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The humanity of clickbait

I do this thing that drives my husband nuts. “Whoa, I cannot believe this,” I say, while reading something on my laptop.

After some defiant silence has passed, he relents with a “What?!”

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And with that, I can reveal and continue my story.

I have, in essence, clickbaited him. And like many, many others, it annoys him to no end.

More and more, the tendrils of clickbait are creeping up through every crack of social media, from that bog of all things clicky and baity, Buzzfeed, to the super-posi clicktivist pastures of rhetorical questions Upworthy, to the scores of other clicksand pits whose names you only catch in passing while chasing quizzes, animated GIFs, or the promise of kittens that resemble presidents (think Viral Nova, Uproxx, Thought Catalog, Distractify, and roughly 5 billion others).

The unfaltering availability of clickbait is rivaled only by the tantalizing pull of its trivial vagaries: “A Talking Parrot Met A Stuffed Rabbit - You’ll Never Believe What The Parrot Did Next!” Oh, won’t I? “A Dead Whale Just Washed Ashore. What They Found In Its Belly Implicates Trader Joe’s.” Gross. Go on. “14 Grandparents Walked on Stage. The Judges Weren’t Impressed Until They Did THIS!” OMG, did WHAT?! Click! Click! Click!

So widespread is the clickbait infestation that last week, the satirical outlet The Onion had to launch an entirely new site, ClickHole, just to mock it properly. The site is a pitch-perfect sendup of “must-share” nonsense listicles (“Six Heads You Never Realized Were Also On Mt. Rushmore”), unrevealing quizzes (including a “Which ‘Mad Men’ Character Are You?” quiz in which everyone must be Pete, and no one can ever be Don), and plenty of the ultimately unrewarding deep-scrolling photo galleries we’ve come to expect — just with an amped-up sense of pointlessness (e.g., “16 Pictures Of Beyonce Where She’s Not Sinking in Quicksand”).

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ClickHole presents a disconcertingly faithful replica of the Internet’s desperate courtship of a TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) culture, complete with the excess outrage (“Can Someone Tell Me What Monsanto Is So I Can Hate It?”) and empty validation (a quiz titled “Is Your Dad Proud Of You?”) that fill the voids of our timelines. Editor Jermaine Affonso summed up ClickHole’s journalistic ethos to comedy site Splitsider.com: “Please click on ClickHole, please please please.”

The only thing outpacing the kudzu-like spread of clickbait is the abundance of critical anxiety over it. The word has become a pejorative, prompting Upworthy to clarify that its 87 million monthly users were there not because its links were worth clicking, but because its content was worth sharing. Mathew Ingram recently wrestled with the value of such viral do-goodery at Gigaom. The Guardian’s Steve Hind felt compelled to come to the defense of clickbait, crediting Buzzfeed for using silly stuff to lead readers to smarter stuff. And Dan Kennedy recently filed a report from a WGBH Future of Journalism panel titled “Clickbait: Have We Reached The Limit” — which would ironically be the most clickbaity headline ever, were it not for the conclusion: “Yes.” (See: Betteridge’s Law)

Recently in the American Reader, Michael Reid Roberts offered an enlightening look at the rhetorical tropes of Upworthy-style “clicktivism,” exploring clickbaiters’ strategic use of suspense, a dedication to “restoring your faith in humanity,” and an abiding faith in the click-wicking powers of assured disbelief. “Is Upworthy,” Roberts asks, “indirectly addressing a crisis of faith that internet users collectively feel?”

Roberts is onto something, but it goes beyond just Upworthy. All clickbait engages us on a level wholly different from the old world of straightforward headlining. By nature clickbait headlines are uninformative, misleading, and loaded, but there’s something relatable about them — human, even. Clickbait taps into our uncertainty, our desire, our thirst for currency, and our hunger for wonder — even if it hardly ever actually delivers.

There’s a perfectly good reason for all of this emotional manipulation. The optimization wars between dowdy, nouny, keyword-driven SEO (search engine optimization) and the comparatively leg-showing, click-coaxing, temptress tactics of SMO (social media optimization) are still somewhat raging, but marketers have started leaning en masse toward the latter . . . and you won’t believe what happened next.

In its own irritating way, clickbait is really no different than the ad creep that we’ve been alternately subjected to and charmed by for decades (oh hello, Citgo sign). As Americans, we’ve long embraced the gawdy flash of consumer culture; we’ve even adopted it into our sense of beauty through everything from those sing-song Burma Shave roadsigns of the ’20s to the work of artists like Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, and Robert Indiana. Will clickbait ever manage to endear us?

That may be a long shot. But, if you can train yourself to step out from the cross hairs of targeted content and tune out the frequency of the sales pitch, if you can learn to read clickbait mindfully — with an ear for its built-in vulnerability, its essential expression of desire — you can actually find some poetry in the stuff. Behold these haikus I just plucked from the wild.

Here is the most im-

pressive hopping baby goat

stampede of all time.

*****

What if all the crap

You’ve ever thrown away came

back to visit you?

*****

This grandpa dancing

just made my day. I bet he’ll

do the same for you :)

You could say that as bad as it gets, it could be verse. Try it yourself (and tweet your poems with #clickbaithaiku). It’s a simple and effective way to refresh your view of clickbait — and the results WILL BLOW YOUR MIND.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.

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