they are “clickbait,” they suck because they are giant scams. Lying is bad, but lying does not make something clickbait.

“Slideshows” (or content you have to keep clicking to access the next page) don’t suck because it is “clickbait,” it sucks because it offers a bad reader experience and forces the reader to perform more actions to get the content they want.

People struggle to define clickbait (Facebook has basically 4 pages trying to explain their definition) because it doesn’t really exist. There is no all-encompassing type of content that could possibly be put under any of the (many) definition of “clickbait.” So I tried my hand at writing my own definition:

Clickbait is content that the reader realizes they are “paying for” by clicking on the link, and / or content that the reader is embarrassed to have consumed after-the-fact.

In one respect, the resentment around digital content seems to be triggered by the realization that the publication is funded by your click. By clicking you are paying someone’s salary, someone’s health insurance benefits, perhaps even heating an office. In an internet culture where people generally hate having to buy anything (which is why we all pay for subscription streaming services instead of individual downloads), there is a resentment when people realize that digital industries make money off of their clicks, and that they just “played into it.”

And so the narrative becomes that people are “forced to click” by “overly sensational” headlines that “withhold information;” and that sneaky media companies who just want to make money tricked you into helping them make payroll.

In the other respect, the anti-clickbait movement is also about deflecting blame for our gluttonous internet content habits onto the Big Bad Click Industry. What we deem clickbait seems to say a lot more about our article consumption habits than the content itself.

Which is why the New York Times gets a pass on their headlines. As does CNN. These publications don’t exclusively make money on the internet, and nobody feels guilty about reading those publications.

But because you are secretly interested in how this girl owned a creepy dude, or the excuse this guy gave after cheating, you will click, you will indulge, and then you will blame the damn clickbait for getting you again. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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