Does BuzzFeed engage in clickbait? That depends on your definition

So BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith wrote a post on Thursday about clickbait, a post that appears to have been triggered by a dismissive comment that Jon Stewart made about the site in an interview with New York magazine, in which he compared BuzzFeed to a carnival barker on Coney Island. The upshot of the post is that Smith doesn’t believe BuzzFeed engages in clickbait — or at least not the kind of clickbait that he and others are thinking of when they use the word.

Not surprisingly, Smith’s defense of his website’s motives sparked a spirited debate among media types on Twitter about a) whether BuzzFeed does clickbait and b) what the definition of clickbait is. I’ve collected some of that debate in a Twitter custom timeline, which I’ve embedded below. What’s interesting about it is that there is very little agreement on those questions. Clickbait is actually a more complicated issue than most admit — and one that highlights a weakness of online media.

For many of the journalists and media theorists in my stream, the term clickbait refers to a kind of bait-and-switch approach to content: in other words, a headline that promises one thing, but leads to a post or story or listicle that fails to deliver on that promise.

The curiosity gap

The classic form of clickbait, according to this definition, features what some call a “curiosity gap” headline — the kind that says “A little boy met some baby pandas, and you’ll never believe what happened next,” or something like that. As more than one person pointed out, BuzzFeed has often used exactly this kind of headline construction, or similar terms that arguably qualify.

Jon Stewart’s description of clickbait, the one that Smith was responding to, is also a pretty good one for this version of the term: although he doesn’t actually refer to sites like BuzzFeed and VICE specifically, he says that many websites are “like carnival barkers, and they all sit out there and go, ‘Come on in here and see a three-legged man!’ So you walk in and it’s a guy with a crutch.”

The problem is that not everyone defines clickbait in this limited way — and a number of people, including Dan Sinker of Mozilla’s OpenNews project, argued that Smith deliberately chose a definition of clickbait that doesn’t encompass what BuzzFeed does, i.e. the failure to deliver on a promise. In a sense, Smith is saying: “If we have a headline that says you’re going to get stupid cat GIFs, you will damn well get a post with stupid cat GIFs.”

A more popular view of clickbait, however — or at least one that seems to be common outside the media sphere — is anything a site does that tries to trick people into clicking on a link, whether it’s hyperbole, exaggeration, the use of celebrity names, irrelevant but titillating images, etc. By that definition, much of what BuzzFeed does (with the exception of some of its serious longform journalism) probably qualifies as clickbait.

Old media invented clickbait

As a number of people have pointed out — including Smith himself — this form of clickbait is as old as newspapers themselves, and probably older. A Deadspin writer found some amazing examples of articles from the 1920s that were either outright lies or involved horrendously exaggerated claims, something that tabloids still engage in to this day as a form of what Jeff Jarvis called “coin bait,” or an attempt to get people to actually pay for a newspaper.

So why are we still having this conversation? Jeff Jarvis and Slate writer Will Oremus have put their finger on part of the answer: because clickbait — regardless of which definition you use — is inextricably linked to the media’s desire to drive traffic to their websites, in order to generate enough advertising revenues to remain in business. Even though BuzzFeed doesn’t have banner ads, which Smith argues makes it immune to this kind of pressure, it is still trying to generate interest in its native advertising skills, which amounts to the same thing.

In the end, as Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab put it, clickbait seems to be the term that both readers and media professionals use to refer to something that they don’t like. The headlines and articles that use similar methods but match their expectations are just called “news.” And regardless of what we call what BuzzFeed does, Mandy Brown of Editorially makes a good point: if using stupid cat GIFs can generate enough revenue to pay for some serious journalism, then more power to them.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Thinkstock / Huchen Lu