Clickbait-and-Switch: 4 things I worry about when I worry about writing on the web

On tabloids, truth, and how our taste for entertainment might be making us dull.

Caitlin
Caitlin
May 9, 2014 · 10 min read

Growing up deep in the heart of New England, a trip to the grocery store meant two things.

1) we’d be driving for at least 45 minutes each way
2) the wait in the checkout line might be another 45 — an unfortunate side effect of there being only the one major grocery store for about five counties’ worth of people.

I was a prickly and impatient kid, but standing in the long checkout line at Market Basket was the part of the week’s grocery safari I truly enjoyed. I got to do the one thing I really wanted to be doing, anyway: read.

“Everybody Hates Me! Exclusive Interview with Doris Day”
“Hillary Clinton Adopts Alien Baby”
“Dead Rockstars Return on Ghost Plane”
“Di Ghost Tells Kate: You’re Too Thin!”

With hat tips to the supernatural and exclusive revelations about the rich and famous, Weekly World News, Star, and The National Enquirer promised titillating secrets, and above all, entertainment. Topics notwithstanding, if you’ve seen your news feed today you’ve probably noticed that those headlines feel awfully familiar.

Just as shoppers waiting in line are looking for temporary diversion, people scrolling through their feeds are looking for something to grab their attention as they move on to something else. This, of course, is exactly what digital content publishers don’t want. So how do they get a web reader set to “graze” to stop, click, and share? The same way that tabloid journalists did it in the grocery store aisle: sensational headlines.


Why so sensational, Batman?

Simone Stolzoff writes headlines professionally and she’s also penned a truly excellent piece on the art of headlines on the web. She observes, “…we are looking for signals to be inspired, for emotion, for an itch that needs to be scratched. Whether the content is created by a trusted publisher, Vine celebrity, or a brand, the constant remains that we are looking at headlines to telegraph emotion…” And Stolzoff is on to something here. Rather than “news” in the classic sense of the term, or even edification, if we’re searching for anything at all in our twitter and facebook feeds, it’s to be piqued, stoked, or entertained.

And in a beautiful act of 21st-century symbiosis, the internet is looking to pique, stoke, and entertain us, too.

Without question, Upworthy is today’s master of viral content legerdemain. What they produce, or “frame,” is engineered to tickle the TPJ, that primordial part of our brains just behind the ears that tells us what’ll be good to share — and, of course, view. They are primarily concerned with making sure that whatever they’re crafting, it’s something we think our friends would want to see, too. And so much depends on a headline.

I write here for a living, so I’m well aware that headlines are important. Recently, I’ve been doing a little research on what makes a headline great, which in the scuffle for attention on the web really just means clickworthy and shareable. There’s a lot of advice out there that urges playing to the gap between knowledge offered and knowledge desired, which is a darn good tactic given that curiosity is one of the most basic human instincts there is. But most of the advice you’ll find counsels grabbing people by their heartstrings and not letting go — the oldest trick in the rhetorician’s book.

Certainly, exciting people’s emotions works — it gets clicks, reads, and shares by dint of shooting our emotional responses into overdrive. The tactic’s also been around forever (even Aristotle was theorizing about this stuff back in the toga-and-laurels days). The difference, however, lies in proliferation. Today, we are exposed to such sensationalist writing far more consistently than we might have been by The National Enquirer and its brethren because consuming that news was optional. We had to go to it rather than it coming to us. Heck, it even cost us money! But with facebook and twitter feeds delivering such stories directly to our social media playgrounds — for free! — we just have to look.

I like being entertained as much as the next Grumpycat fan on the internet. But as someone who’s always been preoccupied with critical distance and truth, I worry, and I wonder: what is the omnipresence of clickbaity, overblown headlines doing to our minds as readers and critical thinkers?


1) Are we entertaining ourselves into an early intellectual grave?

The idea for Upworthy came to its founders, Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley, when both were working at MoveOn, a nonprofit group that uses digital media to aid liberal causes and politicians. As they monitored and watched, they found that what people paid attention to most was the three-ring-circusy stuff of the web. In the interest of shaping a better informed citizenry, they decided they’d hack this preference and give people that for which they clamored: According to Koechly, the taste was still for news — but, well, fun news.

