Three months after Facebook product head Mike Hudack’s infamous rage against the media landscape his company helped create, the world’s largest social network is taking a stand against “clickbait”—stories with misleading, incomplete or sensational headlines that don’t stand up to the actual content.
“It’s hard to tell who’s to blame,” Hudack wrote on Facebook, the media portal from which one in three Americans gets the news (according to the Pew Research Center). “But someone should fix this sh-t.”
Facebook Looked Down Upon the World It Had Created, and Declared it SUCK: Mike Hudack, FB Product Head's Media Rage https://t.co/XMCoywVNAM
— Oh Helen A.S. Popkin (@HelenASPopkin) May 22, 2014
Facebook to the rescue!
On Monday, the company announced on its newsroom page that it would now …
… help people find the posts and links from publishers that are most interesting and relevant, and to continue to weed out stories that people frequently tell us are spammy and they don’t want to see.
Facebook vs. Clickbait
Will this cure the ills diagnosed by Hudack and suffered by CNN, the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Vice, all of which Hudack called out by name? What of Ezra Klein and his new website, Vox, for which the Facebook employee reserved his most toxic vitriol?
“Personally I hoped that we would find a new home for serious journalism,” Hudack wrote of Vox. “And instead they write stupid stories about how you should wash your jeans instead of freezing them.”
One wonders how Facebook might actually remedy the clickbait plague. Consider this response to Hudack’s post by The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal, which cites Hudack’s boss, Mark Zuckerberg:
My perception is that Facebook is the major factor in almost every trend you identified. I’m not saying this as a hater, but if you asked most people in media why we do these stories, they’d say, “They work on Facebook.” And your own CEO has even provided an explanation for the phenomenon with his famed quote, “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” This is not to say we (the (digital) media) don’t have our own pathologies, but Google and Facebook’s social and algorithmic influence dominate the ecology of our world.
If anything, the clickbait nature of the news Hudack raged against three months ago is rapidly heading toward peak clickbaititude. You don’t need to look any further than the Saved You A Click account on Twitter or The Onion’s recently-launched BuzzFeed satire, Click Hole.
“Saving you from clickbait and adding context since 2014,” according to its Twitter bio, Saved You A Click queers the pitch on countless spammy headlines via cut-to-the-chase retweets that put the answer before the headline. The account’s 148,000 followers testify that the service is much appreciated.
211,044 (estimated) RT @BostonGlobe: Yes, we counted how many dents there are in Fenway Park's wall. The answer may surprise you.
— Saved You A Click (@SavedYouAClick) August 24, 2014
No, but it can try. RT @Refinery29: Can Facebook predict Emmy winners?
— Saved You A Click (@SavedYouAClick) August 23, 2014
Police killed an unarmed man in broad daylight. RT @nypost: Why did Ferguson explode?
— Saved You A Click (@SavedYouAClick) August 21, 2014
Click Hole, meanwhile, features content so ridiculous, it’s occasionally indistinguishable from its for-realsies analogue. Some examples:
— ClickHole (@ClickHole) August 25, 2014
— ClickHole (@ClickHole) August 22, 2014
Facebook, in its anti-clickbait post, says its users don’t care for high-calorie, low-nutrition content:
Posts like these tend to get a lot of clicks, which means that these posts get shown to more people, and get shown higher up in News Feed. However, when we asked people in an initial survey what type of content they preferred to see in their News Feeds, 80% of the time people preferred headlines that helped them decide if they wanted to read the full article before they had to click through
Clickbait Is The Disease; Data Is The Cure
Facebook will attempt to protect users from such stories with … analytics! Specifically, the social network won’t punish Upworthy-style headlines in which “you won’t believe what happened next,” or other open questions. Instead, it will check how much time users spend on a link they’ve click and/or spent discussing it. (This new clickbait protection does not apply to sponsored posts and advertising, however.)
Facebook explains it this way:
If a lot of people click on the link, but relatively few people click Like, or comment on the story when they return to Facebook, this also suggests that people didn’t click through to something that was valuable to them.
No doubt this will come as a shock to the media outlets Facebook has so aggressively pursued in the last few years to make the social network its portal to more traffic.
Of course, if it doesn’t work, then Zuckerberg and Hudack will know who to blame. That’d be us, the clickbait-loving users.
Update 3:26 p.m.: Updated to include sponsored stories will not be affected by the clickbait crackdown.
Lead image by Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing – Northern VA