The revenue model for much of the internet has turned the obligation of news reporting into a competition for readers' attention—and clicks.
The competition has made headlines ever more incendiary, shocking and cliff hanging. In internet parlance: clickbaiting.
And now Facebook is doing something about it.
"Our goal with News Feed is to show people the stories most relevant to them," Facebook Research Scientist Alex Peysakhovich and User Experience Researcher Kristin Hendrix wrote in an Aug. 4 blog post.
"People have told us they like seeing authentic stories the most," they continued, explaining that Facebook goes to great lengths to determine what's genuine and to block the stories "people find misleading and spammy."
"He Put Garlic in His Shoes Before Going to Bed and What Happens Next Is Hard to Believe," for example. (They were less smelly; garlic kills bacteria.)
To help keep clickbait headlines out of news feeds, Peysakhovich and Hendrix said Facebook is updating its algorithm.
It started by categorizing tens of thousands of headlines as clickbait by considering two points: whether the headline withheld information that changed what a reader understood the story to be about; and whether the headline exaggerated to create "misleading expectations."
Further, it built a system that identifies frequently used phrases in clickbait headlines, as well as sites that such headlines frequently come from.
"Websites and Pages who rely on clickbait-style headlines should expect their distribution to decrease," the pair warned.
They directed any pages with questions to Facebook's Best Practices page.
"We will learn from these changes and will continue to work on reducing clickbait so News Feed is a place for authentic communication," they added.
Just the Facts
It's the second recent instance in which Facebook has asserted its role as a media company with journalistic standards.
In May, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was swift to respond to accusations that the Facebook Trending Topics section reflected the left-leaning political biases of some editors.
Zuckerberg invited more than a dozen conservative leaders and influencers to a meeting on the Facebook campus, where, by many accounts, he listened attentively to their concerns and assured them that Facebook was a "platform for all ideas."
Zuckerberg also noted in a blog post that conservatives and Republicans are an "important part of Facebook" and its business model, and that "Fox News drives more interactions on its Facebook page than any other news outlet in the world. It's not even close."
Whether the updated algorithm changes that remains to be seen.
On Friday morning, headlines on the Fox News site teased, "Janet Evens marvels over Michael Phelps' amazing …" and "Cop makes arrest wearing nothing …"
Some of the more clickbaiting headlines come through the service Outbrain, which encourages readers on one site to click over to another. According to Outbrain, it serves 200 billion "recommendations" monthly and is used by 80 percent of the world's leading brands.
An Outbrain story on The Guardian site Friday morning wore the headline: "The Chilling Thing I Found Out About My Retirement Plans." On the Huffington Post, the actual article was titled, "Online Financial Planning: The Chilling Thing I Found Out About My 70th Birthday."
Sarah Gavin, head of global marketing at Outbrain, told eWEEK that Outbrain is constantly refining its content guidelines, and "like Facebook, Outbrain discourages clickbait headlines."
She added that Outbrain is in the business of "content, NOT advertising." And, "While publishers and brands certainly need to entice readers to read their content, we firmly believe in creating a valuable user experience for audiences online."