…You won’t believe what happened next
OK, so we all know that in the gridlocked blogosphere, a punchy headline will help to generate more traffic to our website. In fact, most writers of my acquaintance spend almost as much time finessing a title as they do crafting the article itself. Not that there’s anything essentially wrong with employing a little hyperbole to lend weight to your story. After all, ‘Cambridge boffins discover the secret to eternal youth’ is bound to cause a bigger reaction than ‘Huntingdon-based research company announces new enzyme for use in anti-ageing face cream.’
But there’s a balance to be struck, natch. Undersell your story and you’ll risk leaving it languishing in the Internet doldrums; oversell it and you’ll only disappoint your readers who may decide not to come back for more. Which brings me to the object of this week’s rant: Upworthy. This viral content website has spawned a new breed of highly sensational, emotionally manipulative ‘click-bait’ headlines that seem to be gaining ground in the race for news supremacy. It’s a simple formula: the headlines employ a standard two-phrase structure to firstly present an intriguing scenario swiftly followed by the promise of an explosive/surprising/remarkable conclusion.
For example: ‘This soccer mom just wanted to spend the afternoon shopping. You won’t believe what happened next.’; and ‘You’ll get angry when you see this video clip. How it ends is heartbreaking.’
Actually, I got fairly angry just reading that headline; it made me scurry off to find a real website (BBC) where I could pick a news item (Volunteers comb Lake District town for missing student) and choose my own emotional response (worried) instead of waiting to have one assigned to me. Heartbreaking is a coach-load of schoolchildren involved in a motorway pile-up or families made homeless by a freak storm, not a couple of pre-teens singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to their granny via Skype. It’s saccharine, smarmy and smug and should be stamped out before it infects everything around it.
The backlash starts here?
You’d think that established news providers would have the sense to steer well clear of overly sensational headlines, but news giant CNN recently had its fingers burnt after applying the Upworthy headline formula to a serious assault story: ’14-year-old girl stabbed her little sister 40 times, police say. The reason why will shock you.’. You can and should do better than that, CNN.
I don’t have anything against Upworthy’s social agenda – good luck to them – but selling news in this undignified way trivialises human experience by reducing it to a set of clichéd responses which demeans us all. It’s also unsustainable. As a reader, how many times would you click on ‘you’ll be amazed…’ before realising you’re actually nonplussed, at best, and resolve to click no more? Are we really that easy to manipulate? Perhaps when we stop rising to the bait, news sites will realise they need to re-think their approach, perhaps reminding themselves of the potential pitfalls of too much hype: ‘Boy repeatedly peddles fictional account of his scary encounter with a lone wolf. You won’t believe what happens next.’
In the meantime, if you’d like to have fun making up your own random Upworthy-style headlines, come and play at upworthygenerator.com.