Puerile rash of our age

2014-07-30 00:00

“THIS Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular”.

Despite the strong odds that the sentence above is absolutely meaningless to you, there is a good chance you are familiar with it as it is the headline on one of the most viewed items yet on the viral media site Upworthy.

Don’t know what “Wondtacular” means? Never mind. You can be confident that the 17 million or so other people who clicked on it didn’t know either. The story on the other end of the link, by the way, is a short article and a video about a young man who died of a rare form of leukaemia and whose story is now part of a fundraising effort to fight the disease.

Welcome to the world of “click bait” headlines, a phenomenon that irritates me to the point of distraction as they pollute my social-media time lines, my e-mails and are seeping into every kind of media.

The technique of the “click bait” headline is said to have been pioneered by social sharing site Upworthy, although some argue it has its roots back in the rise of the “yellow press” from the late 1800s.

An article in the New Yorker earlier this year examined the phenomenon and reported on the research by University of Pennsylvania academics Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman in the early 2000s using some 7 000 New York Times articles. In controlled studies, they found that articles that elicited strong emotions of either happiness or anger were more likely to be shared than any others.

Now we fast-forward to 2012 where, the story goes, a contributor to Upworthy uploaded a hitherto unnoticed audio clip of the Irish foreign-policy spokesperson ripping apart an American talk show host for opposing President Barack Obama. The contributor tried this headline: “A Tea Partier Decided To Pick A Fight With A Foreign President. It Didn’t Go So Well.”

The story became Upworthy’s first million-hit article and the rest is click-bait history.

These headlines are now the puerile rash of the Internet age, infecting everything from articles about cute cats to stories about the Gaza conflict.

Click-bait headlines are intended to push your buttons to fuel the phenomenon Berger and Milkman discovered more than a decade ago.

Jonah Peretti, founder and CEO of Buzzfeed, another hugely successful social sharing site, explained the thinking in a presentation in which he argued that “everyone is crazy”.

He explained how social publishing deliberately plays on common psychological disorders prevalent in large parts of the population.

“Being smart means a lot less on the social web than having a heart and having a sense of human behaviour and human psychology,” said Peretti.

And that’s what I find so stomach-turning about the click-bait phenomenon; it’s the grossest and most cynical manipulation of the consuming masses. It is so successful, in fact, that many of these social sharing sites are building substantial revenue streams applying these techniques for advertisers and other “partners”.

Even the respected Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is using the click-bait approach through Upworthy to popularise their admirable health-care causes.

But I find it worrying that complex issues of our day cannot be “sold” in the marketplace of ideas without candy-floss headlines that assume that we are too thick to pay attention otherwise.

And make no mistake, sites like Buzzfeed or Upworthy and their swelling ranks of imitators are not delivering ideas of any substance on the other end of their click bait.

They’re delivering what Upworthy calls “attention minutes,” the sad currency of our media age.

It’s a currency which has Peretti exhorting us to “publish into the zeitgeist” — a concept which I think is generally sound and which has driven media for the past couple of centuries.

But something has gone rotten when an image of a toppled yogurt container becomes the media nugget of a minor earth tremor in New York City and gains tens of thousands of views and shares.

A toppled yogurt container!

I look at the front page of The Witness as I write this and wonder what our click-bait equivalent headline might be on some of the stories we carried in yesterday’s edition.

Would “Top cyclist stabbed for bike” have to become “Vaughn Cronje went out for an early morning ride. You’ll never imagine what happened next!” for us to compete for “attention minutes”.

I hope not while I breathe air.

• E-mail: andrew.trench@witness.co.za

• Twitter: @andrewtrench

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