Stop calling things “clickbait” already

My friends, I have a request. That request is, for all that’s Holy, stop calling things “clickbait.” It’s an old and busted term that has no place in the media landscape of 2023.

It’s clickbait all the way down

For starters, calling something clickbait implies that trying to draw attention to content is somehow inherently wrong.

Literally every article and blog post on any publication or (these days) corporate sponsored site is clickbait designed to get people to find and read the content. That’s its job, that’s the writer’s job, that’s the editor and SEO experts’ job… etc. Because you know what happens if it doesn’t perform? People lose jobs, that’s what happens.

I remember getting several nastygrams after publishing an article with a title that was designed to catch attention. It was a tongue-in-cheek about how to secure something using “one weird trick.” The post itself was well-written and technically sound, but several holier-than-thou dudes (yes, all dudes) took time from their busy schedules to complain about a clickbait, spammy title. But… it caught their attention. I know it did, because the traffic was 10x the usual for similar topics and the author in question.

The idea of “clickbait” is a puritanical ideal that writers and publications should produce well-written, well-researched, expert, non-controversial content that satisfies the particular needs and biases of the person shouting clickbait – in complete defiance of market forces and reality itself. Not to mention that people love to complain about material that’s not written by subject-matter experts, but certainly aren’t advocating for the pay scale for authors and editors to support hiring SMEs. (I could write several posts on this one…)

The fact is that many writers would love to produce that content. And many people would love to be assigning and editing that content. But the market doesn’t support it. And by “market” I mean the people complaining but are unwilling to pay directly for what they want.

The state of tech publishing today

The last U.S.-based print magazines shuttered recently. Tech publishing, print and online, has been in a slow and steady decline since the early 2000s. I sold my first article in 2000. Got paid good money for it, and went on to keep getting paid good money for articles, blog posts, and columns for several years.

Things started going downhill in the mid-2000s. Not all at once. I don’t mean they went downhill for me specifically, I mean they started going downhill for tech writers and tech publications across the board.

Google made it a lot harder for online publications to have a lucrative and predictable income. Tech companies started wanting more and more control over content and getting their stories out. So money that used to go from tech companies directly to publications (and therefore to authors and editors) started getting funneled through Google first and then to publishers, if they were lucky. Or it went into vendor-sponsored outlets or publications that were very friendly to placed content.

While developer salaries and other tech professional salaries have grown over the last 20 years, it’s been a lot of treading water or having to run faster every year to make the same money for writers and editors. To make the same money I made in early 2000s in 2010-2012, I had to write more and faster, with fewer editorial guardrails. Not claiming my experience was universal, but it certainly wasn’t unique.

Too many publications have either closed entirely or been taken over by people who are happy to publish worse and worse content as long as the traffic is there. Some publications are still doing great work and managing to stay afloat, but a lot fewer than there used to be. And in many cases you can see that they’re operating on leaner budgets and are much closer to the abyss.

Want better content? Pay up, and tell your employer to do the same

If you really and truly want better content, there is a solution. That solution is to reward the publishers and authors producing quality content. Be part of creating the systems you want to see in the world.

And I mean reward the authors and publishers. People seem to have really high standards for journalists and writers, but they surely don’t seem to think they should be paid accordingly. If somebody’s competent to write authoritatively on consumer or enterprise technology, they ought to be paid a salary similar to people with similar skills who work for the vendors in that industry. I’m here to tell you that, by and large, they’re not.

So, if you want to see better, reach deep into your wallet and sign up for subscriptions to publications that produce content you feel is valuable.

And, if you work for a vendor in tech, lobby for them to spend some marketing dollars to support quality publications. Play the long game and spend some money that you won’t see an immediate return on. I mean, good luck with that argument with the folks holding the budgets, but that’s what we need if you want to see decent content instead of best-effort quick-hit content that’s shoved out the door with little regard to quality.

We all operate in an “everybody for themselves,” late-stage capitalism system. But, somehow, people have high standards for other people but are unwilling to ante up when the time comes.

I got out of writing full time in 2012 and don’t expect to go back to full time writing ever again, even though that’s what I’d be doing if it was an option. (Well, first I’d be an old-school radio DJ picking my own tunes if it was an option, but… that’s not likely, either.) I’d love to make vendor money but be able to write long-form, vendor neutral, news. It’d be awesome to be able to cover topics in-depth without regard to their SEO appeal, and to take my time and dig into stories or topics.

To be clear – there’s nothing (necessarily) wrong with vendor-driven content and trying to do content marketing, either. It can be useful and fun to work on. At the right vendor, with the right team(s) and leadership, you can hit a sweet spot of producing good content that is useful to readers and helps bring in business. That’s also well and good.

But… in a perfect world I’d be able to have a job where I get to do actual, honest-to-goodness, tech journalism or long-form technical content and analysis that’s purely to inform and serve the audience. We do not, however, live in a perfect world. And, moreover, it’s shitty for people to vent their spleens at the writers producing “clickbait” so they can survive in late-stage capitalism. Doubly so if those people aren’t cracking open their wallets to support the type of content they complain they’re not getting.

The exceptions

So-called “clickbait” tends to be empty calorie content, sometimes with a side of insufficient research. But some content is utter garbage, misleading and/or in bad faith. By all means, call that out, but be specific. Damning people or publications for giving the market exactly what it’s willing to pay for, but no more – that’s uncool. It doesn’t make the world any better, it’s not going to magically fix the problem.


Leave a Reply