Why Can't We Resist Clickbait? The Reason Will SHOCK You!
Columbia professor Tim Wu came to the Big Think studio to talk about clickbait. What happened next will shock you.
Tim Wu is an author, policy advocate, professor at Columbia Law School, and director of the Poliak Center for the Study of First Amendment Issues at Columbia Journalism School. Wu's best known work is the development of Net Neutrality theory, but he also writes about private power, free speech, copyright, and antitrust.
In 2014, he ran as the progressive Democrat candidate for lieutenant governor of New York. His book The Master Switch (2010) has won wide recognition and various awards. Wu is a contributing writer at The New Yorker and a former contributing editor at The New Republic. He formerly wrote for Slate, where he won the Lowell Thomas Gold medal for Travel Journalism. Wu worked at the Federal Trade Commission during the first term of the Obama administration, and has also worked as Chair of the media reform group Free Press, as a fellow at Google, and worked for Riverstone Networks in the telecommunications industry. In 2015, he was appointed to the Executive Staff of the Office of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as a senior enforcement counsel and special advisor.
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.
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.
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As a form of civil disobedience, hacking can help make the world a better place.
- Hackers' motivations range from altruistic to nihilistic.
- Altruistic hackers expose injustices, while nihilistic ones make society more dangerous.
- The line between ethical and unethical hacking is not always clear.
The following is an excerpt from Coding Democracy by Maureen Webb. Reprinted with Permission from The MIT PRESS. Copyright 2020.
As people begin to hack more concertedly at the structures of the status quo, the reactions of those who benefit from things as they are will become more fierce and more punitive, at least until the "hackers" succeed in shifting the relevant power relationships. We know this from the history of social movements. At the dawning of the digital age, farmers who hack tractors will be ruthlessly punished.
Somewhere on the continuum of altruism and transgression is the kind of hacking that might lead the world toward more accountable government and informed citizenries.
Of course, it must be acknowledged that hackers are engaged in a whole range of acts, from the altruistic to the plainly nihilistic and dangerous. On the altruistic side of the continuum, they are creating free software (GNU/Linux and other software under GPL licenses), Creative Commons (Creative Commons licensing), and Open Access (designing digital interfaces to make public records and publicly funded research accessible). They are hacking surveillance and monopoly power (creating privacy tools, alternative services, cooperative platforms, and a new decentralized internet) and electoral politics and decision making (Cinque Stelle, En Comú, Ethelo, Liquid Democracy, and PartidoX). They have engaged in stunts to expose the technical flaws in voting, communications, and security systems widely used by, or imposed on, the public (by playing chess with Germany's election voting machines, hacking the German Bildschirmtext system, and stealing ministers' biometric identifiers). They have punished shady contractors like HackingTeam, HBGary, and Stratfor, spilling their corporate dealings and personal information across the internet. They have exposed the corruption of oligarchs, politicians, and hegemons (through the Panama Papers, WikiLeaks, and Xnet).
More notoriously, they have coordinated distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to retaliate against corporate and government conduct (such as the Anonymous DDoS that protested PayPal's boycott of WikiLeaks; the ingenious use of the Internet of Things to DDoS Amazon; and the shutdown of US and Canadian government IT systems). They have hacked into databases (Manning and Snowden), leaked state secrets (Manning, Snowden, and WikiLeaks), and, in doing so, betrayed their own governments (Manning betrayed US war secrets, and Snowden betrayed US security secrets). They have interfered with elections (such as the hack and leak of the Democratic National Committee in the middle of the 2016 US election) and sown disinformation (the Russian hacking of US social media). They have interfered with property rights in order to assert user ownership, self-determination, and free software's four freedoms (farmers have hacked DRM code to repair their tractors, and Geohot unlocked the iPhone and hacked the Samsung phone to allow users administrator-level access to their devices) and to assert open access to publicly funded research. They have created black markets to evade state justice systems (such as Silk Road on the dark web) and cryptocurrencies that could undermine state-regulated monetary systems. They have meddled in geopolitics as free agents (Anonymous and the Arab Spring, and Julian Assange and his conduct with the Trump campaign). They have mucked around in and could potentially impair or shut down critical infrastructure. (The notorious "WANK worm" attack on NASA is an early, notorious, example, but hackers could potentially target banking systems, stock exchanges, electrical grids, telecommunications systems, air traffic control, chemical plants, nuclear plants, and even military "doomsday machines.")
