The Clickbait Conundrum
As some of y’all may know, I am perversely obsessed with clickbait. I’m particularly intrigued by the various tropes and conventions and formulas of clickbait, like “Why Hollywood won’t cast (X) Anymore” or “Sketchy Things about (X) That Everyone Just Ignores”, and have had a lot of fun twisting and contorting them to my own ends.
So when I launched Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place, I decided to make short, highly conceptual humor pieces satirizing clickbait an essential part of the site. I realized from the very beginning that I was playing a bit of a double-game here, because while the rise of clickbait has degraded the culture and personally hurt my career in a lot of ways, in these pieces, I’m exploiting the psychology of clickbait even as I make fun of it.
This was particularly true of a piece that ran this week entitled “Exclusive: Affleck Officially Out as Batman.” The idea was to lure readers in, to “bait” them, as it were, so that they would “click” on the piece, only to discover that it actually has nothing to do with The Batman and instead is a cheeky, meta spiel for the 1985 Oscar-winning prestige drama The Trip To Bountiful, which I don’t have to remind any of you won Geraldine Page the Academy Award for Best Actress.
I thought it was a very funny, and a very Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place/Clickbait kind of idea, and, honestly, I assume that everyone who reads this site does so because they’re familiar with me as a writer and know, like and understand my comedic voice, and my overall sensibility. I learned otherwise when “Exclusive: Affleck Officially Out as Batman”, an ironic spoof of sleazy, bait-and-switch clickbait cynicism, went viral to the extent anything can on a site this small and homemade can.
At this point, the two most-read pieces on this site are both clickbait parodies: “Exclusive: Affleck Officially Out as Batman” and “Why Hollywood Won’t Cast Andie MacDowell”, neither of which has been online for longer than two weeks. I’m proud of these pieces, but it fills me with mixed emotions when something I wrote in a half hour as a goof gets read three or four times more than articles I slaved away on, and devoted entire days to.
I also discovered this week that my clickbait parodies are being read by people who have no idea who I am, what Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place is, or why the category of “Clickbait” here is an elaborate meta-meditation on clickbait, and not actual clickbait. Some of these people were hopefully amused, and also driven to check out The Trip to Bountiful by the Affleck piece. But some of these people clicked on “Exclusive: Affleck Officially Out as Batman” because they naturally assumed that it was a straight-faced, non-ironic, non-satirical article and were not pleased when it turned out to be some weird spiel about The Trip To Bountiful and some weird site they’d never heard of’s commitment to weird, unpopular, uncommercial shit.
And I feel bad about that. I don’t want people to feel like I’m tricking them maliciously to steal clicks for my website. And the piece’s popularity, both in page-views and on social media, let me know that my parody of clickbait functions in the outside world a lot like actual clickbait, and I can understand people feel tricked or manipulated by pieces like the Affleck fake-out.
I realize I walk a fine line between mocking clickbait and making it. I don’t want to be one of those assholes manipulating people to make money and goose the page-views, but I’ve also noticed that the Ben Affleck piece, which I wrote in about a half hour, has been read about twenty times more than the average the Weird Accordion to Al article, and as a small businessman who believes deeply in his product and his customers and wants his humble little website to succeed, and endure, I would be a fool to abandon my most popular items because some people might misunderstand it.
I will continue writing parodies of clickbait but I’m not going to assume that they’ll only be read by fans of this site anymore. Hopefully that’ll allow people to read these pieces in the anarchic, irreverent spirit in which they’re written and intended, and not as the work of just another asshole playing cynical word games to trick people into frequenting his site.
Support Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place and my heroic war on clickbait at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace