The Anti-Clickbait Movement and the Return of Long Form Writing

Fishing for another click
Fishing for another click

Depressed by the rise in Clickbait, One Blogger Does Something to Restore Readers’ Faith in Humanity

Bloggers have it tough, working long hours, paying to play, for an audience that may never stay. The world sees our failure as the punchline to an elaborate joke. As far as they’re concerned, our words are selfies for snobs, journals masquerading as journalism, vanity press that wouldn’t exist without the internet.

Scroll through your Facebook feed, compare the choices to what we’re offering. If readers have to pick between our editorial on net neutrality and a report on the death of The Walking Dead’s lead, it’s hard to compete (Andrew Lincoln is alive and well, but that article will be accurate eventually). Sure, we might have important information on OK Cupid’s psychological manipulation plan, but there’s a report going around that Orange is the New Black has been cancelled again.

There’s new footage of a goat/sheep hybrid. This ‘Geep’ is too cute to be ignored. What are we offering that’s so much more enlightening?

While these eye catching links score the page views our latest efforts becomes old news.

When the person next to us is reading clickbait, it’s hard to imagine they’ll ever read one of our long form articles. They may find the experience more rewarding, but they know it’ll be time consuming. While we offer food for thought, they’re choosing junk food instead.

Plenty of bloggers have come down with a case of viral envy. Seeing our friends post lackluster links, we start ‘share shaming’, combing through articles like ‘Things You Never Noticed About Famous Movies’ for factual accuracy.

Spoofing BuzzFeed's logo to make a point
Spoofing BuzzFeed’s logo to make a point

How this Blogger handles Sour Grapes Over Clickbait is Genius

People enjoy reading lists, but do they ever recognize the authorship? They like the format, but would they ever pay for a book written by a contributor? These sites are tailored for turnover. After churning out top ten lists, where can a BuzzFeed freelancer go from there? How many agents are knocking down their door?

People keep telling me there’s no money in long form writing, but how many of these clickbait contributors are rolling in it? How many of them have a long term plan? It’s hard to imagine there’s job security in what they do. The format is so easy to replicate the satirical UpWorthy Generator could replace the headlines on Upworthy proper.

We bloggers, aspiring to be authors, keep telling ourselves that we’re the tortoise and these viral writers are the hare. They’re beating us in traffic but we have a far better chance of getting to our destination. We just have to keep inching along without the instant gratification of watching our stats surge.

We love Memes, but Viral Content Might Be Making Us Sick

In his book The Shallows, Nicholas G. Carr says all this constant skimming is affecting the way we think. Exposure to the internet changes how our minds work offline. The neuroplasticity of our brains shifts, increasing our appetite for entertainment, reducing our attention spans, making it tough to embrace a mere moment of silence.

We’re hungry for information, but only in bite sized little chunks.

Clickbaiters are at the forefront of exploiting this phenomenon. Their science is in composing titles our curiosity can’t help but click on (i.e. everything in bold in this article). Each page view generates revenue. UpWorthy writes 25 headlines for everything they share, meticulously placing hooks readers can’t ignore.

While UpWorthy’s headlines inflate their videos to epic proportions, other sites resort to outright fabrications. If the internet teaches us anything, it’s that the common denominator can always get a little lower.

3 Click Bait

There’s a New Condition that Causes Sufferers to Confuse Lying with Satire

There’s a gullibility test going around Facebook. The way it works is one of your friends posts a link to an article with a headline that’s too amazing to be true, like:

CONFIRMED: HPV Vaccine Linked to Dementia
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Sixth Extinction Event Will Happen in Our Lifetime
Woody Harrelson Shot and Killed Outside of Vegas Nightclub

Here’s where this becomes a test: do you do a quick Google search for more information, see if the New York times has weighed in on these developments, or do you just hit ‘share’ to inform your friends?

If you hit ‘share’ you should look up, it says ‘GULLIBLE’ on the ceiling.

