By: Samir Chopra
A couple of decades ago, I strolled through Washington Square Park on a warm summer night, idly observing the usual hustle and bustle of students, tourists, drunks, buskers, hustlers, stand-up comedians, and sadly, folks selling oregano instead of good-to-honest weed. As I did so, I noticed a young man, holding up flyers and yelling, 'Legalize Marijuana! Impeach George Bush! [Sr., not Jr., though either would have done just fine.]." I walked over, and asked for a flyer. Was a new political party being floated with these worthy objectives as central platform issues? Was there a political movement afoot, one worthy of my support? Was a meeting being called?
The flyers were for a punk rock band's live performance the following night--at a club, a block or so away. Clickbait, you see, is as old as the hills.
Clickbait works. From the standard 'You won't believe what this twelve-year old did to get his divorced parents back together' to 'Ten signs your daughter is going to date a loser in high school', to 'Nine ways you are wasting money everyday' - they all work. You are intrigued; you click; the hit-count goes up; little counters spin; perhaps some unpaid writer gets paid as a threshold is crossed; an advertiser forks out money to the site posting the link. Or something like that. It's all about the hits; they keep the internet engine running; increasing their number justifies any means.
Many a writer finds out that the headlines for their posts changed to something deemed more likely to bring in readers. They often do not agree with these changes--especially when irate readers complain about their misleading nature. This becomes especially pernicious when trash talking about a piece of writing spreads--based not on its content, but on its headline, one not written by the author, but dreamed up by a website staffer instructed to do anything--anything!--to increase the day's hit-count.
A notable personal instance of this phenomenon occurred with an essay I wrote for The Nation a little while ago. My original title for the essay was: was Programs, Not Just People, Can Violate Your Privacy. I argued that smart programs could violate privacy just like humans could, and that the standard defense used by their deployers--"Don't worry, no humans are reading your email"--was deliberately and dangerously misleading. I then went to suggest granting a limited form of legal agency to these programs--so that their deployers could be understood as their legal principals and hence, attributed their knowledge and made liable for their actions. I acknowledged the grant of personhood as a legal move that would also solve this problem, but that was not the main thrust of my argument--the grant of legal agency to invoke agency law would be enough. (These arguments were drawn from my book A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents.)
My essay went online as Programs Are People, Too. It was a catchy title, but it was clickbait. And it created predictable misunderstanding: many readers--and non-readers--simply assumed I was arguing for greater 'legal rights' for programs, and immediately put me down as some kind of technophilic anti-humanist. Ironically, someone arguing for the protection of user rights online was pegged as arguing against them. The title was enough to convince them of it. I had thought my original title was more accurate and certainly seemed catchy enough to me. Not so apparently for the folks who ran The Nation's site. C'est la vie.