How To Have a Healthy Relationship With Clickbait Titles

When you are about two or three, you gain the power of language. Shortly after that, an adult will use the gift of language to convince you that a jolly old fat man in a suit doles out goodies every year if you’re obedient. You believe it.

Christmas becomes more magical with Santa Clause, and it’s a really fun time, except when you actually have to interact with Santa Clause, who often seems to be a creepy old man in malls.

You give up on your belief in Santa Clause when you are six. But you don’t give up on Santa Clause. In fact, it seems like adults enjoy Santa Clause as much if not more than the young children who take Santa Clause seriously as a real being. After all, it’s adults who wear the Santa hats to office parties, write the Santa-oriented Christmas songs, buy the presents, and tell the stories.

While wandering through shelves and shelves of books tonight at Barnes and Noble, the thought occurred to me that our relationship with the really effective headlines and titles for information – as we call them, “clickbait” – works in very much the same way.

Like the Santa Clause story, an effective title hooks us in with belief and the promise of a reward for that belief. To the extent a title promises a reward – information – that is new, we are drawn to open the pages, click on the post, or watch the video the title is headlining. We believe at the moment that counts that the information is going to bring us value, and we usually buy a headline’s promise because it appeals to 1) our vanity, 2) our fear of the unknown/insecurities, 3) our curiosity about novelty/the unknown, 4) our ideological stances, 5) our sexual desires, 6) our sense of irony/humor/surprise, or 7) our social, sexual, or economic self-interest. The most successful titles use some combination of these.

Here are some examples of titles that could effectively hook you in if you were browsing through Twitter, YouTube, or a bookstore (I’ve made all of these up, except for some of the most absurd):

  • The Technological Shift 95% of the Population Isn’t Ready For (vanity, self-interest, fear of unknown)
  • You Are Already the Person You Want To Be (vanity, self-interest)
  • Naive Liberals/Conservatives, and Why Liberals/Conservatives See the World More Clearly (vanity, ideological stances)
  • Find Out What Beautiful People REALLY Want (self-interest)
  • Why Shouldn’t Be Spending Your Time Browsing Through Self-Help Books (insecurities, self-interest, humor)
  • All of These Other Books Are Lying (novelty, humor),
  • The True Secret History of All the Things (novelty, fear of unknown)
  • Sex: You’re Going About It All Wrong (sexual desires, self-interest, curiosity)
  • This Discovery Proves That Everything You Know About the World Is Wrong (novelty, fear of unknown)

These are all effective, descriptive titles that promise a lot. Unfortunately, as we’ve all seen, clickbait usually fails to deliver. Even when it does, when we see behind its mask – the title – the content is stale, recycled material surely stolen from another site. Like Santa Clause, clickbait seems to just be about driving consumer traffic.

As with every young person’s experience with the Santa Clause myth, there are three ways we can respond to effective “clickbait” titles anywhere we encounter them:

The Sucker’s Approach

Like the child who fully believes in Santa Claus, we can be suckered in completely by a good title. Five Secrets to Transform Your Diet gets us fired up. We truly believe that we’re about receive a great present of information. Instead, we get another suggestion to eat broccoli and exercise occasionally.

The disappointments from clickbait content don’t deter us. We live in a stream of one-off content that draws us in with alluring promises of better careers, better productivity, better dating success, etc. The ideas we consume are determined almost entirely by the appeal of the title, so we lose any discernment about what to spend our time reading. Digital content makes the barrier to spending time with information very low, so we likely spend a good deal of time reading badly-made articles and books or watching badly-made videos.

The sucker has given the clickbait-writer an unlimited license to enchant through the seven promises of information. Because of that, the sucker either becomes disillusioned from reading or continues in a rut of low-grade writing. This is not a good end state for any reader, and to move on to a wiser form of reading, they have to drop the naïveté that accepts the promise of any old title.

The Cynic’s Approach

Like the child who has grown out of a belief in Santa Clause early, we can develop chips on our shoulders for being deceived by clickbait. The clickbait cynic looks at all effective titles and calls them out as dishonest, soulless, or substance-less.

We usually shun articles created on the internet or any content or books with titles which seemed designed to appeal to any of the seven “crude” motivations I mentioned above. We read older books, academic books, “serious books.”

Unfortunately, that means we miss out on almost all non-academic content being created today. It means we miss out on the truly serious authors who use effective titles to compete in a crowded marketplace. And it means we miss out on the benefits of easily searchable and recognizable topical content in the sea of information contained on the Internet. We may avoid ever being deceived by clickbait, but we also unnecessarily deprive ourselves.

The Player’s Approach

No, this is not that kind of player. I’m talking about a theatrical player – someone who is acting out a part. The player’s approach is what we get when we’ve been through the sucker and cynic approach and have found them wanting.

We are now the adult who knows Santa isn’t real but isn’t bitter about it. We actually enjoy Santa more because he is fictional. We can “play along” with the tradition now – most adults love Christmas traditions, dressing up like Santa, and singing Christmas songs about Santa – without being awed into obedience by an overly-serious belief in Santa’s power.

We see clickbait titles now for what they are – ways to get people to read what’s inside. We recognize that they won’t always be indicative of some life-changing creative work or groundbreaking information lying ahead of us. Still, we enjoy their cleverness. We allow headlines to intrigue us. We use titles as fallible guides to fallible but potentially useful information. All the while, we are taking them with a grain of salt.

We know that titles are supposed to make sweeping claims. We know that our brain is wired to go after the seven promises of information. We can be conscious of this and “play along,” cooperating with the writer’s intention rather than blindly following our mind’s first inclination. That may involve forming other bases for snap judgements and filtering out books, like reading the dust jacket or Googling a review.

This is the healthy approach to titles in a world dominated by clickbait. We have to be aware that all of their deceptions – just like the deception of Santa Clause – can serve a purpose. We have to accept that clickbait headlines will be with us, whether or not we find them distasteful. If we do accept them, we have the power to play the game of finding useful information more effectively than the clickbait sucker, the clickbait cynic, and even the clickbait author.

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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