The Best Article You’ll Read Today (Isn’t This One)

Blogging — By on December 5, 2013 at 8:00 am

I’m serious.

If this is the best article you’ve read today so far, then I would encourage you to read more. Maybe try this one. That is just what I had open on my desktop, there are a lot more out there.

But who knows which one will be the best to read? That’s a journey you’ll have to take alone, my young apprentice.

You may have noticed—assuming that you at any point in the last three months had access to the Internet—that there’s been an overwhelming surge of a certain type of article headline. The kind that makes whatever the article is talking about sound like it must be up there with finding a cure for all of the world’s diseases.

Things like “You Won’t Believe What Happened When This Person Did This Thing,” or “This Thing That Happened Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity.”

This type of enticing headline style is called “clickbait.” It was recently made legendary by “good-news-spreading” site Upworthy, and has been copied ad nauseum everywhere else. Sometimes it starts to get a little annoying with so many grandiose claims and so much similar wording all over your Facebook newsfeed.

Steve Hind of The Guardian writes in his In Defence of Clickbait: “When readers are lured in, and rewarded for their curiosity by good content, everyone wins.”

Sure. But what if online publishers set up promises on which they can’t deliver?

“Well duh, then no one will share it,” the readers respond.

And it’s true, to some extent. In the Darwinian world of online traffic rankings, only the interesting survive. (Kanye tweets excepted.)

But there are still a couple of repercussions to this kind of model. The first, as you might expect, is that everything becomes impossible to gauge or even take seriously. We can’t just give all of our online content participation trophy-headlines, or the same thing happens that we all felt in second-grade soccer—suddenly no one is special.

In the same way that repeated, unpoliced misuse of “your/you’re” has made even grownups unsure of correct usage, overuse of hyperbole dumbs down the awesomeness of everything.

We’re already reaching a point where having a “purely factual” headline is something only really super-respectable news sources, who already have an audience, can feel confident about. An un-established writer labeling something as “Some Thoughts I’ve Had” rather than “Something Everyone Needs to Know” is immediately dismissed. Because with all of The Most Important within our reach, why would we have time for anything else?

Another thing that irks me about this type of marketing is an assertion like “This Will Be The Best of This Type of Thing You’ll See All Day.”

Sure, there is some potential for really niche topics: a video titled “This Will Be The Best Video of A Llama Singing You See Today” will probably turn out to be accurate.

But did anyone tell these people about the Internet? I can actually go to this thing called YouTube and type in “llama singing” and find other results, which I might be inspired to do after seeing that first video that piqued my interest.

And finally, my biggest concern with clickbait is its tendency to try to predict or even mandate your reaction. Particularly lines like “You’ll Never Guess” or “This Will Make You Cry.”

Who are you, freelance Buzzfeed columnist, to tell me what I will or will not think or feel?

There is, of course, some implicit understanding that titles like this are just a recommendation of your most likely reaction, and meant merely to give you some kind of context for what type of thing you’re about to read or see. It’s better, I suppose, to be aware you’re about to watch a heart-wrenching story, before everyone hears you sobbing in your cubicle.

But that doesn’t keep lines like that from acting as the laugh tracks of the Internet. Sometimes appropriate, but sometimes painfully awkward and misplaced.

Which comes back to that issue of making promises.

Most of us grew up hearing stories like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” and can’t shake the feeling that there’s something wrong with stringing your audience along. Even if they’ll keep believing you every time.

Back when newspapers and magazines had to rely on physical subscriptions, there was no room for bait-and-switch marketing. People got what they paid for, because it was the same thing that they had already gotten to know and learned to trust.

And trust is something that marketing agencies have been trying to replicate for decades, but never mastered.

I grew up with a stellar ability to overdramatize my problems when it was convenient for me. (Think Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.) There were numerous factors that led to my eventual reformation, but one of them was just having a couple of professors who wouldn’t buy what I was selling. After the third “but I was so sick and busy and ran out of printer ink the day that paper was due!” they started calling me on it.

And perhaps it would be helpful to start calling these “best things ever” on their respective crap.

Am I saying that we should all boycott Upworthy? No. Stop reading Buzzfeed? Well, maybe.

But can you imagine what it must be like working at a site like that? Having to scour the world for “the BEST advice for twenty-somethings” and “the CUTEST cat picture EVER.” That’s a lot of unnecessary pressure, spawned from the success of clickbait.

Maybe we can start by presenting things with less ridiculous adjectives in our own sharing, and giving less-paraded things a chance. There’s nothing wrong with reading another article aside from the best one. It can still be good.

I think one of the reasons I like listening to NPR is that they spend so little time on convincing you to care. They don’t introduce a segment about Somalia with “This Story Will Bring You to Tears”…they just start talking about it. It’s up to you, the listener, to engage with the content and react as you see fit.

What a concept.

Maybe we could be people who are thoughtful and humble in the way that we engage with media content and each other. Giving everything a fair shot, but valuing trustworthiness above flashiness.

Wouldn’t that be just the BEST?

Image via the ever hilarious xkcd.


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  • Paul Slemmer

    This article is pretty good. Thanks.