One of the biggest culprits of this technique is EmpireNews.net. Every article on their home page looks like a scoop, big developments every major news outlets are trailing behind on. The headlines are crazy, but not too far outside the realm of reason.

EmpireNews.net bills itself as “a satirical entertainment website.” Like The Onion without the irony, exaggeration, or social commentary.

Here’s some examples of their “jokes”:

Jimmy Fallon Fired From The ‘Tonight Show’ After Feud With NBC Executives; Will Jay Leno Return?
‘Ghost Adventures’ Star Gets Fired, Reveals Disappointing Truth About Paranormal Television Series
Facebook Announces New Design Changes, Massive Overhaul Coming In October

These are works of fiction, but unlike entries from The Onion they’re too banal to be satirical.

The idea of Jimmy Fallon feuding with NBC Executives isn’t ironic. TV personalities posture for raises all the time. There’s no real mockery. A satirical headline would’ve read:

Conan O’Brien Fired From ‘The Conan O’Brien Show’ After Feud with TBS; Jay Leno to Take Over Title Role.

It would feature a Photoshopped picture of Leno sporting Conan’s iconic red hair, and it would’ve come out over a year ago, when it would’ve been timely. Empire’s title is designed to upset Fallon’s fans, tricking his viewers into sharing the bad news with their friends.

Faking TV show cancellations, celebrity arrests or deaths, is a cheap way to find success. It get’s clicks, but those clicks don’t guarantee engagement. At the time of this writing none of the articles on EmpireNews’s main page feature a single comment. Either no one has anything to say, or the admins delete anything critical of what they’re doing.

Empire News is looking for contributors. Nowhere on their hiring page do they mention humor. Part of me wants to apply, submitting the dictionary definition of ‘satire’ as my writing sample.

4 Click Bait

Long form Journalism is making a comeback, You’ll Never Guess Where

If you visit BuzzFeed’s main page, you’ll find something funny. Above the trending titles, footage of celebrity fisticuffs, and videos of kittens, is news. At the time of this writing, the ceasefire in Gaza is the top headline. Next to that is a thorough article on Uganda striking down its Anti-Homosexuality act.

While local newspapers are doing everything they can to turn themselves into printed versions of websites, BuzzFeed is dabbling in 2,000 + word articles. Two years ago BuzzFeed hired former SPIN and Details editor Steve Kandell to edit their long form content. Kandell’s goal was to produce sharable editorials, after all it’s the title that gets the click, but he realizes that it’s the depth that gets the engagement.

I knew none of this when I started this piece. I assumed BuzzFeed was the big bad and traditional media was picking up its habits. A little research, spun my thesis on its head.

My friends in local news outlets tell stories about editors begging for more top ten lists, drooling at the prospect of getting BuzzFeed’s traffic.

Traditional media is destroying traditional media by confusing reduction with adaptation. By shifting their efforts to quick consumption, they abandon topics worth sharing. By curating someone else’s content they diminish the value of their own. While CNN fills their main page with videos of puppies, in a desperate attempt to beat BuzzFeed at their own game, BuzzFeed is dabbling in real news.

This is something to keep in mind whenever someone tells you, “There’s no room for real writing in a post-BuzzFeed world.”

BuzzFeed doesn’t seem to think so.

Long form writing isn’t a dated practice, it’s a niche, one in need of writers willing to embrace it.

Bloggers, if you can’t fit your thesis into 500 words, go longer. Complete your thought. Your intriguing headline deserves an equally compelling closing argument. It’s easier to get readers to click on your page than to follow it. Show them that you have what it takes to go the distance.

16 thoughts on “The Anti-Clickbait Movement and the Return of Long Form Writing”

  1. In many ways, what’s going on with news websites and “news” websites these days follows some journalistic principles that may have been ignored or forgotten. Something I learned in school spoke of the 30-3-30 rule of readership. It divided newspaper readers into three categories: Skimmers who spend 30 seconds looking at something, light readers who spend 3 minutes reading an article, and deep readers who spend 30 minutes reading the entire paper.

