From Comics to Caps Lock: A History of Clickbait

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Articles with unbelievable headlines. Videos with eye-catching thumbnails. In today’s economy, where attention means clicks and clicks mean money, clickbait is everywhere.

Clickbait might seem like a modern invention, an attention-grabbing technique that evolved with the invention of social media. But it started much earlier than that.
The first clickbait appeared in newspapers in the 1800s. They used exaggerated headlines and articles to attract readers, competing with each other to gain bigger audiences.

In 1835, for instance, the New York Sun published articles that claimed that people with wings lived on the moon, complete with illustrations. This fake news spread so far that the whole city was soon talking about it.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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The New York World, run by Joseph Pulitzer, soon found that publishing comics was an effective way to gain readers.

The comic they ran, Hogan’s Alley, was later known as the Yellow Kid comics because one of its characters wore a yellow coat.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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This worked so well that the World’s biggest competitor, the New York Journal, stole the World’s cartoonist. The World responded by hiring a new cartoonist to create a second “Yellow Kid”.

This type of attention grabbing thus later became known as “yellow journalism”, the earliest form of clickbait.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Soon, TV and radio came onto the scene.

Showrunners had to keep their audiences interested, especially through commercial breaks.

To do this, they used the “curiosity gap” method, ending their show on a cliffhanger – and asking audiences to “find out what happens next... after the break”.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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With the arrival of the Internet, clickbait evolved.
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Early Internet scammers would use shocking email headers and urgent messages to make readers click on fraudulent links.

These emails were often “chain emails”, which threatened the reader with bad luck if they refused to forward the message to others. There were hence many victims.
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When content sharing sites like YouTube appeared, content creators tried to get more clicks by designing eye-catching thumbnail photos.

Thumbnails of shocked faces and exaggerated poses got the most views. This later became known as the “YouTube Reaction Face”, and soon, every creator was making them.
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In the 2010s, entertainment sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy made listicles popular. These were articles written in list format.

These listicles had very little new content. Rather than attracting readers with insightful information, they simply relied on irresistible titles, like “My Favourite 33 Pictures Of Cats On The Internet”, to get clicks.
Image: BuzzFeed
Today, clickbait is an effective way of getting audience attention and making money…
Image: Pexels
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But it can have negative consequences too.
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Content farming channels, like 5 Minute Crafts and Scrumdiddlyumptious, post clickbait videos of quick “hacks” to get views. However, many of these hacks are fake – and dangerous.

In August 2019, a 14-year-old girl in east China was badly burned when she attempted a popcorn-making hack after watching such a video. She later passed away from her injuries.
Image: YouTube
Some Internet-savvy crooks also use clickbait to scam social media users of their money.

A 2022 Botswana Facebook scam lured victims in by promising them great deals on various items, including iPhone 15 Pros. Hundreds of victims lost money.
Image: Facebook
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Whether for good or bad, though, one thing is certain – clickbait is here to stay, as long as we keep making money from attention.
Image: WikiMedia Commons
What other uses of clickbait can you think of?
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