Used to be that a headline succinctly described the content of a story without ambiguity, laments Ronnie Goodword of Goodword’s Blog: one of the now-few remaining publications offering readers clarity rather than holding a word-shaped carrot just out of their reach.
But while he continues churning out local commentary pieces that tell you exactly what you’re getting, such as “Gary’s Seafood serves the worst cod in town” and “What City Council really oughta do is spend less money,” an important milestone was reached last week. Internet linguists are now certain that a full 95 per cent of all headlines on the internet were published completely without substance last month—up a full ten per cent from October’s previous record high.
“It’s all about getting people to click,” says Snaz Snowden, a social media guru who legally changed his surname in June to capitalize on Edward Snowden’s celebrity, and his first name at the same time because it alliterates and has a ‘z’ in it.
“That’s the only way you’re gonna make money in the biz these days—people just don’t have the time to inform themselves unless you coax them in with a long, slow tease.”
This idea has always been around, he says. Newspapers walking on the sensationalist side have always had such tools as the single word slam, where huge capital letters suggest an emotion—”TRAGIC” for example—but that won’t work so well on Twitter.
But what translates better is the question. Occasionally, when wanting to explore or create a hot issue without particularly taking a side, a newspaper would just make the headline a question, such as with “Did Obama secretly replace his daughter’s dead goldfish?”
“See with that,” Snowden says, “the answer’s ‘probably not’ if you actually read the article. But saying so upfront would deny the reader all the whimsical speculation and informationally bankrupt musings that they could have enjoyed for a good five… maybe even six minutes. Me? I don’t wanna live in that world.”
The question has become common online—in fact, it’s now present in around half of all headlines. But things don’t stop here.
“The biggest lesson we’ve all learned from social media,” Snowden gushed, “is people don’t like specifics. They like things to be vague. Think about it. If I tell you I got this story, ‘Kirsten Dunst wins Oscar,’ and you don’t care about the Oscars and/or Kirsten Dunst, why would you click it?
“But if I write, ‘How this one actress overcame the odds and won big’ well, now you’re curious.”
The idea is that rather than just tell people what happened and risk having those who don’t care not click the link, losing valuable advertisement impressions, you create a general situation that would interest most people and give just enough information to manipulate them into clicking through. They don’t know if it’s an actress they like or not until they land on the page, and they don’t know what was won either.
What they do know, however, is that they like some actresses, and they almost certainly like winning despite the odds, and so rather than risk passing the article by and not being privy to information that they might find useful or entertaining, they would rather spend the few seconds to click it at the minor risk of having wasted those seconds.
But that brief time while the page is open? Valuable advertising impressions. Even better, says Snowden, the best way to do it is hide the actual information past a few paragraphs of fluff to get the reader on the page longer and scrolling down more often. There are more ads at the bottom, after all.
“The days where we can just trust that people will seek out relevant news and then read the whole article all on their own in order to stay well-informed as a well-functioning democracy requires are long gone, my friend” says Snowden.
“People don’t like thinking. They don’t like making decisions about whether to read things, so what we do is basically put them in a position where their fear of missing out on something outweighs their lethargy. We turn what could have been a known unknown into an unknown unknown. People don’t give a shit about not knowing most things, but it kills them to know that there’s something that they don’t know but that they might want to know, that they could know if they want to know, just by clicking a link.
“People like me, we got them by the balls.”
Then there’s the challenge headline. These come in several forms. They’ll often lay out a general situation, such as “The most important tip for weight loss” and then finish with “that you won’t believe.” Sometimes the challenge will be upfront, as in “You won’t be able to resist watching this video of adorable hamsters meeting an otter.” The idea is that the reader will feel as if their capacity to believe and/or resist is in question, and thus their instinct is to prove the challenger wrong.
“Oh but I got even more tricks,” Snowden boasts. “Check this out: ‘This senior accomplishes the impossible (while wearing the most outrageous outfit).’ Did you see that? Parentheses, bitch! You got the headline proper, then just when you think you’re done and you have everything you need, with a rherotical light slap on the ass, I slip you a little something extra on the side. Everyone loves getting a little something extra. Now you owe me one, see? You gotta click.”
“It’s getting hard to keep up with stuff like this,” says Goodword. “Me, I respect my readers, I don’t think I should have to make them feel like I’m suggesting they ain’t good at something in order to get them to read my opinion on the state of the town’s potholes.”
But Goodword’s quaint, old-fashioned approach to headlines suffered a massive blow this week. While he published the investigative piece “Potholes worse than ever in Greenville,” in which he compared the average volume of potholes in his town to previous years, finding 2013 to have the largest on record by at least a factor of three, Snazwatch published “This town’s potholes are so big you’ll swear on your actual momma’s grave they’re photoshopped.” Snazwatch commanded a fatal lead over Goodword’s blog.
“I wish I could at least say Snazwatch brought meaningful international attention to the abhorrent state of Greenville’s roads resulting in change, but it hasn’t. Folks looking at the photos they took from my blog got a few minutes of gawking, and then they were no doubt off to see the next viral sensation like the witless crowds at a freakshow hop from the two-headed mummy to the bearded dwarf lady you won’t believe can benchpress this tig—aw heck, now I’m doing it.”
It was one thing, Goodword sighs, when it was just tasteless gossip blogs and sites dedicated to listicles of cats pulling this hooey, but the spread to legitimate news sites breaking stories of worldwide significance is just too much for his curious, outdated, old-timey sensibilities.
“Is this how we engage with current events now? The only way you can rouse somebody to sufficient interest in, say, the NSA leaks, being ‘How this one asshole caused a digital worldwide sensation you can’t afford to miss?’ Come on, that doesn’t even say anything!”
The spread has been unstoppable, with reputable news organizations publishing such headlines as “Is this the last time this president will get away with murder?” “This hot, famous celebrity slept with who?!” and “You don’t even want to know how she explains this one” with not even the merest hint of shame or shadow of a reluctant acknowledgement of how far we’re sinking.
But the numbers don’t lie. Experts have mapped the relationship between Facebook shares and retweets, and the amount of content in a headline, and have found a negative correlation. They went onto find a more fundamental relationship between the level of stupidity in a headline and its shares. More stupid was associated with less content but more shares, clicks, retweets, hits, impressions, dollars. With the death of print occuring every year, and with it each time the old, more financially sustainable relationship between the news and advertising, this arms race of vapidity shows no sign of slowing down.
Eventually, experts predict, somebody will happen upon the never-observed, but theoretically postulated “Absolute Stupid.” This is conjectured to be the point beyond which no further removal of meaningful information is physically possible. The revenue potential is said to approach infinity as one comes close to this elusive “zero point stupidity energy,” incentivizing every Chief Headline Officer in the biz to whip their teams of market research search engine optimization social media synergy analysts into overtime as part of the global convergence toward this one, true, golden piece of shit.
When it is found, the near-instantaneous result will be an unprecedented simulatenous share of the link by every social media account on the planet, sucking us squarely past the event horizon of stupid to a place from which no intelligent thought may ever escape.
But Snaz Snowden will be there, raking in the cash.
Oh, and who’s to blame for this? Well you’re on the internet, dummy. It’s Hitler again.