Clickbait sucks. Not even spoofs can redeem its existence.
The repulsiveness of clickbait does not warrant expressions of hatred towards non-clickbait, however. Mental Floss, one of my favorite websites, is taking fire because people can’t tell the difference.
Mental Floss is an online trivia magazine populated with short articles about curious pieces of miscellany: expounding artful cinema lines, cataloguing memorable Founders quotes, or relating the history of spiders and human mouths.
Some have maligned this online treasure trove by slandering its headlines as “clickbait.” Actually, no.
Wikipedia defines “clickbait” with the following mouthful:
Clickbait is a pejorative term describing web content that is aimed at generating online advertising revenue, especially at the expense of quality or accuracy, relying on sensationalist headlines or eye-catching thumbnail pictures to attract click-throughs and to encourage forwarding of the material over online social networks.
In brief, clickbait angles for the maximum number of clicks while providing little to no content. Break this definition down into three vices that every clickbait link features: 1) low quality content; 2) minimal content; 3) clickability, not readability.
1. Low quality content
Let’s clear Mental Floss from the first charge—lapsed “quality or accuracy”—on the grounds that Mental Floss articles offer better research than most high school essays.
2. Minimal content
The second charge Mental Floss faces boils down to fluff pieces: All the interest lies in the headline; the content itself offers us nothing to sink our teeth into.
Mental Floss articles pass this test, too. Take a title like, “How Much Money Has Rick Astley Made From Rickrolling?” It might strike some of us as borderline clickbait. If you follow the link, though, you’ll find that the webpage has the (two-figure) answer to the question of its title, along with a full, worth-reading piece explaining the why behind that figure.
Contrast this writing to the likes of Buzzfeed and Upworthy. A typical page over there could be a caption of a photo, like one kernel of popcorn. It flashes, and then it’s over. Click to pop another piece amid a second explosion of infernal banner ads.
3. Clickability vs. Readability
Buzzfeed articles chop every line of text into tens of separate webpages, each requiring its own click and load time.
Compare that to the straightforward, no-nonsense approach of Mental Floss, where each article has a single page. You scroll down to read the entire article. That’s it.
Mental Floss does “list articles” right. “45 Amazing Facts that Everyone Should Know” makes you want to click on it, but it delivers on its promise. It places all of its facts on a single page, like a sane website. It lacks gratuitous headlines like “Number 36 will make you lol!” (which it will). Best of all, every single factoid deserves your attention.
Exonerate Mental Floss
Down to the smallest details, Mental Floss offers an earnest feast for the curious that packages itself as such. Even when it presents facts of Snapple-cap size, its presentation sets Mental Floss apart.
Close the case on Mental Floss by testing the article that first prompted the accusation: “9 Musicians Who Refused to Let ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic Parody Their Songs.” The article contains facts and relevant information – not vacuous tripe, or a heap of disjointed images –conveyed in the most straightforward way possible.
The case of Mental Floss proves that you can write curious and funny titles without indulging in clickbait. Click away, because you’ll never guess what will happen when you follow this link.