November 22, 2017

The Rise Of Emotional Clickbait

We are living in a time of peak online “overshare”, so what does this mean for our digital footprints?

It’s been quite a week for calling people out for their past online mistakes. Of course every single one of us has said things (and probably overshared) online in the past, perhaps not realising we were doing it, how many people had seen it or how long it’s been floating around the Internet for. In a study from dating app Badoo, 24% of people confessed they accepted “friend requests” from people they don’t really know and allow these people to see all their posts, and 47% believe they should be more guarded with what they say online. I wonder how many of us actually check our privacy settings across all of our different platforms and logins regularly. Or go back and do a bit of a digital spring clean.

“We have new “evidence” to play with and lots of it. It’s never been easier to search someone’s past.”

Our digital footprints from the past have often come back to haunt us in light-hearted ways and marketed as being a fun thing to look back on. For example, Timehop. The logo for this digital ‘time travel’ app is a friendly little dragon cartoon that helps you see all the stuff you did a year ago, two years ago, three years ago… and I like it because it reminds me of my different haircuts and holiday poses over the years. Facebook Memories reminds me daily of the cringe slang language I used to use (I normally shake my head to myself: “I said what?”) But for very famous YouTubers, the Internet hasn’t been too kind this week. If you’ve read Jon Ronson’s bestseller You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, this online mob mentality won’t necessary shock you or surprise you too much. Zoella’s old tweets have been dragged up from back in 2010 for which she has apologised for, and Jack Maynard has allegedly left the I Am A Celebrity Jungle because of offensive online slurs resurfacing from years ago. Lena Dunham’s old tweets get circulated almost daily to reinforce someone’s opinion of her. We have new “evidence” to play with and lots of it. It’s never been easier to search someone’s past, and I’m sure most of us could trawl through our own online history and find something slightly questionable, or a “funny” joke that wouldn’t go down very well now. In the early days of Twitter, we were high on the freedom of having 140 characters to catapult into the ether with no real consequences. We weren’t thinking of this idea of a digital footprint, or digital legacy, or something we’d have to defend publicly. 

In the very early days of Facebook it was even normal to write an essay of your feelings and mundane plans on someone’s public Facebook Wall, because Facebook hadn’t rolled out direct messages yet. I cringe when Timehop reminds me of the chunky paragraphs I used to write on my friend’s Facebook Walls about gossip that should have been private and so-and-so breaking up with me. It’s also an annoying realisation that it would take too long to go back and delete everything.

“Right now, it’s kind of weirdly normal to sell your life online.”

But now it seems we are at peak overshare but this time we are older and wiser, and we are becoming more aware of how do it, filter it and even make money from it. Right now, it’s kind of weirdly normal to sell your life online. Is it even yours anymore? The rise of emotional clickbait appears rife on social media. “Emotional clickbait” is a piece of content about an emotional subject with the aim to be widely shared and clicked. Honesty sells, and our life events have turned into mini marketing strategies.”Likes” on an “I said yes!” engagement post. Retweets on getting a new puppy. A pregnancy bump on Instagram. The list goes on. 

“Honesty sells, and our life events have turned into mini marketing strategies.”

It feels rewarding getting validation for your life choices from a crowd. Perhaps the dopamine rush is to the blame for people now using their own harmless tactics or tricks to getting people to read their content all the time, to get more likes, video views or clicks. Maybe that’s a long emotional Instagram caption. Maybe it’s a eye-catching headline on your blog. We are all our own mini media houses now. Each social media user has a growing audience, whether that’s millions around the world looking at your #ootds or school mates following your life milestones, and we want people to click on our stuff. Everyday people with a few thousand followers can label themselves a “public figure” on Instagram as a job title. Every day we see constant “shock factor” in the headlines on YouTube videos and blogs, a way to increase traffic and views. I Nearly Drove My Car Off A Cliff!!! When really the creator simply went on a scenic road-trip. It means it’s less about connection, and more about the social media shares. If we are not careful, it’s the emotional individual equivalent of the Daily Mail side-bar of shame, accept this time we are doing it to ourselves. We are our own invasive paparazzi.

