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Rant: A new style of online news headline has emerged – and it’ll make you so angry you’ll explode.

maxresdefaultBy Simon Davies

Astute readers will have noted – probably with dismay – the rise of a new genre of online news headline. It’s a style that has the potential to become even more infuriating than the syntactic ambiguity of the “red top” tabloids (e.g. “Headless Body in Topless Bar“).

These emergent headlines are maddening because they brazenly assume an intimacy with the reader. Even worse, they try to tell us how we should react to the related story.

“Man tries to hug a wild lion… you won’t believe what happens next.”

What utter rot. Of course we can believe what happens next. In fact most of us can easily foresee all three logical outcomes from hugging a wild lion. Ergo, we are highly likely to believe what happens next – contrary to the headline’s prediction that we’ll be floundering on the floor in astonishment.

Man hugging lion: So what?

Man hugging lion: So what?

This blight is spreading on news and feature sites across the Interweb, infesting Buzzfeed, ViralNova, UpWorthy and now even Huffington Post. They’re what ad professionals call “Clickbait”, intended to drive traffic – especially through social networks.

To anyone who cares about grammatical form, this style is infuriating. Fortunately the extent of mass irritation over the trend appears to be growing.

“These photographs were found in an attic after fifty years – they will make you sad.”

If you’re wondering where the privacy peg for this article is hiding, it’s nestled in the growing intimacy that mass media is developing with the individual. The shift to customisation and targeting of consumers will, in time, remove the “mass” from “mass media”. That’s old news, but it’s worth considering that this new genre may “soften up” the market for customisation.

OK, the privacy angle is thin, but it’s still there. I’ll attempt to tease it out. You’ll be writhing in astonishment if I succeed.

The shift to customisation and targeting of consumers will, in time, remove the “mass” from “mass media”. That’s old news, but it’s worth considering that this new genre may “soften up” the market for customisation.

Traditionally, the most private zone in mass media is the space between the news headline and its reader. It is a neutral zone that presumes nothing – and knows nothing – about you. The headline is merely an appeal to read the story that follows.

Biased as they often are, a good headline is supposed to maintain a respectful distance – never assuming too much about the views of readers. Some even try to be objective.

In syntax they are usually Third Person Plural or Third Person Gender-neutral Singular. I’m sure you’re following this inspired analysis.

The new headlines are structurally different. They’re written in the First or Second Singular grammatical person. The First Person singular is “I” or “Me” (such as “This picture of twenty five kittens made me weep“). The Second person singular is “You”, such as (“This online headline writer fell into a vat of cow manure – you will laugh all day at him.“)

Compared these with the more traditional headline:

“Thousands march in angry protest at “obscene” French austerity drive.”

Such headlines are works of art: passive yet descriptive, editorially biased, yet with the gloss of neutrality. And all the while designed to attract the attention of readers without presuming their opinions.

Those headlines are like a blank canvas onto which you can paint your own emotions. They allow us to at least pretend a detachment from the stories we read. The new genre applies the base coat.

In an effort to counter this trend, an executive for a creative agency called Noise developed a browser plugin called Downworthy, which converts the lurid headlines into more sane and meaningful text. Thus “Nothing Could Prepare Me For What’s Revealed When This Glacier Lake Melts. OMG” becomes “Does anyone fucking care what’s revealed when this glacier lake melts. No-one cares at all”.

Consider this me doing my part to stop the insanity,” explains the author.

It’s well worth a look. You’ll be amazed!