The internet didn’t invent viral content or clickbait journalism — there’s just more of it now, and it happens faster

Whenever the subject of “viral” content or clickbait journalism comes up — usually in a blog post or news story about either Upworthy or BuzzFeed, or one of their many imitators — there’s a tendency to blame the phenomenon on the internet, as though there was no such thing as clickbait-style journalism until the social web came along. But all the internet and social media have done is increase the supply, and probably the speed — that kind of content is as old as humanity.
Lapham’s Quarterly came up with some relatively ancient examples in a recent post entitled “Going Viral in the 19th Century.” At that time, it was commonplace for newspapers and magazines to include silly or amusing anecdotes, trivia, jokes and bad poetry as a way of lightening up the news. Newspaper editor Frederick Hudson was apparently driven to despair by these light-hearted items, which ran under headings like “Witticisms” or “Oddities.”

“These odds and ends, often undignified with bylines, offered distinctive servings of that history-is-weird feeling so beloved by the Internet these days. The columns often included racist overtones, sexist underpinnings, and were blithe about topics we now perceive as sobering, or sober about topics we find hilarious.”

Newspapers were there first

That description could just as easily be applied to a site like BuzzFeed or Gawker or Upworthy, I think — especially the much-criticized BuzzFeed tendency to use light-hearted methods to talk about serious topics, such as the post “The Story of Egypt’s Revolution In Jurassic Park GIFs.” But it’s clear that this isn’t something the internet invented, it has just applied more modern distribution techniques.
Jurassic Park - Egypt
After a debate about “hamster wheel” journalism and how it drives journalists to seek pageviews above all else, Tim Marchman of Deadspin wrote a post criticizing the rush to brand every kind of new-media article as clickbait — as though more traditional forms of media didn’t care about generating interest or appealing to an audience using whatever means possible, including outright lies, half-baked theories and hoaxes, and emotional manipulation.
His example of an earlier form of clickbait came from the Lawrence Journal-World in 1922, which ran an article about a gang of hoodlums who reported attacked a man and stole one of his genitals, presumably “for an experiment in gland transplantation, perhaps for the purpose of rejuvenating some infirm or aged man.” The story was picked up by other newspapers as well, including the Fort-Worth Star Telegram and even the Ottawa Citizen. As Marchman put it:

“The word clickbait presents a tautology as a criticism. You published something, and want people to read it, too. Taken at face value, it’s less than meaningless — it’s self-negating [and] it’s moralistic, proposing a false binary between stories that serve the public interest and those cynically presented just because people will read them.”

Even Martin Luther went viral

Although Marchman doesn’t go into it, newspapers have what is probably the worst track record in the media world for coming up with hysterical and/or thinly-sourced journalism designed to inflame the passions of readers on various topics, including sexism, racism and other negative emotions — not to mention printing outright hoaxes, etc. without checking.
Anyone who has read some of the history of press baron William Randolph Hearst is probably familiar with the worst of that period in US journalistic history — a reputation that led to the phrase “yellow journalism” (which came from the Hearst papers’ use of a cartoon called The Yellow Kid to boost revenues, something that seems very BuzzFeed-like). British tabloids have arguably been even worse.
Author and Economist editor Tom Standage has written an entire book about the similarities between the media that we have now — i.e., the social kind — and the media we used to have centuries ago. In one chapter excerpted in the Economist, he wrote about how Martin Luther, the creator of the modern Protestant movement, essentially used the social media of his day (pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts) to spread his message as quickly and broadly as possible.
In other words, social media and its effect on journalism or the news industry isn’t really a new phenomenon created by the internet — it’s just that the internet has done what it does to almost everything, which is to make it easier to create, publish and spread than it has ever been before. And judging by the success of some of those outlets, many people seem to enjoy it.
Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Shutterstock / mj007