In Praise of Clickhole: You Won’t Believe What this Website Did to Get Traffic

What does it take to get eyeballs on your website? How low do you have to go?

The web has been through many iterations on this subject, and now the space is crowded beyond belief. User behavior is diffuse and utility-focussd apps are drawing the main attention.

Given this, how do you get traffic? For two years, the answer has been disturbingly clear, aside from the porn route. You write provocative headlines that deal with people’s regular lives and promise a big payoff from clicking through. You can also make a list of easy stuff that people want to know.

Sure, the content is disappointing. Time and again. But somehow people keep getting sucked in, even though it tends toward trash. The clicks mean ad revenue. Ad revenue leads to profits. Profits make it all worth it, never mind how much this scamy strategy degrades the web and our lives.

Is this what digital commerce has come down to? Has the market failed?

The two masters of this art have been Buzzfeed and Upworthy.

Buzzfeed has huge, implausible, stratospheric traffic, all based on publishing mostly fluff that you somehow can’t resist.

“37 Things You Already Forgot Happened In 2014.”

“This Lady’s Impressions Of Celebrities Stuck In Traffic Are Absolutely Perfect.”

“18 Horrifying Breakup Stories That Will Make You Glad You’re Single.”

And so on.

Then there’s Upworthy. When it started, as incredible as it may seem, this website garnered some respect. It seemed innovative. It inspired a degree of awe. My smart friends talked about it. They were doing something right. It spawned imitators.

But over time, in an effort to drive traffic, it became worse. And worse. Finally, it hit rock bottom. The headlines follow the Buzzfeed model of personal stories that promise a huge payoff. You are almost always disappointed but you click anyway.

Here is a tiny sample of the trash stories on Upworthy.

“Reading This List Put Me In The Best Mood I’ve Been In In 2 Days”

“’Monster’ Is Too Gentle A Word For What Their Camera Captured”

“The World May Be On The Brink Of Catastrophe, And These Staggering Photos Are The Evidence”

“Seeing People Take Off Their Clothes Might Be Shocking At First, But Then It Will Make You Smile”

See how you wish I had linked those stories? This is science and art. The whole purpose is to get the click through. It’s not easy. It’s a real skill to write headlines like these.

Still, it’s degrading…and depressing. Must every site feed on the bottom in order to succeed? Have clicks bested content forever?

There are tens of thousands of competitors out there doing something similar. They exist solely to serve up click bait. And they work.

Does honesty, decency, and high-level content doom your site to failure?

I’ve reflected over these questions over time because the trend is disturbing at some level.

I’ve tried to think of the upside. The personal stories that succeed reveal how much people continue to care about real life, despite our highly politicized age. The practical nature of the headline topics underscore how much people are looking for real-life solutions rather than fake political programs that don’t actually work.

And Buzzfeed is just fun. It might be a fantastic waste of time. But whatever. It’s an amusement.

Still, something about this whole trend has bugged me. Is there no way on the modern web to combine intelligence with traffic?

If not, it makes you look down on humanity, which I never like to do. It makes you look down on commerce, which is actually the font of all wonderful things in the world.

But now at last, there is a solution. It is the gloriously hilarious site called Clickhole. This is a website started by our friends at TheOnion.

It is a parody site, one that somehow debunks the whole ethos of Upworthy and Buzzfeed — turning something that is otherwise annoying into something that is absolutely hilarious.

It’s not easy to parody click bait, but the folks at Clickhole have done it. The site manages to burst the whole bubble of the Upworthy ethos.

As with all great parody, it can sometimes be difficult to tell the real from the satire.

“If Only All Dads Cared As Much About Protecting Their Kids From Birds Of Prey As This One”

“7 Patches You’ll Want On Your Thanksgiving Dreamcoat”

“This Old Man Got His Lifelong Wish To Roll Around In The Drum Of A Cement Truck Just To See What It Was Like”

“And If This Self-Effacing Blog Post Highlights My Appealing Quirks, So Be It”

The content alone is brilliant, just the right touch. It’s what we’ve come to expect from The Onion, the same way in which that site sent up newspaper, Clickhole does the send up of clickbait sites, which are the new media.

It’s super smart, sassy, and so sophisticated. It manages to make fun without being cruel. It helps us look at ourselves and see, maybe for the first time, what precisely is ridiculous about a craven editorial policy that seeks only to manipulate user behavior rather than add actual value.

But here is what is truly wonderful. Clickhole has been an enormous success.

In fact, Clickhole is chasing the traffic ranking that Upworthy itself has. And Upworthy is falling as Clickhole is rising. The parody might eventually kill the original!

Why does this matter? It illustrates the persistence of human intelligence and the prospect that it can overcome stupidity.

Clickhole shows that the human mind is agile, malleable, intelligent, surprising. Just when we thought there was no end to the depths, and that all commercial success on the web requires keeping integrity offline, this site has shown that maudlin displays about the end of quality are wildly overwrought.

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Founder and President of the Brownstone Institute. He is also Senior Economics Columnist for Epoch Times, author of 10 books, including Liberty or Lockdown, and thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.

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7 comments

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  • I’m secretly pleased that even you, the great optimist, cannot help but be annoyed by Upworthy’s awfulness.

    On the other hand, every once in a while, Buzzfeed has some actually good, longform content. Always very, very far from libertarian, but there’s been some good/depressing criminal justice reporting, and a rather touching piece about visiting the 9/11 Museum which memorialized someone’s worse day ever. Subsidizing that with cat gifs could be worse. On the other hand, the site is still heavily weighted in favor of the truly ephemeral content.

    Upworthy is not even a real website, it’s officially Youtube videos with Godawful headlines.

  • Upworthy bugs me for a slightly more insidious reason: it is hugely politically biased whilst also maintaining a facade of being apolitical.

    So basically amidst all those vacuous but uplifting videos is a subtle brainwashing. This isn’t surprising if you consider that one of the founders was an executive director moveon.org, the Progressive PAC.

    Basically its an undercover agent in a larger ‘culture war.’ And millions of people use it daily.

    As for the Onion, I’m now becoming worried for them as well, since they’ve become more overtly political.

    http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116479/onion-americas-finest-marxist-news-source

    • I tried to read that NR piece before, and then my eyes glazed over.

      What is it with Marxists and their complete inability to write?

  • It is very nice to see someone taking on the mindless junk and creating something a little more intellectually entertaining out of it. I’m still left wondering how we’re to compete. On here, our audience is fairly like-minded and has an interest in reading about liberty, politics, economics, etc… Even the goofy-er items I’ve seen here (in my limited exploring, as I just joined) like liberty.meme have some intellectual chops.

    Outside of this wonderful digital city, we are still faced with how we can make our thoughtful and cognitively challenging content appealing when stacked up against “20 of the Cutest Kitten Pix You’ve EVER Seen”. I guess our market may just be limited, but if that is the case it is a truly sad state of affairs as so many can benefit from the liberty message if they hear it.

    Thanks for the positivity Jeff, I enjoy your optimism greatly.

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