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ABOUT THIS WORD
What does clickbait mean?
Clickbait describes misleading internet content or shocking headline titles that aim to drive traffic to a website.
Where did the term clickbait come from?
Evidence for clickbait dates back to at least 1999 in a Network Magazine article describing early instances of the internet phenomenon. As a term, clickbait is a compound of click (an act of pressing a mouse or similar computer control, used as a stand-in for viewing web content) and bait, or “lure,” used as a slang combining form throughout the 20th century (e.g., jailbait, racebait, Oscar-bait).
Clickbait rose to prominence in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Web developer and affiliate marketer Jason Geiger provided a notable popular definition on his blog in 2009 right as internet journalism was becoming increasingly criticized for creating psychologically-manipulative headlines in a bid to drive traffic to websites and generate viral content. Clickbait headlines often feature set phrases such as: “You won’t believe what happens next!” or “This one simple trick will …” Clickbait articles are frequently listicles (e.g., “11 things that billionaires do every morning”).
Two websites have come under particular clickbait fire: Upworthy in 2012 and BuzzFeed in 2014, prompting the latter to publish an explanation that year, “Why BuzzFeed Doesn’t Do Clickbait” with the ironic subhead “You won’t believe this one weird trick.” Clickbait was so prevalent that media company The Onion began satirizing it on Clickhole in 2014. The website is entirely made of spoof articles with outrageous titles, parodying the content created by some websites.
Clickbait quickly gained official status in many leading dictionaries, variously entered between 2014–16. The term continued to make waves in public discourse in January 2017 when major social-media sites Facebook and Snapchat implemented policies to discourage articles that used clickbait in wake of fake news and meddling during the 2016 U.S. election. The term clickbait has also inspired some offshoots: likebait (content designed to garner “likes”), sharebait (content designed for sharing), and tweetbait (content designed for retweeting).
How to use the term clickbait
Clickbait is used in speech, print, and digital communication, often as an object of criticism by legacy journalism, information and media studies, psychologists, and even some marketers.
Content is not intentionally labelled as clickbait by the creator, but is instead deemed so by those who view the content. Since it’s not encouraged, saying something is clickbait carries a negative connotation. Since 2017, clickbait has been used in tandem with another internet term fake news, as fake news stories are often dressed as clickbait.
Clickbait is also associated with, and used by, internet scams or profiteering websites. Clickbait is sometimes playfully used as a verb: “That article on productivity hacks totally clickbaited me.”
More examples of clickbait:
“Among cynical readers given to labeling everything clickbait, there seems to be an assumption that editors and writers live and die by the number of clicks they generate.”
—James Hamblin, The Atlantic, November 2014
This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.
Example sentences from the Web for clickbait
On a streaming service, these titles can function as a sort of video clickbait, luring in viewers with a vaguely familiar, often salacious story.How Docu-Mania Took Streaming by Storm, From Tiger King to WeWork|Judy Berman|April 1, 2021|Time
It’s also our responsibility to report on the failings of these companies—but when a woman is in charge, such reporting often draws accusations of bias or clickbait.Female founders under fire: Are women in the startup world being unfairly targeted?|Maria Aspan|December 3, 2020|Fortune
A common form of clickbait is found on the typical social search page.
Social media platforms should aggressively ban or limit clickbait.
Clickbait title notwithstanding, Bend Over and Take It Like a Prisoner!Huckabee 2016: Bend Over and Take It Like a Prisoner!|Olivia Nuzzi|January 8, 2015|DAILY BEAST
Whenever I take a clickbait quiz to determine which of The Avengers I would be, I always game the questions to aim for the Hulk.Model Minority Rage: Why the Hulk Should Be an Asian Guy|Arthur Chu|July 18, 2014|DAILY BEAST
However, Mizrahi is less certain that clickbait culture will fade away in the near future.
But as the increasing backlash against clickbait shows, the short-term gains in unique views may cost news sites in the long run.
This growing clickbait awareness may ultimately cost news agencies that are gunning for short-term gains.