From its rise in journalism to its takeover of YouTube culture, clickbait is everywhere. But does it deserve its negative reputation? Can it be used responsibly, or even for good? And is it here to stay? TenEighty chats to Lily Pebbles, Evan Edinger, Steven Bridges, and Daniel J. Layton to find out.
Clickbait can be defined in various ways, but is generally designed to be shocking, and contains an element of exaggeration, sometimes to the point of being misleading. On YouTube, clickbait is often used in video titles and thumbnails, and has even started to be used satirically due to its frequent use on the site.
Speaking to TenEighty, Lily Pebbles defines clickbait as “giving a false incentive for your audience to click and consume your content”, also mentioning that “in most cases, it’s used more specifically online to refer to the misleading titles or thumbnails used in videos on YouTube”.
Evan Edinger adds that it has an element of the “sensational or exaggerated”, while Steven Bridges says that it “misleads the viewer into thinking the content is about something it isn’t in order to get views”.
Daniel J. Layton believes that it is “a very Ronseal term. It’s framing content (via thumbnail, headline, or title) in such a manner as to bait a person to click on it”. He adds that it can “appeal to (or, darkly, take advantage of) a person’s natural curiosity”.
Clickbait has been around for years both on YouTube and in journalism, and has evolved considerably over time. Its use in journalism has been reported on in a BBC article. Nowadays, its excessive use on YouTube has caused it to be mocked and used in satirical ways. This can be seen in the deliberate use of clickbait by creators such as Adrian Bliss in order to parody the trend – for example, in his video WILL WE MAKE IT OUT ALIVE? – as well as the “YouTuber story time” meme that was popularised in December 2016. More recently, the trend of adding “(not clickbait)” or variations of it to video titles has emerged, suggesting that clickbait is just what we should expect from YouTube now.
Many creators and viewers alike have expressed negative opinions about clickbait:
Putting up a new video this eve! The click bait title would be "I'm GAY?!?"
But I don't do clickbait because I'm not a ✨c🌷u🎉n🌷t✨
— Daniel J. Layton (@DanielJLayton) March 9, 2017
Do clickbait titles make you hate the creator?
— Louise (@LouisePentland) December 21, 2016
But why does it have such a negative reputation? The main issues that the discussion around clickbait has brought to light are of integrity and trust.
In terms of integrity, clickbait forms an important part of the discussion about whether some creators now value views over creating original content, as discussed by TenEighty in 2016.
In his video CLICKBAIT! i ‘soiled myself’ in church?!, Jimmy Hill gives his opinion on the link between integrity and clickbait by comparing it to one of the five marks of the decay of Roman culture: “Art becomes freakish and sensationalistic instead of creative and original.” He adds: “It’s not about the content anymore; it’s just about the title.”
At Summer in the City 2016, clickbait was also a talking point on the Popularity vs Integrity panel, with Mikey Murphy suggesting that creators should find a “happy medium” between making content that they want to make, while also making their videos clickable and appealing to an audience.
There's an awful lot of "YouTubers" churning out pure fucking clickbaity bullshit. You know it. I know it. But nobody talks about it.
— Hazel Hayes (@TheHazelHayes) September 12, 2016
Steven and Lily, however, believe that the issue with clickbait lies in the lack of trust that it encourages. Steven says: “It just lowers trust for the viewers and makes YouTube less enjoyable to watch as you click on one video, expecting one thing and getting something totally different. If the viewer feels the content is totally different from the title they will feel cheated, and that’s not good for anyone.”
“Personally I like to put my audience as a priority over everything else,” says Lily. “As a viewer myself I find it incredibly disappointing and frustrating when I’m watching a video that has nothing to do with the title, or I’m waiting for a pinnacle moment that never comes. I don’t ever want my audience to feel that way towards me and my videos.”