    Buzzfeed and “listicles” are obviously geared towards the 30-second skimmers. They try to drive traffic to their sites based on the assumption that people want information in short bursts. Except this is nothing new; people who skim newspapers wanted information in short bursts long before the internet came around. What they need to learn to do is pull in people’s interest and then get them to stay for the extra few minutes it takes to read a long form article.

    A simple journalistic method to do that is to open an article with the most basic information on a topic so the skimmers can get the details: “A woman was mugged outside Sears Hardware today. The mugger escaped with $3.50 and the victim’s fresh-baked bagel. Police are still searching for the suspect.” Bam, skimmers have read enough to know the details. Then anyone who wants to learn more can read deeper, finding out the answers to the big questions: What kind of bagel was it? Butter or cream cheese? Was it toasted? These tidbits can be placed further down the article with the hopes that someone will continue reading and graduate from skimmer to long reader.

    I have no idea if Buzzfeed currently uses any similar techniques in their articles. But it seems like an adequate balance to allow for quick readers without resorting to their cheesy lists.

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    1. Thanks for this well though out comment.

      The 30-3-30 ratio makes a lot of sense to me. It’s smart to have content that engages all types of readers. BuzzFeed is starting to move into producing 30 minute content to engage the readers they’ve been missing. My fear is that CNN and New York Times are getting desperate to engage the 30 second reader.

      My problem is with serious news outlets putting more emphasis on puff pieces, things that look like they might become memes, and human interest stories with the potential to go viral.

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  2. As always Drew, you have hit the nail on the head. You know me, I’m not known for my short blog posts and I’m struggling with flash fiction. But if what I have to say takes 3000 words then damn it, I will take 3000 words. No, I won’t necessarily get my stats sky rocketing (though maybe my content and style has more to do with that) but I’d rather have 3 people read and enjoy what I wrote in detail and have a response to it and them follow the blog than thousands who read the headline and then just hit share for the sake of it.
    I missed Monday Blogs last week, so ‘m taking time now to catch up and read and respond to those posts I like and missed. Thankfully I am only a skimmer if the subject doesn’t interest me, otherwise I’m sticking around. Being in something for the long haul is always s much more rewarding than a quick one night stand.

    Jason’s comments above are also pertinent. There have always been skimmers. I do think the net has decreased many attention spans though. Investing in our disposable, throwaway, instant gratification world seems tough for many these days.Sadly. Insightful post as always Drew. 🙂

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    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

      I’m like you. I start reading most blog entries as a skimmer. On MondayBlogs I pile on a bunch of tabs and read them all at once later in the day.

      I’m always happy when people make the time to stick through one of my long form essays.

      I’m starting to get a sense of what draws out the bigger crowds. Pieces on social media criticism and internet culture do well, so long as I don’t have to explain what net neutrality means (sadly, those pieces tank). Pieces on fringe writing advice, you don’t see everywhere, tend to do well too. My pop culture-centric pieces are actually hit and miss.

      My short stories get the least amount of traffic. My last foray into fan fiction didn’t get any traction, but I like doing those pieces the most, so I do.

      Like

      1. I was in the middle of reading your latest short earlier, but had to stop to go out, but I’m getting back to it tonight. But yes, I hear you. I have found my fiction pieces generally get less traffic. My 300 word Flash piece did better, perhaps confirming the theory that attention spans are ebbing away somewhat. Time is more an issue with me these days, but I’ll make time to read quality. Anyway, I was enjoying you John Constantine piece so I’m hopping back across now! 🙂

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  3. A-Fucking-Men, Drew.

    And in regards to the bullshit headlines, I can practically smell the fabrications within the headlines when I see them and I just roll my eyes. I think…or I would hope that someday people would get tired of it and stop feeding the mouths of the bullshitters, but then I realize my grandmother still buys National Enquirer and she’s like 70, so…(not to dish on my grandmother. I just laugh when she looks at me all shocked and starts telling me about the latest Enquirer article she just read).

