People Don’t Like Clickbait. You’ll Never Believe Facebook’s Reaction.

4:17 minutes

As you scroll through your Facebook feed, more of the stories seem to promise shocking details or the top 10 ways an article will change your world. This “clickbait” draws readers in with enticing headlines, but the content doesn’t deliver. Facebook has developed an algorithm to try and combat newsfeed clickbait. Slate’s senior technology writer, Will Oremus, breaks down the good and bad of Facebook’s strategy to tackle clickbait.

Segment Guests

Will Oremus

Will Oremus is a senior technology writer for Slate in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Now it’s time to play “Good Thing Bad Thing.” Because every story has a flip side. And you’re not going to believe this next segment. Facebook has come up with a new way to alter your news feed, and it is a shocker.

How many times have you scrolled through tons of stories with headlines like “You won’t believe this,” and once you click on them, it turns out to be a disappointing top-10 list? Well, you have fallen into the clickbait trap.

And Facebook has noticed that too, and they have come up with a way to tackle clickbait. And you won’t believe this. It’s an algorithm. Here to break down the good and bad of the strategy is Will Oremus. He’s Slate’s senior technology writer, here in our CUNY studios in New York. Welcome back, Will.

WILL OREMUS: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: This is– wow, I’m not going to believe this! Clickbait. That’s what you see all the time.

WILL OREMUS: Yeah, and then, of course, you totally can believe it.

IRA FLATOW: So let’s start out with, how does Facebook define a clickbait?

WILL OREMUS: Well, you know, it’s actually hard to define clickbait, and that’s part of the problem here. But I think a widely accepted definition would be content that is created online whose sole purpose– or at least the chief purpose– is just to get you to click, so that you can view the ads that are on the page.

It’s not there to enlighten you, or to change your mind about something, or to inform you, or even to entertain you. It’s just there to get you to click. It’s a trick, basically. It’s a headline that sucks you in.

IRA FLATOW: So what’s the good thing about this?

WILL OREMUS: So the good thing about this is nobody really likes that stuff. And when we’re talking about genuine clickbait, the examples that Facebook cited in its blog post announcing this change are the kind of stuff that basically nobody ever wants to see in their Facebook feed.

You know, when she looked under the couch cushions and found this, she was astonished! And then you click on it, it’s like a piece of lint. And so if Facebook has found a new way to crack down on that kind of total junk, then that’s great. I mean, who’s going to complain about that, really? They’ve in fact been trying to do this for a couple years.

Earlier on, they did it by studying your behavior, so if you went to a site and then came back right away, they thought, well maybe that was clickbait. Or if you “liked” a story before you read it, but then you read it and came back and “unliked” it, they said, ooh. That story did not deliver what was promised.

Now this is a new way to do it. It’s using a thing called a “machine learning classifier.” It works a lot like a spam filter. And it actually analyzes the text of the headline itself to try to filter out more clickbait than before.

IRA FLATOW: So what could be the bad thing about this?

WILL OREMUS: Well, the bad thing is that there are always unintended consequences when you change an algorithm. Clickbait is, in many ways, a problem of Facebook’s own making. In the old days, the way you made money in the media business was through loyalty. You would get people to subscribe to your newspaper or magazine. You would get people to tune into to your network for the nightly news, because they valued the content you were creating on a regular ongoing basis.

Facebook created this new media economy that’s based on clicks, rather than loyalty. You don’t reach your readers on your homepage anymore, or through a subscription, you reach them through Facebook. And so Facebook has created this game that people play.

Well, every time it changes the rules of the game, people are just going to play it differently. So people will find new ways to write different kinds of headlines that lure you into junky content. Meanwhile, Facebook will achieve its goal, in all likelihood, of keeping you on Facebook. And that, I think, is the real effect here.

IRA FLATOW: Don’t leave that page. You want to stay in Facebook.

WILL OREMUS: Exactly. If the headline tells you everything, then why click at all?

IRA FLATOW: Right. So Facebook is actually fighting something it created before.

WILL OREMUS: Yeah, exactly. I mean, if there were no Facebook, there might not be clickbait. Or maybe we would just find it on some other platform.

IRA FLATOW: And how much actually has the newsfeed shaped how writers create headlines and stories?

WILL OREMUS: The effect has really been profound, because if your business is to get people to come back to your site every day, week in, week out, you’re going to cover the news in a certain type of way that respects their intelligence. If your business– and now this is everyone’s business online in the media– if your business is to get people to click on your stories on Facebook, you need to write a totally different kind of story that is going to stoke people’s curiosity, rather than a story that’s really going to inform them.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Well, thanks again. Thanks again for joining us.

WILL OREMUS: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Will Oremus, senior technology writer at Slate. That’s Slate, based here in New York.

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