She adds: “Clickbait might gain you some new viewers but it’ll alienate the current ones, and will the new ones even continue to watch when they realise the truth? Sure, it might create the odd viral video, but I don’t personally think clickbait helps you to create long-term, engaged, and loyal viewers, which is really what a great YouTube channel is all about.”
Daniel also focuses on this issue of trust, acknowledging that “there’s nothing wrong with trying to grab a viewer’s attention”, but adding that “when you start choosing a title/thumbnail combination in order to play on a person’s emotion or empathy, it becomes quite cynical”. This view is also brought up in Hazel Hayes’s video PREGNANT!? (clickbait) in which she mentions her concerns about creators who use clickbait titles to provoke empathy.
In 2015, TenEighty explored the harm that queerbaiting, a form of clickbait wherein a creator alludes to homosexuality (usually in order to deceive their audience or downplay it as a joke), can cause.
When issues such as integrity, alienating an audience, and queerbaiting are considered, as well as the harmful effects that they can have, the negative reputation that comes with clickbait seems justified.
On the other hand, some creators, including Evan, do not believe that clickbait itself is a problem: “I don’t really subscribe to any creators that make clickbaity titles, so I don’t really see it – and if I do in Recommended I just go, ‘oh sure, Jan’, and move on with my life.” However, he adds that he believes promoting unsafe practices or referencing death in clickbait to be harmful.
Despite his belief that clickbait is not inherently harmful, when Evan jokingly used clickbait in a video it became apparent that many of his viewers did not share this view: “I did title a video something so sensational and exaggerated that I thought everyone would get was titled that way as a joke, but whoa a lot of people got upset they missed it.”
The video in question was Why Dovan Flat Ended THE TRUTH, and prompted Evan to upload Clickbait and Relationship Drama, in which he and Dodie Clark debate the issues caused by this video and by clickbait in general.
“I also named a recent video something I thought was funny with ‘[not clickbait]’ in the title as a joke and yet some people missed that too,” he says, adding that more recently he has adjusted the titles of his Q&A videos to ensure that they match up to the first question he answers, and that this has been better received by viewers.
“I have no ethical problem with writing the most intriguing title I can that represents my content”
But with it becoming increasingly difficult for creators to make their videos seen by their audience, clickbait may be becoming more necessary.
“The titling of my videos is largely responsible for any ‘success’ I’ve had on YouTube,” Steven states. “For me, a good title will make the difference between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of views. Making good content is obviously priority number one, but after that the title and thumbnail are really the only forms of marketing we have as YouTubers to get our videos seen.”
However, he wouldn’t class his videos strictly as clickbait. “I look more at what I do as ‘dramatic titles’,” he adds. “I have no ethical problem with writing the most intriguing title I can that represents my content.”
He uses his video Keep your eyes on the pen… as an example. “I wouldn’t say that’s clickbait… However, it’s definitely an intriguing title designed to make people think, ‘Why? What’s going to happen?’, and click.”
He says that his video POLICE ALMOST ARREST US! is “about as close as you can get without being misleading. If I’d written ‘Police TRY to arrest us‘ or ‘Police arrest us?!‘, that would be too far.” Steven elaborates on his views in Defending Click-bait | VEDA 2.
“Using clickbait almost feels like cheating, and I feel really uncomfortable with it”
Lily agrees that the title of a video can make all the difference in terms of having your video seen: “I think, for all of us, titling a video and creating a thumbnail is incredibly important. You may have worked for days or weeks on creating a video but then it can really just come down to the title or thumbnail when a viewer is deciding whether to watch it or not. Of course I want my viewers to watch my content but there is a fine line between a luring title and clickbait.”
She mentions that a lot of YouTubers have expressed counterarguments to this, such as, “Why wouldn’t I want to encourage as many people as possible to watch my videos? This is my business and I worked hard on this content”
“For me it’s just a moral thing,” she says. “[Using clickbait] almost feels like cheating, and I feel really uncomfortable with it. My success over the past seven years of blogging and vlogging has been down to organic growth, and I think I have such a brilliant quality of viewers because of it. It’s quality over quantity for me every time.”
