Big Internet utility companies are beginning to think a lot more like media organizations and government agencies, and that’s encouraging.
The most recent evidence is Facebook’s decision to tamp down headlines it classifies as “clickbait.” Those are the come-ons that try to lure you into reading an article or watching a video by piquing your curiosity without really telling you much. You know the kind: “You won’t believe what Facebook just did” and “After you read this, you’ll never eat another hot dog.” Sites like Upworthy, Business Insider, and BuzzFeed have built huge franchises on clickbait. While they’re backing off now, the tactic has been widely copied by others and is a staple of a new strain of advertising from services like Revcontent and Outbrain.
There’s usually nothing morally wrong with clickbait, but it wastes time at best and is deceptive at worst. Lured by the prospect of learning 12 little-known facts about Bruce Springsteen, visitors have to click through page after page of factoids – most of which are usually uninteresting – while intrusive advertising assaults them along the way. Clickbait isn’t evil, but it sure is disrespectful.
So the fact that Facebook is limiting it is a sign of maturity, a recognition that, for many people, the activity stream is now every bit as much a news source as the front page that used to land on their doorsteps.
News publishers have long recognized that their responsibility goes beyond reporting. They provide a curated window on the world that gives their readers what the publishers believe to be the truth, even when it’s at odds with their business interests.
Clickbait goes against the grain of the journalism profession’s responsibility to deliver information in the most efficient manner possible. This is embodied in a news writing style called “inverted pyramid,” so named because the important stuff goes at the top and the less important stuff further down. Inverted pyramid was invented in the days when newspaper pages were created by pasting strips of copy in columns on a composition board that was photographed and turned into an offset printing sheet. When news broke or space was limited, stories were cut from the bottom. The idea of inverted pyramid was that, even if everything but the headline was cut, the reader would still know the gist of the story.
The bottomless pit of the Web has made inverted pyramid a relic, but the concept still has value. Even a reader who has time to do nothing more than scan the headlines can get the essence of the most important news. It’s a practice built on information, not deception.
Many of the reader-first practices of those old-line news publishers are either gone or in decline. So who’s going to speak up for the interests of the reader?
It turns out that Facebook is, or at least it’s trying to, and the company should be commended for that. Google already understands this responsibility. Its search results have never been tainted by advertising interests, and it regularly adjusts its search algorithms to defeat gamesmanship. Google executives have made it clear that their mission is to deliver search results that most closely match what the user is looking for, not just those with the right keyword combinations.
Yes, the newspaper industry has suffered greatly at Google’s hands, but much of that pain was self-inflicted. Google has never lost respect for the value that news publishers brought to society.
There are selfish reasons why Facebook would make this latest move, but I don’t think they drove the decision. Readers are buffeted by misinformation, innuendo and rumors disguised as fact. Someone needs to stand up for their interests. Let’s hope the trend continues.
Photo by Terry Johnston via Flickr CC.