They’re terrible. Specifically, they’re terrible because they deliberately obscure what the thing you’re clicking on will be about. I have often clicked on things I had no interest in seeing, which is at least neutral. But I have also oftentimes clicked on things I have already read or seen elsewhere because the headline deliberately hid what it was about. And while the calculation that I would get momentarily discombobulated by this situation and be likely to randomly click shit in frustration and confusion is depressingly accurate, the likelihood that it will get admakers any money is, happily, very small.
Click-optimizing headlines optimize clicks. I get that. But I don’t think anyone enjoys these headlines – the only good thing about them ever is when they’re tweaked in a funny way, like this headline Jon Chait uses to discuss Obamacare. And in the same way that we are now somewhat protected from the worst activities of spammers and pop-up ads, there needs to be some way to fight back against this invention. My reductio ad absurdum suggestion to upworthy etc. is to just title all their content “this is the greatest thing you will ever see”. I’d click on that. My other suggestion, and yes, I have been living in the U.S. for some time, thanks for asking, is that there should be a class action suit on behalf of everyone duped by hyperbolic headlines that don’t deliver. Who’s with me? Are you between the ages of 18 and 75? Have you clicked “You won’t believe what happens next”? Could you, in fact, believe it very easily? If you answered yes to all of these questions, contact your attorney! Sure, viralnova, you may want to say that watching this video will restore my faith in humanity. And if you can deliver, good on you. But if you can’t, expect to hear from my (totally imaginary) lawyers.
At the same time, and this is a difficult manoeuvre to make in this post right now, I kind of think teaser headlines can sometimes (rarely) be a good idea. The difference is that while click-optimizing headlines obfuscate the topic, teaser headlines hide only the conclusion. You know whether you want to find out the answer, you’re just not given it right away. That might actually be useful if, like me, there are questions where you claim to have an open mind but are actually strongly predisposed to one of the two possible answers. For instance, in this example Matt Yglesias uses to decry teaser headlines, I can imagine people from either camp not actually hitting the link depending on what the study purports to say. And yet if they were to read the study, it might help inform their opinion. I should have titled this post “Do teaser headlines fight epistemic closure?” – except the answer to that is, I dunno, maybe, in some super-rare circumstances?