You Won’t Believe My Take on Clickbait

So I was looking at the Slate homepage, and I was thinking, everybody knows, or intuits, or has in some way internalized the basic compositional principles of clickbait headlines. Right?

You’ve got your straightforward tease. “You won’t believe this wacky take on the new Star Wars trailer.”

You’ve got the hot take in embryo. “The new Star Wars Trailer is a Viral Sensation. Here’s Why It’s Actually Evil.”

You’ve got the headline that tells you how you’re supposed to feel while reading the article, but gives no specifics about what will make you feel that way. “The Latest Thing Donald Trump Said Is Absolutely Terrifying.”

You’ve got the headscratching question that presumably led to the article being written in the first place. “Are Trump Tweets the New Star Wars Trailers, Or Are Star Wars Trailers the New Trump Tweets?”

You’ve got the naked appeal to rabble-rousing emotion, which can take the form of a goad, a rhetorical question, or a hyperventilating announcement. “The Way You Eat Salad Is an Offense to Humanity. An Expert Explains Why.” “Is Bill O’Reilly Just the Worst?” “Republicans Plumb New Depths.”

And a bunch of others, all of which work on the same underlying principle. They make a prediction. They presume to tell you what you’ll feel when you’ve finished reading the article. The typical web headline isn’t a play on words or a topical reference or even a thesis statement. It’s indistinguishable from a salesman’s pitch. “This argument we published will add zest to your coffee break. Try it and see!”

I have the same reaction to this stuff that I have to all advertising—which is to wonder how such shameless nonsense can actually be effective. Presumably it is effective, or editors wouldn’t keep writing such irritating headlines. But it seems to me I read fewer and fewer of the articles, if only because browsing news sites has become so draining. It’s obnoxious to be told how you’re supposed to feel, over and over. And it’s tiresome to realize that the real point of reading any given article is to gauge to what degree it falls short of the promise made by its headline.

I’m not even sure these headlines are effective, whatever the web stats say. The carnival barkers’ techniques they use are so shabby and timeworn that they have to be varied endlessly to have any effect. Often the appeals grow more flagrant with each iteration. “Our haunted mansion is the scariest you’ve ever seen.” “You’re guaranteed to lose your mind when you behold the horrors in our haunted mansion.” “You thought World War II was scary? Wait till you see our haunted mansion!” Replace “haunted mansion” with “new Trump story” and you basically have the Slate home page.

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