Some days ago, one of the many local Buzzfeed equivalents posted an article about a restaurant in Karachi calling itself “The Second Wife cafe”. As I’m sure you can guess the post was tirade of screen-shots and emboldened, capital letters declaring that this was nothing short of patriarchy reverberating through cheese parathas and cups of chai.
I will not be linking to said article, because frankly they don’t need the hype. Search your Facebook feeds for the name of the café, the article is sure to pop up.
Let us instead dissect something that is as problematic as it is useless.
In a simplistic sense the term “clickbait” refers to a headline (usually for online articles) that is designed to make you click on the accompanying link.
But aren’t all headlines supposed to grab the reader? Yes. But traditionally, headlines were also supposed to have a basis in fact. They would declare things in a way that caught attention, and informed the reader what they could expect.
But present day headlines aren’t always about information. More often than not, they focus on opinions. Or, more specifically encouraging strong opinions regardless of the facts. The digital age has made competition easy, and hence made headlines important again. It is no longer enough for the title of a story to inform readers about what they can expect, instead in keeping with the tradition of creating demand, modern day headlines excite and entice. They aim to elicit a response before you’ve even read the story.
The words that frequent clickbait then are trigger words. They play on sentiments and emotions. They want to get you interested by appealing to what matters to you. Who cares if it’s true?
The unabashed pioneer of this strategy was Buzzfeed. While they have decided to now focus on old-school journalistic ideals (like fact checking) but the secret behind their incline was definitely clickbait. When the company first started, it didn’t have any writers or editors. Instead, it relied on an algorithm that would pull in the internet’s most viral content.
Many of their videos turned out to be fake, facts were swapped for spectacle and in a short time Buzzfeed surpassed the readership of traditional news outlets.
The success of the Buzzfeed model encouraged even the most high-brow sites to adopt clickbait (sites for The Washington Post and even our very own Dawn have their versions of a hot-list, initiated by Buzzfeed) and another interesting trend emerged; the commodification of social issues.
Suddenly, words that described societal struggles were in vogue. For example being a feminist, if you consume glamorous western media, is suddenly in. It’s what all the celebrities are doing. It is the hottest new accessory.
Why, you might ask yourself, would products built on getting women to dress, act and conform with societal norms suddenly be adopting an ideology that calls to subvert said norms?
Well, because they’re not. Not really. They are just really good at noticing what matters to their audience.
Since feminism is still the F word in Pakistan, with very few men or women even owning the title, local sensational media uses patriarchy instead. Enter articles announcing that a woman had the gal to stand up to a man, that real men marry women whom their fathers sexually abused (no really, this was part of a headline, look it up) that restaurants with provocative names reinforce patriarchy.
However, the sensationalism is one half of the problem, the other half of course being the function, or lack thereof, that such content performs.
If you are genuinely offended by the café for a name that was clearly taken on because of shock value, I don’t blame you. But how do we decide on the pillars of patriarchy? Or rather, who decides?
Believe it or not, I’m not entirely against clickbait. I’ve even flirted with it. But my issue with hashtag activism is that it works to channel outrage onto something that is mundane at best. The strongest outcome of rage and dissent has always been lasting change. Collective action has always lead to change. But it has also always been the media and pop-culture’s role to give dissent a direction. And the direction that clickbait is pointing us towards is fuzzy.
A graduate student friend of mine once remarked that present day media focuses on forgetting rather than remembering. They don’t want to inform us about the most pressing matters of the day. Rather they want to bombard us with so much information so quickly that news itself becomes temporary.
Interestingly, Jonah Peretti, the founder of Buzzfeed agreed with this. In a college essay, which has since been picked up and picked apart by avid journalists, a young Peretti argued that in order to survive, capitalism and capitalist media needs to constantly present people with new “identities”. It has to constantly offer you a new way to express your opinions, and something new to be outraged about, so that you are never satiated and always interested.
The point of such content isn’t to encourage us to act, or even debate. Rather they want us to tweet, write Facebook posts and, of course, share their article. And everyday, they will channel our outrage towards something new. Yesterday, popular media decided that a café’s name was the pillar of patriarchy. Today it maybe a chips commercial. Tomorrow, it maybe the bag of chips itself.