I’ve been avoiding my Facebook feed for a while now. Even putting aside the crushingly dull series of ice bucket challenge videos that have been posted, it’s been a dark place for a while. As somebody interested in media, I follow a lot of magazines and newspapers. And this means a timeline horribly stuffed with link bait. A constant succession of ‘you’ll never guess what happened next’, ‘number seven is hilarious’ and ‘16 ways to improve your life’. I think a new low may have been reached this morning by the BBC of all people with ‘Five tips to avoid Ebola’.
So when I read that Facebook today had announced further plans to clean up the News Feed by reducing stories with click-bait headlines as well as stories that have links shared in the captions of photos or within status updates, I was a very happy man. The move comes just four months after the social network reduced ‘Like-baiting’ posts, repeated content, and spammy links.
However, this issue needs further investigation.
To ensure clarity, “click-baiting” refers to posting links with a headline that arouses your curiosity without actually telling you much information. In other words, you have to click to see more, and you are titillated by an exciting headline. Sadly, when you click on the link you often arrive at poor quality content and don’t get what you were hoping for. You feel cheated, you don’t interact with whoever posted the content. You certainly don’t like or share. Yes it’s true that a lot of this is pure link bait but some bigger and more reputable publishers are falling into this habit.
The crux of the issue to me seems to be this part of the Facebook statement:
“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”.
And here we have the nub of the issue. The vast majority of people really don't share, like or comment on stories. They just read them and that's it.
If Facebook is serious about this (and I sincerely hope they are), this means the content creators themselves are going to have to rethink what they do in an age when many already worry about the declining number of comments that material receives. Certainly at the media owners I work at, we notice that a lot of readers repost the article and comment there rather than commenting in the actual provided comment area.
So I expect that what we will see now is more articles that neatly provoke the readers into action, encouraging them to share or comment. Will we see lots of deliberately inflammatory headlines and stories, not so much ‘click bait as ‘row bait’? ‘Inflame and involve’ as an old news editor of mine used to say
At first glance, this is only good for the average Facebook user. Well, yes and no. Obviously, any measures to clean up the content stream can only be seen as a good thing. And if these habits seep into the consciousness of publishers when posting elsewhere, then so much the better. But we would be naïve to believe that Facebook is being entirely altruistic here. If Facebook are removing editorial content from the newsfeed, the only way content creators can guarantee hitting a larger audience will be to pay through sponsored posts or other native means.
Facebook can't be blamed for trying to make more profit and, equally, I’m pleased that they are trying to improve the user experience. It’s worth remembering that, at a fundamental level, all content created has always been a form of link bait. It’s just that some publishers have been willing to trade standards for traffic. Perhaps the balance is tipping in the standards direction.