Why Does Hate-Read-Fueled Clickbait Work?
Over the weekend I, and the rest of the Internet, encountered a clickbait article from a twenty-four year old who had just seen Heathers for the first time and found the whole enterprise to be in unforgivably poor taste. I knew exactly what I was in for when I read a headline containing the title of a beloved pop culture touchstone like Heathers, the age of the person writing the article and the phrase “yikes.”
I nevertheless hate-clicked on the article, then hate-read it in a deeply unproductive frenzy and was about to share the article on Facebook, either through my main page or my group Society for the Toleration of Nathan Rabin before I realized that I was doing exactly what the website wanted me to do: drive up page-views and advertising revenues by encouraging other people to read the article if only to point out how terrible it is.
In a dark form of digital judo, clickbait transforms the furious anger and glowering judgment of the general public into ad sales and cash money. The article I’m referring to, which was seemingly designed to enrage and provoke the public into sharing it in a post mocking the author, the article and the generational mindset behind it, has no doubt been read and shared a hundred times more than the most popular article on this website, if no more.
We’re inundated with hate-read-fueled clickbait because hate-read-fueled clickbait works. But why does it work? If we all know that by reading and sharing and instigating a cultural conversation about an article on account of it being so fucking stupid and ignorant that we just can’t fucking believe it we’re only adding to the popularity and commercial success of what we’re ostensibly condemning, then why do we do it?
Why was I about to share the article in a fury of judgment even though I knew that doing so would only make it more of a page-view blockbuster?
The answer, I suppose, has a lot to do with the deeply human need to prove that we are right. That is particularly important online, where we are partial to a form of performative correctness: by sharing the article from the 22 year old who egregiously did not understand Seinfeld or a 24 year old who did not get Heathers we can illustrate to ourselves, our friends, our timeline and the world that we are not like these naive, sheltered children. We share these articles to illustrate to the world that we went to college and read A Modest Proposal and Lolita and watched Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange and consequently are able to appreciate and contextualize dark comedy instead of viewing it exclusively through a prism of cultural hyper-sensitivity.
We share these articles because the cheap thrill that comes with dunking on a dumb article overrides our understanding of how clickbait and the internet works. We share these articles because we feel a desperate need to prove just superior we are to the article and the person who wrote it. We share these articles because we want to win Twitter by having the best, funniest and most incisive response to the article, to get the most likes and re-tweets and attention.
There’s a huge element of generational anger and superiority at play here as well. These articles cynically promote the notion that college kids today are incapable of placing the art and entertainment of the past in a historical context, that they can only perceive it through the prism of their own limited life experiences and the gender, racial and class sensitive of the constantly shifting present.
So we take to the internet to angrily illustrate that, unlike a 22 or 24 year old who only rises to brief prominence due to their egregious misunderstanding of Seinfeld or Heathers, we get it, we understand what makes that show and movie awesome, unlike the kid that wrote the article.
Sometimes we share the post we hate. Other times we merely comment on posts making fun of the original post, adding our own snarky, superior judgement to the mix to further establish our intellectual and cultural superiority over the article. Articles like these afford us all an opportunity to feel superior and informed, in a sort of cyber-elitism that comes with feeling above not not just clickbait articles but the internet as a whole.
Hate-reading is the path to the dark side. Hate-reading leads to anger. Hate-reading leads to hate. Hate-reading leads to suffering. Okay, I stole that from Yoda and it’s not entirely accurate but it’s not entirely inaccurate either.
I’ve been so angered by clickbait articles like this that I created a parody of the Seinfeld one and now a second, separate blog post analyzing these articles’ psychological triggers. In encouraging people not to fall for clickbait I am of course giving clickbait attention, which is the oxygen it needs to live.
In the future I am going to try not to fall for clickbait headlines that promise, and invariably deliver, something eminently hate-read-worthy. Oh, who am I kidding? I’ll probably always fall for that shit but I’m not going to share these posts anymore because honestly, feeling the need to publicly illustrate that you are better and smarter than articles specifically designed to make everyone feel better and smarter is almost as ugly and cynical an impulse as the need for page-views and revenue that creates clickbait like this in the first place.
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