“It’s the emotional individual equivalent of the Daily Mail side-bar of shame, accept this time we are doing it to ourselves. We are our own invasive paparazzi.”

Where’s the line between sharing your life openly and honestly, versus wrapping your life up into clickbait headlines? Are we in danger of turning into our own shameless version of The Sun?

Every time I scan through Bloglovin’ or YouTube’s homepage there are videos with titles like “Why I’m Quitting My Job” or “A Difficult Week” or “What You Need To Know About Panic Attacks” and thank god that sharing your truth has become something totally normal. It’s better than the fake smiles through gritted teeth. I love reading about other people’s lives because the whole purpose is to make other people feel less alone. By looking inside the hearts and minds of others we learn a whole load more about ourselves in the process. I love honesty. I love reading graphic memoirs (I even wrote one) and agony aunt columns. Reading open and honest articles about love, life and death has made dark moments light again. But I can’t help but think we are going too far in some cases and how it might cost us our sanity if we continue to mine our personal lives as ‘content’.

“It might cost us our sanity if we continue to mine our personal lives as ‘content’.”

More research from Badoo stats that 62% have shared good news (e.g. a pregnancy or engagement) online and 39% of Americans have shared bad news (e.g. a death or divorce) on a social network. It’s clear we love to share our lives, it’s human nature but I think it matters how we do it, and why we do it.

When I interviewed Ryan O’Connell, for my podcast Ctrl Alt Delete, a writer who used to write very personal stories for Thought Catalog with quite clickbait headlines about his own life, it was interesting hearing about his personal evolution with how he shares. He used to write things like “Things I Can’t Believe I Ever Put In Mouth” and “I Got My You-Know-What Waxed”. We spoke about the danger of mining your own personal life for clicks. He told me how much more private he is now. In his book I’m Special and Other Stores We Tell Ourselves he says:

“The more fruitful your virtual life is, the more your real-life gets neglected.”

I clicked on YouTube earlier today because for some reason it was on my homepage. The video thumbnail was of a girl in tears and the video title was ‘My Boyfriend Died’. I didn’t click on it because I immediately felt intrusive. It currently has over 3.5 million views. The first line of the YouTube description is “WATCH IN HD!” Then a description about the video, then a reminder to her viewers to “Follow me on Instagram for more frequent updates.” The viewers and commenters had picked up on the fact that she has monetised the video – it has pre-roll brand advertisements, which felt jarring considering the sensitive and emotional topic. So many things about this made me question the way it’s possible to share and exploit our own lives for clicks and money. Are we now comfortable with this as the norm? Am I allowed to feel weird about this?

There’s also a question to be asked about whether we want to watch other people’s lives in gory detail? The fact that such clickbait emotional content gets more clicks perhaps tells us just as much about the way we consume things online, as it does about the creators of the content.

I just hope that over time, as we continue to learn more about ourselves and own online etiquette, we feel in control of what we share. That we don’t end up feeling empty, burn-out and sold-out in the long run. Ideally, in the future, we will each look back at our own digital footprint and it won’t make us feel icky. Ideally, we will still have some of our selves left to share.

  • I’m so happy that you’ve written this essay, Emma. Reading it gave me comfort that I’m not alone in this whole being bothered by the oversharing trend at the moment online.

    I’ve lived most of my life in the digital age and it always makes me so happy to read about honest stories of people and their experiences. Those wholesome and moving stories of single mothers conquering their everyday lives with their adorable children, the teens who take refuge on the Interwebs to be heard… They consistently inspire me.

    But at the same time, I feel bothered at the idea that some people will use moving stories like these in such a, for a lack of better term, commercial way. I do hope we’ll be able to learn more about online etiquette and strike up a conversation about this 🙂 Thank you so much for writing this and sharing your thoughts, Emma!

    x Kate | https://allthetrinkets.wordpress.com/

  • Yikes, I’m honestly shocked at the girl who’s put ‘Watch in HD’ on that video! What a weird thing to do?

    This world scares me.

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