This Article Will Make You Laugh, Cry, Then Resent Me

The problem with headline culture


The Most Important Key To Getting Views Has Nothing To Do With Your Content

I write headlines for a living—and I love it. I love nimble phrasing and trying to understand what will emotionally resonate with readers. I’m a firm believer that in today’s digital world of abundant content and curated feeds, headlines are the single most powerful tool for the modern publisher. (Insert Spiderman quote here.) But I’m worried that in a culture where the headline is often the sole determinant of whether something is worth our time, people like me are abusing this power. Let me show you how.

This Event in 2006 Made Headlines Matter More Than Ever

(See what I did there. I created a curiosity gap. Now you want to know what the event is don’tcha? I’ll preempt my tangent, but check out UpWorthIt if you want to see how easy creating clickbait truly is.)

In the last few decades, the quantity of content being produced for the web has far outpaced our capacity to consume it. But on September 5th 2006, Facebook introduced a product that helped consumers close that gap: the news-feed. The news-feed is a revolutionary tool for consumers because it expands our limited capacity to consume content. From Yahoo! to USA Today, the feed-centric model is ubiquitous across every modern publisher. But the ramification of this fundamental shift in design is that we now consume content in headlines, thumbnails and mini descriptions. According to a recent study by Copyblogger, on average 8/10 people will read headline copy, but only 2/10 will read the rest. We have all become headline hunters.

Please, Tell Me What to Feel

Now, as we scroll through our feeds, 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 indicate value. From a marketing perspective, Upworthy co-founder Peter Koechley summed it up perfectly at the Native Advertising Summit when he said, “Headlines are one of the most undervalued parts of online messaging. People care about them, people know to care about them, but still it’s the easiest way to dramatically increase the virality of everything you do and I guarantee that you’re not spending enough time on it.”

According to Koechley, tests show that traffic to content at Upworthy can vary by as much as 500% simply because of the headline. In another famous example, a Youtuber posted a video with the title, “Zach Walls Speaks About Family”. Almost ten months later, the video was reposted on MoveOn with a new title, “Two Lesbians Raised A Baby And This Is What They Got.” With the new headline, the video received 11 million more views.

Tl;Dr Why All This Matters

So, where’s the rub? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the Upworthys of the world drawing attention to meaningful content. But, let’s take a look at some of the headlines that filled my news-feed 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 Ever.” Publishers are starting to over-promise and under-deliver.

If everyone from Perez Hilton to the New York Times begins writing click-bait headlines, not only will we all become numb to the headlines, but publishers will lose their most valuable asset—the trust of their audience. How do we combat this problem? I think the answer (in true San Franciscan fashion) starts with technology. Some publishers (like Medium!) are already developing algorithms for personally curated homepages and machine-learning recommendation engines. When headlines stop acting as the primary proxy for resonance, we can opt-in to content we want to consume and laugh and cry on our own terms.


If you want to continue thinking about this kind of stuff, I highly suggest you take 20 minutes to watch this. (It’s a super-interesting Ted-style talk about psychology, technology, and advertising.)
If you want to laugh a little at the lack of meaning in some of our headlines, read this tumblr on Buzzfeed without the GIFs or this, or this, or this.
If you want a cry a little, watch this poignant short film about our addiction to our phones.
Lastly, this is my first post on Medium. If you found value in this article, it would mean a lot if you hit the Recommend button ⇩ ☺
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