When I wrote for The New York Times, I always admired how the editors could put a story in just the headline. They still do, of course: “Credit Suisse Pleads Guilty in Tax Evasion Scheme.” “Russia Says It Pulled Troops, but NATO Sees No Sign.” “Mayor Tells City’s Tabloids to Apologize to His Wife.”
Those headlines are transparent and efficient. They’re good journalism.
Those headlines contrast sharply with the headlines we all know of as “clickbait” — teaser headlines that imply that if you click the link, you’ll be rewarded by something shocking, amazing, uplifting, or sexy.
Very occasionally, clicking turns out to be worth it, and you’re glad you bothered. More often, it’s a total fraud, and you’ve just wasted your time. Even at their best, clickbait headlines are shameless hype. At their worst, they’re downright deceptive.
Clickbait, of course, is a scheme to drive up a website’s traffic. It’s a modern spin on tabloid journalism. But it shows tremendous insecurity; if you have a good story, why do you have to overhype it?
And it’s costly to you, the reader/victim. Sometimes you’re deceived, and sometimes you can’t find the answer to the headline’s riddle without watching a video. Which wastes your time and, if you’re on a plane with glacial WiFi, frustrates you because you can’t find the missing element.
But you know what? Two can play this game. If they can tease us by publishing half-truthy, overhyped headlines, then I can burst their bubble by revealing the tantalizing secret of each one. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present: Pogue’s Clickbait Spoilers!
Here are the latest clickbait stories that have been circling through Facebook lately, and what you’d find if you clicked through. I’m saving you time and irritation, and teaching you a little about what passes for reporting these days. (And yet by including the links, I’m still offering the originating websites a little extra publicity.)
You’re both welcome.
Spoiler:Tobacco, alcohol, and prescription painkillers. (Each kills more people than marijuana.)
Spoiler: It kicks with its front legs to splash water onto its body.
Spoiler: It’s a little social stunt. The first time, he’s dressed like a homeless guy; passersby ignore his cries for help. The second time, he’s dressed in a suit; people help him up.
Spoiler: Seabirds eat tiny bits of plastic floating in the ocean and die. Photos show rotted bird carcasses with stomachs full of plastic bits.
Spoiler: The video actually refers to a whole string of “mistakes,” but they boil down to making snap sexual decisions without enough information (like “He looks clean and showered; he must be disease-free”).
Spoiler: “When did you choose to be straight?”
Spoiler: It’s not just any man — it’s Casey Neistat, the guerilla filmmaker whose “The iPod’s Dirty Secret” video campaign in 2003 seems to have led to Apple changing its battery-replacement policies.
In this video, a policeman tickets him for riding outside the bike lane. Casey points out that there are frequently obstacles in the bike lane, but the cop is unmoved. So Casey films himself riding directly into trash cans, cars, and other objects that are in the bike lane, obviously risking grave injury.
Spoiler: People find it more fun to drive manually.
Spoiler: Researchers have developed a book whose pages can filter dirty water.
Spoiler: It’s a little film of silent sad people holding up cardboard signs: “You fired me,” “You abused me,” “You killed my daughter,” and the like. Then they flip the signs over; on the back, they say variations of “I forgive you.” (It turns out to be an ad for a Christian video company.)
Spoiler: Orchestra plays a piece that Anthony Hopkins wrote years ago. He beams, audience sways, but it’s not at all clear why the headline writer was left speechless.
Spoiler: Woman with terminal cancer is surprised by a flash mob of friends who dance for her.
Spoiler: Two young lads in Britain’s Got Talent sing an anti-bullying rap. Simon Cowell lets them advance to the next round. Why is that unthinkable?
You’ll note, by the way, that this week’s trick headlines come from all manner of websites — not just known clickbaiters like Upworthy and BuzzFeed, but also religious outfits and more serious journalistic sites like Business Insider.
It’s about time somebody started pointing out hucksterism wherever it occurs. Maybe, if enough of us start making fun of these tactics, these sites will be shamed straight.
See also: Upworthy: Take Down That Autism Headline
You can email David Pogue here.