The narcissistic heart of click bait

Elijah Davidson

Headlines are everywhere. Online media outlets survive on the sharing of bite-sized nuggets designed to catch our eyes and capture our clicks. As our screens become flooded with more and more headlines, outlets have adopted new, more enticing ways to grab our attention. Perhaps you've seen click-bait headlines like these:

"I Couldn't Believe What This Guy Was Making For His Unborn Child. But By The End… WOW."

"These Photos Absolutely Destroyed Me. But Why They Exist Is Much Bigger Than My Tears."

"When I Was A Kid, An Ad Aired On TV That I Didn't Fully Get. Now, I Want Us All To Watch It Again."

Tempting aren't they? Don't you wish those were active links? In a recent article for The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova explored some of the rhetorical theory and sociology behind what makes click bait (or link bait as it's sometimes called) so alluring.

Konnikova boils the appeal of such headlines down to two qualities: positivity and arousal. Click bait tempts us with content that will either make us feel good or just feel something - be it compassion, amusement, anger or incredulity. Look at the headlines listed above. They promise disbelief, amazement, emotional destruction, understanding and social bonding. They all say, "This will make you feel."

Furthermore, these headlines insert you, the reader, into the story. Note the subjects: I, me, my, I, I, I, us. These headlines reorient the stories behind them so they aren't really about their subjects. The stories are about your reaction to them. The stories exist for you. It's all about you.

On one level, I admire the honesty of click bait. Such headlines are the "selfies" of online journalism. Selfies strip away the facade. Forget hiding your intentions behind comments or check-ins. When you post a selfie, you say resolutely, "I want you to look at me." Click bait is a media outlet’s way of saying, "We want you to believe this is about you, because we want your clicks."

Click bait encourages us to believe that everything is about us.

On a deeper level, though, click bait troubles me because the form a message takes is as important as the message itself. You'll probably interact with the message behind one of these headlines once, but you'll interact with these kinds of headlines again and again and again. We are trained by the message's form to interact with it in a certain way.

Click-bait headlines like the ones above encourage us to believe that everything is about us. They want us to react and move on. They don't require anything more of us. They make the love, the pain, the learning and the heartache of others about us. Then, as soon as we've consumed one, we're invited to consume another. "If you like this, you might also like…"

I'm convinced that the way we watch, read or listen to something is more important than the content of that thing. The way we watch, read and listen is indicative of our posture towards the person or people behind it and our intentions for interacting with them.

We often call interacting with media "media consumption." It's only consumption if we intend to consume that thing, to eat it and turn it into fuel for whatever fire is already burning inside us. There is a better way. Instead of consuming media, we can commune with it and, by extension, with the people behind it.

Everything we do influences whether we are getting better at loving God and our neighbors or if we're only getting better at loving ourselves, including how we interact with media. Interacting with media can be part of how we love our neighbors - the neighbors featured in the stories behind click bait, the neighbors who are telling the stories and the neighbors we connect with via social media when we share those stories.

We need to be mindful of how the form of our media is forming us. Before we click on anything, we should ask ourselves, "What does this headline assume about me? What kind of person is it encouraging me to be?" Click accordingly. Ultimately, we don't take the bait. The bait takes us.

Topics: Online, Culture At Large, Science & Technology, News & Politics, Media