While this insight might have been revelatory to the Upworthy guys, to media theorists, consumers’ taste for newsertainment isn’t entirely new. In his 1984 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman postulates that television was subordinating the quality of information it provided to the ability of said stories to entertain. And what is “fun news” but news tweaked to be entertaining? I don’t believe that finding new information should be a Sisyphean slog, but consider this: more and more young people are treating their social feeds as their primary news sources. In 2012, 33% of Americans under 30 got their news from social media while only 13% read a newspaper. What (mostly) makes it to social media? All of the stuff that dandles the TPJ, piques our emotions, and shocks us out of our power-browse state: “Dead Rockstars Return on Ghost Plane.” Who wouldn’t notice that?

Here’s another thing that we all instinctively know: popular tastes shape culture. Postman’s book also points out that television is programmed according to ratings, so its content is determined by likelihood of commercial success rather than critical worth. Now, content creators measure social engagement and track clicks and shares, customizing the content we create essentially according to ratings. But is it good for readers? Is giving people just what they want (and doing it so well) a failure to push them out of their intellectual comfort zones and to think critically?

If taste dictates availability of information, and the information available — stuff that feels like entertainment — shapes us, it stands to reason that we’ve found yet another medium through which to condition ourselves to demand entertainment above information. So what happens next? Will stories that shout the loudest be the only ones incorporated into popular discourse? Violence and shouts tend to disrupt the space and temperament required for critical thought, a skill we can’t afford to make any rarer. So, really, should all of our news be shouting?

2) What effect on emotional response does exposure to sensationalist headlines have?

One question is what newsertainment does to our tastes and capacity for critical thinking. Yet another is what the effect that constant emotional stimulation has on our capacity for emotional response. Just as research suggests that kids are desensitized by violence in videogames and on TV, it’s reasonable to imagine that heightened exposure to emotionally inflammatory media dulls us to the things that truly are mindblowing and might just be lifechanging. I think so, and I’m not alone. Some people like Alison Gianotto, the coder behind Downworthy, back me up:

“When you see this kind of bombastic thing so frequently, it becomes meaningless, and it dilutes the potential for meaning,” Gianotto says. “When everything is so overblown it doesn’t mean anything.”

It may seem like I’ve been decrying Upworthy for the majority of this piece, but that’s not the case. If they can make people stop and take notice of issues that are meaningful, then more power to them. But I wonder if Upworthy’s considered whether by using a formula that performs a hectic sensationalist dance upon our brains’ emotional centers, they might be instating exactly what they hoped to combat: a general numbing and public disinterest for issues that matter.

If that isn’t bleak, I don’t know what is.

3) Are we making good on our promises?

This smart, comprehensive blog post covers a lot of territory when it comes to headlines, but what resonated with me most was author Georgy Cohen’s reference to her own tweet. She responded to a twitter user whose pet peeve was “great headline, crappy content” with “Agreed. A headline is a promise.”

And it is. Remove the publisher’s imperative to attract viewers and regard it from the perspective of a consumer and the expectation of a headline is simple: to tell readers what’s in store. But it gets complicated when we start pitting market interests (clicks, views, shares, sales) against the informative role for which a headline is destined. Headlines need to carry a lot of weight in terms of function and attraction, but like Cohen says, they oughtn’t sell a false bill of goods.

Call me old fashioned, but I believe that when we write headlines, we are making a pledge to readers: I’m going to tell you about this thing. In order to be trustworthy, we have to offer truth — or at least something that feels near enough to truth to get away with it. But how many of you have had the experience Cohen’s follower reported — clicking a jazzy-sounding headline only to be taken to lackluster or, worse, only peripherally related content? To my mind, that result points to either failure or disingenuity on the part of the writer.

Again, from Simone Stolzoff’s post, “…let’s take a look at some of the headlines that filled my newsfeed today. “Can You Make It Through This Video Without Happycrying?” and “This Is The Most Inspiring Yet Depressing Yet Hilarious Yet Horrifying Yet Heartwarming Grad Speech.” Publishers are starting to over-promise and under-deliver.”

