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Monday, February 1, 2016

Decoding Clickbait: Studies Show You Are Better Than Your Friends


A while back I wrote a piece on what clickbait is and why it goes beyond being annoying into being actively bad. But as I watch Facebook and other social media slowly starting to learn that 'Fifteen Things Game of Thrones Taught Us About Having Allergies' and 'You Won't Believe What This Farmer Does with This Hacksaw' aren't doing anyone any favours, I see clickbait sites seeing this, too. And I see them adapting.

As I mentioned before, I used to do this for a living. I left my desk job right at the beginning of the BuzzFeed boom, so I got to see the early attempts people made at getting readers to their site No Matter What. Unfortunately, rather than realizing that stability lies in good solid stories, sites just think up new ways to get people to share without having to say much of anything.

... Now, that's a big thing to remember when you examine the progress of clickbait. Yes, they want hits. But they also want shares, and they want it to boost their social media presence. This is a side effect of certain social media services having algorithms that punish you for not getting enough engagement, thus strong-arming people into either buying advertising or resorting to cheap tricks to get clicks.

I'll be popping in now and again to cover different types of clickbait in between my usual sorts of post. At this point, I'm looking at one I've seen a lot, and one my friends (and occasionally I) fall victim to on the regular: studies showing you're awesome.

You know the type I'm talking about. It doesn't register as clickbait because the headline is relatively clear: 'Studies Show That People Who Swear Have a Larger Vocabulary.' 'Studies Show That Sarcastic People Have Better Problem-Solving Skills.' And so on. Then when you get to the article -- assuming you did, you may have just reposted without reading because hey -- it's a small study done by students at Wassamatta U showing that people allegedly possessing the trait in question are better at the thing in question by what would, in any study outside cancer research, be a negligibly small margin.

And yet, even though the pieces are inevitably fluff, we feel drawn to push them forward. Why?

There are a few things to understand about the internet demographic, especially in this part of the 21st century. One of them, possibly the most important, is that the sort of people most likely to spend large amounts of time on the internet seem to have classified a certain set of traits as both admirable and subversive. Things like high intelligence, reading a lot, being sarcastic, swearing on the regular, being 'weird,' etc.

However, there are some problems with setting those things up as The Way To Be:

1. They are not inherently good or bad. I mean, yeah, not being a Flat Earther is a good thing. Knowing basic facts to get through your life is important. But there is nothing genuinely wrong with not having been in the National Honor Society, or not reading a book a day, or preferring mainstream television. If you're a decent human being and you got through school with a C average, you're not actually somehow inferior to your friend who made straight A's and never socialized because she was too busy re-reading Anna Karenina. And (sorry, fellow nerds) the people who would rather watch sitcoms of an evening are not inferior to people chain-smoking Jessica Jones.

2. Their ascribed goodness often stems from a need for outside validation. This is a proviso to and acknowledgment of some context re: the above. You were in grade school and someone called you a book nerd. You were in high school and got in trouble for swearing. Maybe someone in your office right now is making fun of your action figures on your desk. So there is a sense of liberation in being validated over the trait that was used against you, absolutely. But the flaw comes in when you assume that validation can only be found when the trait you were mocked for makes you better than the people who mocked you.

3. They are not even remotely subversive. It doesn't necessarily seem that way, because we're constantly confronted with examples of the opposite. But the world is not starving for intelligent people, heavy readers, F-bomb droppers, sarcastic bastards, people with niche interests, or any of that. We're genuinely everywhere. Hell, we're everywhere enough that people are targeting clickbait at us. If we were genuinely in short supply, the tactic I'm discussing would be a massive waste of time.

4. They are not quantifiable. I've had people tell me I'm on a whole other level intellectually, but I consider myself way below many people I know. I've had people call me sarcastic but I am pretty damn low on my own scale. As for 'weird'? Your Auntie Patty may feel like she's born to be wild because she put a pink streak in her hair, while your best friend considers sex 'too vanilla' unless at least five people are involved and no fewer than two are dressed up as Mounties.

So the Way To Be for your typical netizen -- smart, sarky, in-your-face, and unafraid to be Totally Weird -- is a set of standards that pretty much anyone who wants to can pull up tight around them and identify as. Which is not to say that those aren't aspects of an identity. But they are easily relatable, and the irony is that part of the pleasure of identifying with them is the misapprehension that they are rare, and thus you are rare. (You are rare, dear reader, but for far more interesting and individual reasons, I promise.)

Enter this brand of clickbait. It's easy to poke around in old studies and find something within that list of commonly uncommon traits. People do studies on weird stuff all the time. There's literally only one requirement: the weird trait has to 'come out on top.' It doesn't matter by how much. Even if it's only by a fraction of a percent, you can say, 'Sure, it's a negligible different, but it's still a difference' and open it up to reader comments.

The other problem with these studies is -- remember what I said -- these traits aren't really quantifiable. The people who ran the study had to come up with something, but their standards and the standards of the people reposting the article don't necessarily mesh. They luck out here, though, because as I said, not everyone reads before they post. They just see a headline that says 'A scientist said people like me are better than the people who criticize me' and boom, away it goes.

And let's be real, who wouldn't want that? Who doesn't want someone in the know to come up to us on one of our sore points and say 'Irrefutable proof says you'll live longer and get more sex than the people who ridicule you'?

But that's not what's going on here. What's going on is that a bunch of content millers know that they are telling you what you want to hear, and that you will show it to all your friends, most of whom will associate on some level with the extremely subjective personality trait set forth and share it with all their friends. And so on, and so on, and so on. It's a new brand of clickbait that feeds on insecurity and a need for validation rather than curiosity.

The worst part is, this isn't the only variant. Some other time, I'll tell you about the people who decide to insult you instead.