My story is three weeks late.
My plan was simple: I’d spend one hour clicking links from a single type of clickbait every time it appeared on my screen. The next hour, I’d follow another type of clickbait whenever I stumbled across it. I’d be finished in two days, if I ever managed to start.
Days went by and somehow I got nothing done. I had work to do, but I was lost in the casino. Like slot machines, every link offered some payoff for a small investment. And every time I tried my luck, I wound up with less than when I started.
The quest took on a mythical dimension. Whenever I crept near to clickbait, a strange time vortex opened up and I would emerge minutes or hours later with no idea what pages I’d clicked through or looked at or read or skimmed. The one thing that stayed with me during these carefully planned research activities was the terrible feeling that I was wasting my time and I’d better finish up quickly so I could get started doing something constructive.
Clickbait is the opposite of news, but also the opposite of entertainment. We don’t follow clickbait links to gather information or savor the pleasures of life. We follow clickbait links for the same reason we smack at mosquitoes. Little planning is involved.
A clickbait link is a tiny hostage situation: something that belongs to us has been taken away, and we must pay the ransom to get it back. And what is that thing seized by clickbait? Call it attention, mojo, confidence, focus. It’s the subterranean bunker inside the brain where all the decisions are made.
As I continued my research, the territory became familiar and I recognized in each type of clickbait some part of myself. The sketchiest corners of the Internet, it turns out, form an unflattering map of the human psyche.
From this month of diligent procrastination emerged four basic rules of clickbait:
1) Numbered Lists Are Self-Medication For Anxiety
Any story becomes clickbait when the title specifies the number of examples. I think snails are icky, but I’ll click through “23 Pictures of Snails”. I’ll click through a numbered list of anything.
For most of human history, any advertisement for a collection of snail pictures would have emphasized the wonder and mystery of snails and the rare opportunity to see them up close. A clickbait link, however, is primarily focused on how close to the end of the piece we already seem to be. The planet is flooded with gripping books to read, groundbreaking TV series to binge-watch, job skills to develop, career ladders to race up with no guidance or guarantee of success. Even the things we do to relax are piling up and running months behind schedule. It’s a tremendous relief to commit to some activity we’re sure we can finish before the reporting structure at work changes again.
2) Reading This Will Destroy Everything You Know About Why You Read Things
Anything I hope to accomplish has already been done by someone else: “This Guy Nails It!” or “The Best Drunk Text Ever!” or “This Girl Just Won The Internet!” These achievements will so violate my concept of reality that an equation is used: “Mind=blown!” The Internet churns with such pulsing radioactive genius that our brains become unstable and start to sputter and pop like a shipment of defective tires.
These statements, it turns out, are not always true.
Psychologists have a term for this pattern of unpredictable rewards: Intermittent Reinforcement. If every guy who “Nails It!” did in fact nail it, then I would click the link only if I felt like seeing a guy nail it. What compels me to investigate is my suspicion that this guy did not, in fact, nail it.
In my cynicism I am tormented by the feeling that he has both nailed it and not nailed it at the same time, like Schroedinger’s Viral Cat Video. In my simple world, this duplicity cannot be.
3) Why Are You Lonely? The Reason Will Make You Cry
A headline that tells me I’ll cry is always wrong. Yet I catch myself secretly hoping that just this once, its prediction will come true.
Instantly my gears are tangled with emotions and the wheels on the bus grind to a halt. Am I heartless and unfeeling? Will this link penetrate the fortress that guards my most vulnerable places? Don’t I already have enough to do today without spending the next eight minutes sobbing at some erudite photo caption? For a minute there, I lost myself.
Ten words on some website can make me question all my emotional defenses, and all my reasons for maintaining them, and all the rapturous moments they have stolen from me. I might already have collapsed in tears, if not for the crucial work project due tomorrow, and the half-written screenplay I would wrestle with if I only had the time, and the way this one sad little photo gallery has already been circulating through my Facebook feed for a month and a half.
Just this once, I click.
4) This One Weird Trick Will Change Your Concept of Time Forever
Some tasks are ‘fun’, so we want to do them now. Unfortunately we must put them off until later, because other tasks are more important.
We call those important tasks ‘work’, because they must be done correctly, which mostly means they also must be done later. ‘Later’ isn’t supposed to mean next year, however, because we all know the time for important things is ‘now’, right after I learn “Ten Things I Probably Didn’t Know About The Partridge Family”.
I don’t want to avoid work. I only want to avoid thinking about work, which requires me to bypass the thinking process altogether.
Emerging from my smothering research, I find that clickbait has lost much of its flashy allure, and the world has begun to right itself.
While I sense an inner void opening once again, this time the empty space will be filled only with what I choose to put there. The questions to be answered will be the ones I have asked myself. What is unresolved will just have to stay unresolved. Somewhere on the Internet, there will be 23 Pictures of Snails that never left their snail trail across my screen. I’ll just have to learn to live with that.