    Great post, as always 🙂

    Like

    1. Thanks. It’s nice to see my friends in the blogging community sharing the same sentiment. I’m really glad you were into this one.

      I know what you mean with your mother and the Enquirer. My father watches Ancient Aliens and challenges me to dispel the talking heads’ arguments.

      My bullshit filter is getting more and more refined. Every time my friend reads something that’s too bizarre to be true in his FaceBook feed we place bets on if it’s true.

      What I think is funny, is how many people get offended by clearly fake Onion headlines.

      Like

      1. Ancient Aliens…the best talking head in my opinion is Giorgio Tsoukalos. My ex-boyfriend watched this show, and that guy always cracked me up with his crazy hair, wild gestures, and the strength behind his conviction about his alien research. You didn’t say whether you agree with the talking heads, so I will present this article that I found entertaining without comment, http://previously.tv/ancient-aliens/meet-superhunks-ancient-alienss-first-episode/ 🙂

        Placing bets on the truth behind the words that fly through the FaceBook feed…reminds me of that TV show about ways to die that seem ridiculous and it’s revealed at the end of the show whether they actually happened or are just urban legends.

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  4. Terrific as usual, Drew. We long-formers can do naught but soldier onwards. Personally, as Joanne says, I’d rather have a handful of devoted, dedicated, engaged readers than thousands of mindlessly clicking rubes who can’t wait to hear my next 140-word musing on Kim Kardashian’s ten favorite brands of eyeliner.

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    1. Preach on. I feel the same way. I’d rather readers could for my unique flavor and not another take on a celebrity sex tape.

      It makes me what we long-formers can do to make ourselves more distinct amongst all the links.

      Like

  5. This is a great post, and I think you’ve really gotten to the heart of it—look at your own paper, do your best work, and your audience will find you. (Though you do do some pretty darn good marketing yourself ;))

    Like

  6. Hey, Drew. I’m following a Twitter link you just posted, leading back to this previous article. Let me be the first to weigh in “this time around.”

    First, I’m glad you repost links to previous articles; otherwise, I would have missed this. It’s confirmation that I’m on the right track doing the same with my own blog.

    Now, let me tell you about you. Then about me. Then about you and me.

    You: I skim the click-ables in my Twitter feed rapidly, but tend to stop on yours. And I read the entire article when I do, including all comments. It’s not because I have tons of time on my hands. It’s because the FIRST thing I read by you was valuable and well-written; it was engaging and had a clear voice; and the photos were both intriguing and well-placed to draw the reader along. That made me come back a second time. And with each time, I find you actually have something new and uniquely “you” to say. That is why I come back.

    Me: I’ve been experimenting. I tend to write longer posts. Stories almost. Recently, however, I broke what would have been a longer post into a four-part series. My unique visitor stats and shares were markedly LOWER than my long-form articles. Today, I posted a nearly 2000-word post (goo.gl/V3Cgu1) — and it received my highest one-day visitor totals ever. This was seconded by another longer article earlier this month. What I did DIFFERENTLY on these two, articles however, was that I made the first line of the posts — which shows in most social media — something controversial or “delicious.” I then deliberately placed “juicy” stories or comments at the top of the posts — but then left off on them (forming cliffhangers) for some commentary, promising or implying that I would finish those stories later on. This seems to be effectively engaging the “sensationalists” and skimmers, and turning some of them into long-form readers, as well.

    I’ve also been adding LOTS of tags, alt text for images, etc. And I am getting search engine “cold hits” for the first time.

    One more thing I’ve found bringing in more traffic is that I just realized you can list your own articles with StumbleUpon. Maybe everyone else already knew this, but it was new to me. That not only increased my visits, but broadened the scope to many other countries, which is fun to see.

    You and me: I also come back to read your posts because I do feel a certain sense of something like camaraderie when I read your material. I feel like you are telling the truth of the way things are for “us,” not just you. And that goes a long way.

    BTW, I also finished “Terms and Conditions.” Dropped you an email if you want to talk shop.

    Liked by 1 person

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