It is impossible to calculate where these acts nudge us as a species. Some uses of hacking — such as the malicious, nihilistic hacking that harms critical infrastructure and threatens lives, and the hacking in cyberwarfare that injures the critical interests of other countries and undermines their democratic processes — are abhorrent and cannot be defended. The unfolding digital era looks very grim when one considers the threat this kind of hacking poses to peace and democracy combined with the dystopian direction states and corporations are going with digital tech.
But somewhere on the continuum of altruism and transgression is the kind of hacking that might lead the world toward more accountable government and informed citizenries, less corrupt and unfair economic systems, wiser public uses of digital tech, more self-determination for the ordinary user, fairer commercial contracts, better conditions for innovation and creativity, more decentralized and robust infrastructure systems, and an abolition of doomsday machines. In short, some hacking might move us toward a digital world in which there are more rather than fewer democratic, humanist outcomes.
It is not clear where the line between "good" and "bad" hacking should be drawn or how to regulate it wisely in every instance. Citizens should inform themselves and begin to consider this line-drawing seriously, however, since we will be grappling intensely with it for the next century or more. My personal view is that digital tech should not be used for everything. I think we should go back to simpler ways of running electrical grids and elections, for example. Systems are more resilient when they are not wholly digital and when they are smaller, more local, and modular. Consumers should have analogue options for things like fridges and cars, and design priorities for household goods should be durability and clean energy use, not interconnectedness.
In setting legal standards, prohibiting something and enforcing the prohibition are two different things. Sometimes a desired social norm can be struck by prohibiting a thing and not enforcing it strenuously. And the law can also recognize the constructive role that civil disobedience plays in the evolution of social norms, through prosecutorial discretion and judicial discretion in sentencing.
Wau Holland told the young hackers at the Paradiso that the Chaos Computer Club was "not just a bunch of techno freaks: we've been thinking about the social consequences of technology from the very beginning." Societies themselves, however, are generally just beginning to grapple with the social consequences of digital technology and with how to characterize the various acts performed by hackers, morally and legally. Each act raises a set of complex questions. Societies' responses will be part of the dialectic that determines where we end up. Should these various hacker acts be treated as incidents of public service, free speech, free association, legitimate protest, civil disobedience, and harmless pranksterism? Or should they be treated as trespass, tortious interference, intellectual property infringement, theft, fraud, conspiracy, extortion, espionage, terrorism, and treason? I invite you to think about this as you consider how hacking has been treated by societies to date.
It could lead to a massive uptake in those previously hesitant.
A financial shot in the arm could be just what is needed for Americans unsure about vaccination.
On May 12, 2021, the Republican governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, announced five US$1 million lottery prizes for those who are vaccinated. Meanwhile, in West Virginia, younger citizens are being enticed to get the shot with $100 savings bonds, and a state university in North Carolina is offering students who get vaccinated a chance to win the cost of housing. Many companies are paying vaccinated employees more money through bonuses or extra paid time off.
The push to get as many people vaccinated as possible is laudable and may well work. But leading behavioral scientists are worried that paying people to vaccinate could backfire if it makes people more skeptical of the shots. And ethicists have argued that it would be wrong, citing concerns over fairness and equity.
As a behavioral scientist and ethicist, I draw on an extensive body of research to help answer these questions. It suggests that incentives might work to save lives and, if properly structured, need not trample individual rights or be a huge expense for the government.
In the United States, incentives and disincentives are already used in health care. The U.S. system of privatized health insurance exposes patients to substantial deductibles and copays, not only to cover costs but to cut down on what could be deemed as wasteful health care – the thinking being that putting a cost to an emergency room visit, for example, might deter those who aren't really in need of that level of care.
In practice, this means patients are encouraged to decline both emergency and more routine care, since both are exposed to costs.
Paying for health behaviors
In the case of COVID-19, the vaccines are already free to consumers, which has undoubtedly encouraged people to be immunized. Studies have shown that reducing out-of-pocket costs can improve adherence to life-sustaining drugs, whether to prevent heart attacks or to manage diabetes.
A payment to take a drug goes one step further than simply reducing costs. And if properly designed, such incentives can change health behaviors.
And for vaccination in particular, payments have been successful for human papillomavirus (HPV) in England; hepatitis B in the United States and the United Kingdom; and tetanus toxoid in Nigeria. The effects can be substantial: For example, for one group in the HPV study, the vaccination rate more than doubled with an incentive.
