You Won't Believe How The Internet Is Blowing Your Mind. Just, Wow.
Someone has to say it, and Walter Cronkite is no longer available for comment, so I will: despite what you might have been led to believe, those addictively manipulative headlines you can’t help clicking on—colloquially known as ‘clickbait’ for how they suck you in—they are not news.
Mostly, these clicky headlines are the journalistic equivalent of the joy buzzer: hard to refuse, intensely annoying once you’ve made contact, and the result will blow your mind! I’m sorry. I got carried away. What I meant to say was, the result will probably make you want to kick yourself for falling for the trick once again, kind of like the old “peek-a-boo” game your parents played with you when you were a baby that taught you absolutely nothing except that there was a good chance that most of the adults in your life were demented.
And yet, some of these stories are heart-rending. Some of them will impress you. So how do you know when the story behind the clicky headline is worth reading? The answer is, you don’t. You have to get lucky.
Sure, it feels great to be the first of your friends to forward a story about how a specially-trained baby seal made its way through stormy Arctic waters to deliver a dose of life-saving medication to a dying scientist at Station Nord. When that headline is rocking your Facebook or Twitter feed, you let everyone know that you stand proudly and firmly on the side of the pro-heroic-baby-seal movement. You are FOR saving the dying scientists.
But what about the headlines that tell a completely different story than what they purport to tell?
Back in the day, we had news headlines that were simple, straightforward, and were written with a sense of gravitas by people with serious names like John Noble Wilford. I was just a kid when this happened, but Mr. Wilford wrote an article for “The New York Times” in 1969 which stated “Men Walk on Moon”, and believe it or not, the accompanying article was simply about men who, in fact, walked on the moon. It was fantastic. There were no rescued puppies in this article; no choruses of disabled orphans singing the “wondtacular” National Anthem in a way that would “leave you mesmerized.” Just astronauts, taking one great leap for mankind, which, presumably, is why you chose to read that article.
Contrast that with this recent headline from the Science and Tech section of “Upworthy”: “Why Does Being Right-Handed Totally Violate the Basic Laws of Physics?” Don’t you want to know? I’m right-handed; I know I sure would like to know more about my physics-defying superpowers. Go on, click on it. I’ll wait.
See what I mean? With all due respect to the original videographer, Xiangjun Shi, this is not information on why I am able to levitate just because I’m right-handed. This is a hand drawn explanation about why she wanted to study physics. And it’s ultimately touching, on its own. But when it’s covered over with a headline that promises “a story that’s worth a thousand words” it becomes clickbait. And most of us find it irresistible.
That got me thinking about what things would be like if clickbait writing infiltrated our daily lives. Why not keep your loved ones and colleagues in suspense while you break bad news to them?
“Dear John: Your wife met a hipster, stay-at-home dad/performance artist at the playground while you were at work, and what happened next will blow your mind…”
“Hi Mom! Life on the ashram is going great! In your wildest imagination, you will never believe what our Spiritual Leader decided to do with my inheritance from Grandma…”
“In the Matter of Business Partners vs. Smith: Please be advised that the Party known as “Smith” has developed an alarming online gambling habit, not to mention that penchant for high-end call girls, and it will mind-blowingly astound you to mesmerizingly discover what has happened to your Company’s assets…”
“Are these the medical test results that will finally reveal whether that strange noise your intestines make at night is potentially deadly? Only your doctor knows for sure…”
That, my friends, is clickbait. It’s a sucker’s game. It’s not journalism. It’s a …hey, look at that! A touching video about a kitten who called 911 and saved his owner’s life!