Please Stop Saving Me A Click
Here's an online behavior that's worth reconsidering.
Lately, a new behavior seems to be picking up steam. More and more, average men, women, androgynous novelty Twitter accounts, and even brands are bravely butting in, taking up a conservationist cause. It looks like this:
There are clicks in need of saving. And thankfully, plenty are up to the task.
Even news sites are getting in on it. Here's Digiday (weirdly) saving you a click to its own content:
While the idea of "saving you a click" has been around for some time — one of the earliest instances on Twitter came in October 2009 — its recent surge in popularity can most likely be traced to the Twitter account of the same name.
If you spend any time floating around media spheres on Twitter, there's a reasonably good chance you've bumped into @SavedYouAClick, the service-y account that, in the words of Reuters' media columnist Jack Shafer, is "razoring the guts out of the often misleading and exploitative click-bait tweets posted by Huffington Post, Vice, Mashable, Cosmopolitan, Business Insider, TMZ, Drudge Report, and others designed to drive you to their stories."
The account, which as of this May 30 Digiday piece had 477 followers, now boasts an impressive 131,000-plus followers. The premise is simple: Jake Beckman, the man behind the account, scours major news Twitter accounts for tweets that he believes to be clickbait — tweets that take advantage of the curiosity gap ("you won't believe what happens next!"); tweets that attempt to draw the reader into a story using a question in the headline; tweets that don't deliver on their initial promise (think headlines that start with "How"). Vigilante social media justice for Twitter-prowling news obsessives.
Part of @SavedYouAClick's charm appears to be its respect for the news-hungry citizens of Twitter, especially their time. You're busy. Your time is valuable and so are your clicks. You don't deserve to be dicked around by banner-ad motivated Big Media. This is an appealing notion! And just one battle in a much longer war against the scourge of clickbait that's being waged daily by the standards and practices warriors over on Media Twitter.
By and large, though, the war on clickbait has grown stale. Here's how Deadspin's Tim Marchman described the militant clickbait crusade in his excellent essay "Shut Up About Clickbait," which should be read in its entirety:
Taken at face value, it's less than meaningless—it's self-negating. It's obscurantist, senselessly treating journalism as if the high modernist values of contingency and complexity were journalism's own. It's moralistic, proposing a false binary between stories that serve the public interest and those cynically presented just because people will read them. It's suspicious, hostile, and patronizing. It confuses decorum with integrity.
As Marchman succinctly notes, "used as an epithet, the word 'clickbait' presents a tautology as a criticism. You published something, and want people to read it, too."
In his column, Shafer compares @SavedYouAClick to "that annoying guy in the office who steps on all of your punch lines...who deflates with a concise quip the shaggy dog stories you're trying to tell." The difference, though, according to Shafer, is that "unlike the guy in your office, SavedYouAClick doesn't annoy, he delights. His interruptions on Twitter are pure public service."
Maybe so. But scrolling through @SavedYouAClick's feed it's hard to see much charm here. Instead, @SavedYouAClick feels less like a delight than it does an insecure college freshman delighting in beating a professor to the punch line of her own lecture. Other times, it feels like a petulant 8-year-old unfairly answering simple questions posed to a younger sibling by Mom.
In a June interview, Beckman told Vice that @SavedYouAClick is "just my way of trying to help the internet be less terrible." As for a goal, he said, "I'd love to see publishers think about the experience of their readers first. I think there's an enormous opportunity for publishers to provide readers with informative updates that include links so you can click through to read more."
Beckman's goal is admirable and, to his credit, all news organizations could always do better to spend more time putting readers first. And yet, for all its moralizing, @SavedYouAClick doesn't seem to do much to combat the problem it identifies. Rather than craft a "reader-first" headline and tweet, @SavedYouAClick deletes the link of the story altogether, rendering the article unreadable. In certain cases, @SavedYouAClick doesn't even chase traditional clickbait, opting instead to finger-wag at vagueness of any kind, even when the tweet isn't really trying to conceal information.
In many instances, @SavedYouAClick doesn't feel like fighting against clickbait as it does the premise of simply reading. In @SavedYouAClick's perfect world, information doesn't just want to be free, it demands to be right in your face in its entirety — showmanship, gimmicks, and creativity be damned. Your time is, quite simply, too precious. A scroll through the account's 900-plus tweets is enough to give anyone pause: What's so wrong with having to read the full story to get...the full story?
In many ways, the clickbait crusade that @SavedYouAClick represents feels like an outdated concern: a holdover of the internet from around 2011, when misleading headlines were policed on social networks because they were newer and more were susceptible to their charm. This was before tweets were simple text-and-link modules, rather than the optimized, card-based multimedia packages they are today. Now, instead of just a clicky headline, readers are offered images and subheads to add context, all before clicking. Like this:
It's not entirely clear that clickbait, in its traditional sense, is still rampant today. @SavedYouAClick's 131,000 users indicate that the account has struck a chord with the media-savvy Twitter crowd, but a closer look at the top stories on Twitter via the social tracking company Newswhip shows that most top-performing stories are straightforward. They're not really what you'd call clickbait, but rather stories that contain some kind of sharable quality. Here's an example from Thursday afternoon:
According to a July report from Newswhip, on Facebook — arguably the internet's most powerful referrer — the lion's share of top posts have straightforward headlines:
However tongue-in-cheek, @SavedYouAClick smugly addresses a problem that, while by no means solved, seems now to have taken a different form. It's well-documented that headlines, as they've translated to the internet, are a mess. The pressures of a jammed media ecosystem, governed by fickle and sometimes cruel algorithms, have no doubt exacerbated this problem, and anyone who gives more than a passing glance to social feeds each day has every right to feel exasperated.
And yes! It's only a Twitter account! A joke! But it's a generally unfunny one that, besides glibly chiding some of the writers and publications it smugly undercuts (reputable papers, news-breaking machines like Recode), also gives ammunition to the intolerable legion of Media Twitter hall monitors. Also: rude!
But perhaps the best reason — especially if you happen to work in media — not to police clickbait is simple: Everyone's at least a little bit guilty of trying to get others to care about their work (and why not?!).
Take former New York Times tech columnist and current Yahoo Tech editor David Pogue who is getting in on the fun, too, with a link roundup of clickbait stories. This, the fourth installment of his "Clickbait Spoilers" column iteration, published yesterday, notes that "the craze for clickbait — tempting, often untrue headlines that rack up page views through trickery and sleaziness — shows no sign of subsiding." Here's the beginning of the post:
A valiant effort. Twelve clicks saved!
No sign of subsiding, indeed.