For COVID-19, there are no field studies to date, but several survey experiments, including one my group conducted with 1,000 Americans, find that incentives are likely to work. In our case, the incentive of a tax break was enough to encourage those hesitant about vaccinations to say they would take the shot.
Even if incentives will save lives by increasing vaccinations, there are still other ethical considerations. A key concern is protecting the autonomous choices of people to decide what they put into their own bodies. This may be especially important for the COVID-19 vaccines, which – although authorized as likely safe and effective – are not yet fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
But already people are often paid to participate in clinical trials for drugs that have not yet been approved by the FDA. Ethicists have worried that such payments may be “coercive" if the money is so attractive as to override a person's free choices or make them worse off overall.
One can quibble about whether the term “coercion" applies to offers of payment. But even if offers were coercive, payments may still be reasonable to save lives in a pandemic if they succeed in greater levels of immunization.
During the smallpox epidemic nearly 100 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the power of states to mandate vaccines. Compared with mandating vaccination, the incentives to encourage vaccines seem innocuous.
Exploitation and paternalism
Yet some still worry. Bioethicists Emily Largent and Franklin Miller wrote in a recent paper that a payment might “unfairly" exploit “those U.S. residents who have lost jobs … or slipped into poverty during the pandemic," which could leave them feeling as if they have “no choice but to be vaccinated for cash." Others have noted that vaccine hesitancy is higher in nonwhite communities, where incomes tend to be lower, as is trust in the medical establishment.
Ethicists and policymakers should indeed focus on the poorest members of our community and seek to minimize racial disparities in both health outcomes and wealth. But there is no evidence that offering money is actually detrimental to such populations. Receiving money is a good thing. To suggest that we have to protect adults by denying them offers of money may come across as paternalism.
Some ethicists also argue that the money is better spent elsewhere to increase participation. States could spend the money making sure vaccines are convenient to everyone, for example, by bringing them to community events and churches. Money could also support various efforts to fight misinformation and communicate the importance of getting the shot.
The cost of incentives
Financial incentives could be expensive as a policy solution. As in Ohio, lottery drawings are one way to cap the overall cost of incentives while giving millions of people an additional reason to get their shot.
The tax code could also allow for a no-cost incentive for vaccination. Tax deductions and credits are often designed to encourage behaviors, such as savings or home ownership. Some states now have big budget surpluses and are considering tax relief measures. If a state announced now that such payments would be conditional on being vaccinated, then each person declining the shot would save the government money.
Ultimately, a well-designed vaccination incentive can help save lives and need not keep the ethicists up at night.
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Humanity knows surprisingly little about the ocean depths. An often-repeated bit of evidence for this is the fact that humanity has done a better job mapping the surface of Mars than the bottom of the sea. The creatures we find lurking in the watery abyss often surprise even the most dedicated researchers with their unique features and bizarre behavior.
A recent expedition off the coast of Java discovered a new isopod species remarkable for its size and resemblance to Darth Vader.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.
According to LiveScience, the Bathynomus genus is sometimes referred to as "Darth Vader of the Seas" because the crustaceans are shaped like the character's menacing helmet. Deemed Bathynomus raksasa ("raksasa" meaning "giant" in Indonesian), this cockroach-like creature can grow to over 30 cm (12 inches). It is one of several known species of giant ocean-going isopod. Like the other members of its order, it has compound eyes, seven body segments, two pairs of antennae, and four sets of jaws.
The incredible size of this species is likely a result of deep-sea gigantism. This is the tendency for creatures that inhabit deeper parts of the ocean to be much larger than closely related species that live in shallower waters. B. raksasa appears to make its home between 950 and 1,260 meters (3,117 and 4,134 ft) below sea level.
Perhaps fittingly for a creature so creepy looking, that is the lower sections of what is commonly called The Twilight Zone, named for the lack of light available at such depths.
It isn't the only giant isopod, far from it. Other species of ocean-going isopod can get up to 50 cm long (20 inches) and also look like they came out of a nightmare. These are the unusual ones, though. Most of the time, isopods stay at much more reasonable sizes.
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During an expedition, there are some animals which you find unexpectedly, while there are others that you hope to find. One of the animal that we hoped to find was a deep sea cockroach affectionately known as Darth Vader Isopod. The staff on our expedition team could not contain their excitement when they finally saw one, holding it triumphantly in the air! #SJADES2018
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What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?
The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.
Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:
"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region."
The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its head. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and Great Old Ones.
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.