Follow Friday: The Clickbait Destroyer

Slate's Culture Blog
May 10 2013 5:36 PM

Follow Friday: The Clickbait Destroyer

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Arianna Huffington

Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images

Last summer, on a slow news day, a social media contractor named Alex Mizrahi got irritated with the Internet. The Huffington Post’s main Twitter account—Mizrahi was one of more than two million followers—blasted out a headline asking “Who’s the richest celebrity?” Like a fool, Mizrahi clicked.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

“It was Oprah!” he remembers. “That’s when I set up @HuffPoSpoilers. I tweeted that: I grabbed the headline, and before the headline, I wrote ‘Oprah.’ I gained a quick 10 to 20 followers, but that wasn't the point. When I was reading the Internet in bed and a HuffPo tweet annoyed me, I would tweet the words they left out.”

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The idea didn’t take off then. In mid-April, Mizrahi finished a contract and found himself with more free time, and started tweeting more frequently. I noticed the account when it was crawling above 2,000 followers, but it’s on its steady way to 18,000. “Once it turned out there was a real craving for this,” says Mizrahi, “I upped my game.” None of this surprises me. Even my journalist pals at HuffPo, who’ve been subjected to more than any fair share of “sideboob” jokes, are aware of the deep silliness embodied by that official account.

“Not all their tweets are annoying,” admits Mizrahi, “but The Huffington Post bills itself as the Internet newspaper. Their Twitter feed acts like the local news. Coming up at 11, something in the water is killing your children! A newspaper makes you aware of what's happening. You find out where the madman killed the girl. You find out what city, exactly, is considering an assault weapons ban. The local news teases you.”

HuffPoSpoilers has identified several varieties of clickbait, all harmful for different reasons. One variety mentions hot new political developments without telling readers which state or city or hamlet is actually being affected.

Another clickbait genome even more irritatingly warns of a health threat without any clue where it’s occurring.

The most light-hearted clickbait hints at a scandalous new fact about a celebrity. Who could it be? Before you open the browser, it could be anybody. And yet it’s almost always somebody you weren’t interested in.

“Those are the worst ones,” says Mizrahi. “They ask, ‘can you believe someone did that?’ and you naively assume they did something interesting. I remember a recent one that promised to reveal the most rebellious thing Allison Williams ever did! I clicked. She wore glitter to school when she said she wasn’t allowed to. Really? That’s it?”

I consider Mizrahi a minor hero, but he’s humble about his project. “Clickbait bothers people,” he says. “It’s as simple as that. The Huffington Post has a system that works for them. Readers will click even though they’re really annoyed by the system. The Huffington Post counts that ad money. It’s one of those minor inconveniences that’s surprisingly easy to fix. It’s making people’s lives slightly less frustrating.”

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