Remember The Boy Who Cried Wolf? Promising phantoms and proving unworthy of trust has repercussions in that people will stop listening to you. Sure, this needn’t be the end of the world if you’re nimble and good at renewing yourself, but once you take on a persona as a publisher, it’s hard to shake it, no matter what sort of revisions you perform to your style guide.

And better that original persona not be bombastic windbag, because it seems that people are starting to catch on. Upworthy itself has reported a surprising turn in the tide when it comes to truly viral headline types. Recently, they’ve noted a return in favor to descriptive headlines over their magniloquent clickbait ancestors. Does this mean that we’ve reached burnout as consumers and are looking for meaning to bring us back from the exhausting, anxiety-making work of reading inflammatory headlines, or does it mean that we’re just bored with them, as Upworthy curator Adam Mordecai suggests?

As a third option, perhaps the return in favor to descriptive headlines signals impatience with content that overpromises and a frustration with the information we find when we do click. I’m hoping this is more the case — that readers are using their noggins and beginning to expect delivery on what they were promised.

4) Are we eroding words’ meaning?

Here’s the final thing that concerns me about bombastic headlines hawking life-changing revelations. I’m worried about words.

Before loving anything at all (save for my family and my golden retriever, Gib), I loved books and reading. I loved books and reading because of words. Every subsequent language I’ve learned (3 total if you count puttering, remedial German) I’ve delighted in for the new vocabulary and the things that each phoneme suggests about a people, a concept, and a culture. As a person who’s maintained a long and torrid love affair with words, I fear that sensationalist headlines are desensitizing readers to the beautiful shades of meaning a word contains.

What does “awesome” actually mean? What would it be like to have your mind “blown?” (hint: it’s probably not pleasant). Superlatives have always suffered abuse in American English (what can I say? — we’re a people that likes to approve), but clickbait headlines that play to sensation by deploying adjectives like “Awe-inspiring” “life-changing” “amazing” and “incredible,” in a completely non-literal (and even barely figurative) sense create confusion in the mind about what the word means, and if we conceive of the world through words (and there are various different schools of thought on this, I allow), aren’t we indirectly creating confusion about the world itself?

It could be argued that by using these words in new ways, we’re just creating updated definitions. To me, however, there’s a distinction between bucking the dictats of prescriptivism and being irresponsible with language. That difference lies in using the words realistically, in a way that reflects general truth. If we continue dulling the tools that language has provided us by grinding them against newsertainment that disappoints, over-excites, and eventually numbs an online readership, I wonder if we’re doing more than just accruing clicks — I wonder if we’re changing our minds and our hearts.


TL;DR

Tabloid headlines and headline writing for the web aren’t so different. They apply the same (tested, valid) rhetorical tools that some of our very smart ancestors put into play. On the more noble side, sensationalist headlines might even get people to take notice of important issues they might otherwise have coasted on by. The way that general appetite for content types has evolved dictates that as publishers on the web, we have to make big claims in order to get people to click, but once they get there, are we giving them what we promised, what they deserve? and by deploying words so strongly connected to emotional responses, are we tampering with people’s feelings as well as their perception of the world?

I don’t really have any answers; those, I suppose, lie somewhere in the future. But I’ll leave you with this: if you’re a person who creates content for the internet, when you sit down to compose a headline I think it’s worth it to be mindful, to worry a little about the impact you might have on your readers — even if that impact is to warm their hearts and make them happycry.


You guys are smart. I’m entirely certain that you’ve done quality thinking about this — probably better quality than I have, too. If you have suggested reading, notes to add, questions to pose, or (please!) answers to mine please contribute.

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Hey! Liked what you learned? There’s a lot more! Come see what I’m working on at Blinkist, a reading app that gives you key insights from nonfiction books like this in 15 minutes or fewer ☺.

    Caitlin

    Written by

    Caitlin

    Reading, writing, and abusing metaphors @blinkist

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