The thing with click bait titles is, if the content is actually in the video then fine, makes sense. Lying to make people watch?! Not ok.
— Lily Pebbles (@lilypebbles) February 14, 2016
Daniel knows exactly where he would draw the line with clickbait: “Would I give my video an enticing thumbnail or clever title? Yes, absolutely, because I’ve worked hard on it and I hope people will want to engage with it. That’s basic marketing.
“But would I do a Q&A and give it a #controversial title because I answered a question for five seconds? No, because that’s not what the video’s about,” he adds. “Even so, we want to give our Q&As a more engaging title than Ask Daniel J #312. It’s on us, then, to live up to our moniker and create a way to do that without resorting to shock tactics.”
Other creators have referred to clickbait as a necessity, including Jonathan Joly, who dubbed it part of a “perfect title” for a YouTube video, and Philip DeFranco, who defended his use of it in a Reddit thread, saying: “It’s a business. I don’t believe I’m misleading people. My titles usually create intrigue.”
the perfect title is part click bait, part truth, part excitement, part emotional and part party
— J o n a t h a n (@JonathanJoly) May 31, 2016
But while clickbait may be necessary on YouTube nowadays, could it ever be used for good? “This reminded me of a recent Dave Chapelle joke,” Evan says. “Like I’m sure anything could be used for good if you try hard enough, but it’s still a bit distasteful.”
Daniel suggests that “in theory, it could be used for good, by drawing attention to an important issue”, although he adds that “it says something about us as consumers when folk would feel the need to use clickbait because that important issue couldn’t get our attention otherwise”.
This idea has been taken up by Clickbait For Good, a website which uses clickbait to encourage users to click on headlines which lead to charity campaigns, petitions, and donation pages. While the idea has not yet been popularised on YouTube, it remains possible that creators may utilise it in future (unrelated reminder that the Project For Awesome will be taking place in December!).
“I don’t think it’s a sustainable model for creators”
The future of clickbait remains unclear. Daniel believes that it is “one example of the darling cycle of supply and demand. It will be around as long as audiences fuel its fire by continuing to, for lack of a better phrase, ‘fall for it’.
“That said, I don’t think it’s a sustainable model for creators,” he adds. “As viewers, we can become jaded if we see it used again and again… We’ll see the title and instead of thinking, ‘Well, I simply must click that!’, we think, ‘Christ, not again’. And that leads to us smashing that unsubscribe button. It’s a dangerous line to walk.”
“I have a bit of a crazy theory around this,” Steven admits. “When clickbait becomes so common that it’s really harming the user experience, YouTube will adjust the algorithm… Maybe there will be more of an emphasis on ‘retention’ or potentially there’ll be some button to click that says ‘the title of this video is misleading’. But if clickbait really starts to become a huge problem, YouTube will tweak something to deter people from doing it.”
In 2012, the YouTube algorithm was adjusted in an effort to combat clickbait, by increasing its focus on watch time, as explored by TenEighty in 2015 in Save Animation: How ‘Watch Time’ Is Endangering YouTube Animators. However, with clickbait still being such a widespread trend five years on, it seems that another change may be needed.
Lily believes that YouTube could learn from mainstream media: “Films have trailers to give the audience an insight into what to expect and they encourage them to watch to find out how it unfolds. I think this could be the future of videos online; giving the audience a peek inside before they click to watch somehow.
“I personally would love to have that feature,” she continues, “so there is less pressure on the title and thumbnail and more emphasis on the quality of the content.”
Clickbait can be harmful, but with more and more creators speaking out about it, and its constant evolution, its role on YouTube could very well be set to change. It may be idealistic to believe that clickbait will eventually be used for good, but as long as YouTubers try to use it responsibly, we can limit its harm and take a step in the right direction.