What You're Really Doing When You Click That Offensive Headline

Ever found yourself tempted to click on a headline, or read a story that you just know will infuriate you? You know it’s going to be a waste of time, and you know you’re going to hate it, but it’s too hard to stop. In fact, it’s the act of hating the story that draws you in. Whether you know it or not, you’re hate-reading – indulging in that slightly masochistic, ultimately unproductive ritual of hating on the disdainful, awful things you see on the internet. But, while you might think you’re merely feeding a bad habit, there’s actually a more nefarious downside to the act: By hate-reading, you’re only benefiting the people you’re dismissing.

Hate-reading is infuriating, yet somehow irresistible. You click on a headline, you read the article, you hate. Maybe you start ranting, maybe for a few minutes, maybe for an hour, and then you wonder why you did all of that in the first place. Katie Baker at Jezebel described the feeling perfectly when she compared it to a late night binge on a butter-sogged bag of popcorn: “I’m slightly nauseated, but still can’t help licking my fingers for more fatty flavor.” Hate reading exposes that spiteful, indulgent part of you that can’t resist the desire to dislike.

Yet the bigger problem with hate-reading is that it often helps the very people you hate: Clicking into an offensive story, reposting it, or commenting on it will only give the story more page views, shares, and attention. Since most websites make money off of page views and ad revenue, many of them deliberately make use of offensive, “shocking” headlines that lure the viewer into a click. By clicking on the headline, you’ve fallen into the trap.

Offensive headlines are part of a strategy called click baiting (or link baiting), and it’s no secret that most websites do it — drawing huge amounts of traffic is the only way that most web publishing platforms can survive. Dozens of click baiting guides abound on the internet and many accept it as an important marketing strategy for web publishing (this Distilled guide almost makes it seem like a science). However, more and more people are working on ways to subvert the websites that grossly use click baiting and, in particular, spur hate-reading. A new Tumblr called Hate Read, for instance, posts screenshots of inflammatory articles so readers can bypass clicking into the site and increasing page views. Hate Reads does the exact same. HuffPo Spoilers tweets the spoilers of the Huffington Post’s infamous click-baiting headlines. It boasts close to 30,000 followers, and the Huffington Post even featured a tongue-in-cheek piece on it. These blogs and Twitter accounts are proving that hate-reading can be combated, and that the websites that encourage them are increasingly being held accountable for their click baiting.

Finally, some writers have noted that hate-reading can also be constructive. Wired writer and creator of the HateReads Twitter account, Matt Honan, told the Daily Dot that the articles that inspire hate-reading are often the only ones in a sea of writing to inspire an emotional response – and that that emotional response can be valuable in leading to more progressive discussions. “It’s kind of like watching a cult film in that regard,” he told the site. “This is so awful, you have to try it so we can enjoy hating it together.”

Hate-reading is almost inevitable in a web culture inundated with link baiting. You’re probably still tempted to click on that headline — which is fair, considering that most platforms are trying to lure you in. But next time you’re tempted to follow the bait, consider subverting the baiter by going on Hate Reads and not giving them the page views. Submit a screenshot if one isn’t up. Rather than ranting to yourself, spark a debate that leads to constructive criticism. Or, you can just keep hating — after all, we have to indulge in our guilty pleasures every now and then. 

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Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn

Kanyakrit is a recent graduate of Wesleyan University, where she majored in the College of Letters, a three-year interdisciplinary major focused on European history, literature, and philosophy. She hails from Chiang Mai, Thailand, where she grew up with a love of books, writing, and soup noodles.

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