Facebook’s war on this one weird publishing trick will totally blow your mind

Facebook’s move to reduce low-quality, sensationalist journalism in its newsfeed is a good piece of corporate citizenship—and great business, too

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the 2016 Mobile World Congress. (David Ramos/Getty)

As you get older, things inevitably happen that will make you feel it. No matter who you are, trends come along that you will simply not get. Their popularity with seemingly everyone else and your corresponding inability to relate will harshly underline the passage of time and your increasingly odd place within it.

For me, there are plenty of examples. I grew up liking rap music, but I don’t get Drake. I also grew up loving video games, but I don’t entirely understand the Pokemon Go phenomenon. I mean, I kind of get it, but I know in my aging bones it’s not for me. And that’s fine.

Clickbait headlines – those article titles that are designed to get internet users to click on them at all costs – also make me feel old.

Like pornography, clickbait is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. Headlines in the vein of, “You’ll never believe what happens next,” or so-and-so “will blow your mind” are usually good indicators that the bait for your click has been laid.

Clickbait headlines have proliferated in the past few years thanks to hugely popular websites such as the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed. Unlike Drake or Pokemon, I get why they’re popular – they prey on people’s curiosity and seduce us with mystery – but in this case they make me feel old because they make me cranky.

Just as with Drake’s overuse of Autotune or Pokemon’s ugly aesthetic, clickbait headlines just feel wrong. They’re simply not the way headlines should be written, or at least not how I was taught to write them.

I received my headline-writing education while in my 20s at The Globe and Mail under some of the best editors in the country. They worked tirelessly to instill accuracy as the highest virtue in all of us young editors. Having headlines that correctly reflected stories should always be our primary goal, they preached.

Cleverness was a bonus to that, and seductiveness even more so, but neither could be applied at the expense of that prime directive.

This is why so many clickbait headlines feel wrong.

A headline can’t tell you that you’ll never guess what happens next because the reader may very well guess. Similarly, it can’t tell you that your mind will be blown because the headline writer has no idea what readers might consider to be incredible and amazing, or what might be simply neat or even mundane.

Such headlines are inaccurate at their very core and they make me mad in the same way that young punk skateboarders on my driveway. Get off my damn property you hooligans!

Many people agree that clickbait is kind of a bad thing – it’s something that often makes us feel duped or stupid seconds after we click. But that’s the problem: we do click. Clickbait wouldn’t be such a problem if everyone wasn’t doing it.

Facebook has long recognized the issue and has been working at cutting down clickbait in people’s newfeeds for years. The company is cognizant about how it makes people feel, and if they feel stupid and duped, they might start avoiding the source of that misery. In other words, they might start using Facebook less.

It’s for that reason that Facebook this week fired its biggest salvo yet against clickbait headlines. After studying thousands of examples, Facebook says it has come up with a system that will identify headlines that either withhold information or mislead readers. Violators will see their posts de-emphasized, with traffic declines following:

“For example, the headline ‘You’ll Never Believe Who Tripped and Fell on the Red Carpet…’ withholds information required to understand the article (What happened? Who Tripped?) The headline ‘Apples Are Actually Bad For You?!’ misleads the reader (apples are only bad for you if you eat too many every day)… Our system identifies posts that are clickbait and which web domains and Pages these posts come from. Links posted from or shared from Pages or domains that consistently post clickbait headlines will appear lower in News Feed. News Feed will continue to learn over time — if a Page stops posting clickbait headlines, their posts will stop being impacted by this change.”

As a supporter of old-school headlines, this move by Facebook brings me extreme pleasure. It’s almost as if the music gods came down from the sky and said “Autotune users will be jailed,” or city bureaucrats posted a “Skateboarders will be prosecuted” sign on my driveway.

Ultimately, Facebook’s action means one of two things. Either the company agrees that accuracy in headlines should be a paramount concern for any media organization, or it’s the clearest signal yet that Facebook is for old people who care about such things.

Realistically, it’s probably a bit of column A and a bit of column B. I’m just glad someone is telling clickbait headlines to get off my lawn.