Walk me through it. Im a fish, I see shiny object, I go for it...
Walk me through it. I'm a fish, I see a shiny object, I go for it... Fishhook/Shutterstock

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I don’t understand what "clickbait" is. I thought I understood, but now everyone's using the word in so many different ways I don't understand anymore. I thought clickbait was "9 Foods That Look Like Darth Vader—NUMBER 4 WILL BLOW YOUR MIND!" And then you click and nothing looks like Darth Vader. Clickbait is “under-delivering on a misleading headline,” as Vox describes it. It's the stuff that leads "a reader to feel she has been duped into clicking." The Wiktionary definition's example of clickbait is: "When I found out how Wiktionary defined 'clickbait,' it blew my mind! You'll never believe what happened next!"

Therefore: "Nine Sexually Explicit E-mails Hillary Clinton Wrote About Edward Snowden" would not be clickbait, not if Hillary Clinton did write nine sexually explicit e-mails about Edward Snowden. If Hillary did write sexually explicit e-mails about Edward Snowden (and who hasn’t?), and those e-mails are behind the headline "Nine Sexually Explicit E-mails Hillary Clinton Wrote About Edward Snowden," that's not clickbait. That's "journalism you happen to be interested in."

No one used to call "things a lot of people read" clickbait.

Now? Everything someone doesn't like is clickbait. Or "clickbaity." Or "link bait-y."

We ran this essay by Rachel Kessler about motherhood, immunization, and the small betrayals that go into raising a human being, narrated from the point of view of a mom who's just been stopped at the front gate by Disneyland security (as Rachel had been). Some guy on Twitter doesn't like the essay so he calls it "link bait-y." Umm, guy? "Bait" is synonymous with "decoy," "false thing," "bright shiny object I think is going to be yummy oh fuck a fishhook." If you have been baited into reading a piece called "Disneyland Found My $4.99 Earrings Threatening but They Let Unvaccinated Children Run Wild" because of the title, and then the title turns out to reflect exactly what the piece is, where's the dead fish?

We ran a poem called "My Night with Jeffrey Dahmer," and one of the commenters said "give me a break with that headline" and a poet friend joked "Poetry as clickbait?" But that was the title of the poem when the poem was submitted to The Stranger (as the first line of the poem makes clear), and by the way, it takes place at night and is about meeting Jeffrey Dahmer.

The most obvious example of everyone calling something clickbait is "Things I Can Tell You About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One." It's a snappy title, I'll grant you that. That's the title that was on the document when it was submitted to us, and as the editor I thought it was a title worth keeping. It looks good in a tweet, it looks good on a phone, it looks good on the book of Face, and it makes you want to keep reading.

But! But I ONLY want to keep reading if the writer is really going to tell me things about MFA writing programs they can only say now that they no longer teach in one. If I click on it and it says "Everyone's great!" and "Students are all unique!" and "Their lives have been a tapestry of rich and royal hues!" then that's fucking clickbait!

But no. Click on it. Click click click. Turns out it's only things it would be uncouth to say as an MFA teacher but can be said now that the author isn't an MFA teacher. How's that clickbait? If it's anything, it's "straightforward description of what the article is about."

Also known as "a not-misleading headline." Also known as "good writing."

The fact that you want to read the article makes it clickbait?

Is that it? Is that what "clickbait" means now? Is Virginia Woolf clickbait? Her novels sell like crazy; lots and lots of people read Virginia Woolf novels, every year, a suspiciously large number of people; there are hundreds or perhaps thousands of people reading To the Lighthouse right now. CLICKBAIT!! Beloved by Toni Morrison. Clickbait. (Especially after Oprah’s Book Club—talk about clickbait!) Moby-Dick. Has a dick in it. Click. Bait.

Maybe we need some new words. Maybe "clickbait" is starting to mean too many different things to too many different people. It's become meaningless, defanged. "I didn't like it" isn't the same as "it isn't what it says it is." Do we just need some new phrases? There's a whole English language at our disposal if we just need near-synonyms for "clickbait." Tap nip? Sick pick? Tide slide? Snack crack? Whack snack? Cheat treat? Shit hit? One could be for celebrity things, one for articles written by assholes, one for poems that struck you as unexpectedly alluring, one for really good essays about motherhood... and then we can restore "clickbait" to its real meaning, which is a headline that luridly promises something that it doesn't deliver.

The only thing stupider than calling something “clickbait” that's not clickbait is calling something “click-baity.”