Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants, is in a unique position to talk about the emergence of clickbait and viral culture – he’s spent the last few years researching what gets our attention.
BuzzFeed is synonymous with this species of content, so it’s not surprising to learn that the first instance of a viral story originated from Jonah Peretti, the co-founder of BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post. Wu tells the funny story of Peretti's first viral escapade, and notes that the media hasn’t stopped trying to catch that lightning in a bottle success since. Almost every entity in the online news and entertainment world today is in a permanent battle to master the art and science of viralty, to harvest the most attention. Why? For its re-sale value to advertisers.
Wu acknowledges that it has not been a particularly positive influence on our culture, but it’s fascinating when it’s viewed as a project to understand people. In Wu’s research, he came to the realization that although the cry of ‘Clickbait!’ has angrily amplified over the last five years, the phenomenon is anything but new. The penny newspaper headlines of the 1830s were capitalizing on suicides, divorces, and crazy events to hook people in. 'If it bleeds, it leads' has been the news media's slogan for over a century.
Clickbait is not a new cultural phenomenon, but an ancient biological one: what makes us click is exactly what made us tick in prehistoric times. Sex, food, death, violence, women in distress, kittens (don’t scoff, falling for cute things is a serious biological necessity – our ancestors had to be neurologically addicted to their babies to ensure they’d protect them), all of this calls to the most base level of our humanity. We’re hardwired to react to things that alarm or entice us from a survival point of view. “These modern day clickbait things are getting at very basic principles of our neurobiology that are there for a reason,” Wu explains.
The intentions of clickbait and viral content can and should be demonized; it’s a manipulative way for media platforms to capitalize on the public's attention. We are less and less able to spend our attention thoughtfully because our biological and psychological buttons are constantly being pressed. In an ethically perfect world, media companies wouldn't do it; but in a capitalist system to refrain is to die. These organizations put in the research and were smart enough to figure out exactly what makes us click. They’ve laid the bait, but only you are in control of your reactions. Not clicking is the best way to send feedback.
Tim Wu’s most recent book is The Attention Merchants The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads.
Tim Wu: So there’s a fellow named Jonah Peretti who is somewhat famous as the founder of BuzzFeed whose role in inventing virality or pushing virality in click bait has an important role in our present. Jonah was a graduate student in the early 2000’s at MIT’s media laboratories and he had this amusing situation where he ordered a pair of Nike shoes from the custom Nike shoe shop. And then they said well what do you want to – you’re able to put whatever you want on it. And he wrote sweatshop because he wanted that. And Nike wrote him back and said well you can’t use sweatshop. It’s an inappropriate slang. And he said that’s not inappropriate slang by the law, it’s a real word and so forth. So then they just canceled is order and he said can you send me a photo of the Vietnamese girl, ten-year-old, who’s making my shoes.
So he did this little exchange but what’s interesting, it’s kind of amusing is he put this email on a website and then it became shared and then was shared and was shared and then shared. And it was not the first but an early version of what we now call virality, you know, some piece of content goes crazy. And suddenly I talked to him about it and he said suddenly I was on the media everywhere and they were asking me about sweatshops. I was like well I don’t really know about sweatshops. But this thing happened and it sort of fascinated him and he thought well here’s a new way of distributing content. It’s not broadcasting where you reach millions of people at once. It’s through sharing and through virality. And all of Peretti’s career from that point forward can kind of be understood as an effort to recapture that lightening in a bottle. So he was one of the cofounders of the Huffington Post in the mid-2000’s and the Huffington Post, you know, it had a website but was also trying to create stuff that could be shared and shared and shared. And later on he founded BuzzFeed. The point of BuzzFeed in some sense was to master the art and science of virality, to master the shareable click. And I think in some ways while that’s sort of a fascinating project not necessarily one of the ones that’s been the greatest for our culture.
But anyway what he did at BuzzFeed was very systematically try and understand what kind of stuff will inspire you first of all to click on it and then next to share it with your friends. And he found out that, for example, cats are very effective. He found out that there are these categories like oh my god or embarrassing or hilarious or gifs or whatever. So that was BuzzFeed’s entire model was to try to distribute stuff horizontally so to speak.
I think some of these ideas of what we call click bait are in other ways as old as the hills. I mean I was rereading some of the Penny Press headlines in the 1830’s, you know, more than 100 years ago, almost 200 years ago. And they’re stories of suicide, stories of divorces, crazy things with headlines that get you immediately interested. So it’s older than click bait. It’s about enticing headlines and that’s been going on for a long time. Some of these appeal – some of the question of why these things are appealing is a question that is more about biology than culture I think. There is a natural reaction we have to certain things – death, sex, violence, enormous monsters. One of the things I did looking at this book, while researching this book I spent a lot of time looking at successful propaganda posters and the kind of things that activate almost involuntarily our attention. And they’re the same thing. They’re great muscular heroes, terrifying monsters, women in distress, enticing food items.
It gets back to like what we are as creatures as to what attracts us. And why shouldn’t it be that way. I mean in the wild – I’m not a biologist but you can imagine the utility if you see something that looks like food that’s going to get your attention. Or if you see something that looks like danger well you’ve got to react. And so these modern day click bait things are getting at very basic principles of our neurobiology that are there for a reason. Now they didn’t used to be to try to sell us stuff or get us to click on things but they’re certainly in our biology for a reason.