This cynical alt-weekly editor sat down to write a column about headlines… He never could’ve guessed what was coming…
The brilliant webcomic XKCD not too long ago did a word-cartoon titled “20th Century Headlines Rewritten To Get More Clicks,” and because I think it most succinctly gives the perspective of the piece, I’ll quote my favorite: “1945—These 9 Nazi Atrocities Will Make You Lose Faith In Humanity.”
If you spend even a modest portion of your day involved in social media, chances are you’ve seen a headline written in this style, linking you to some list of scrollable images designed to keep you on a page so the website’s average length of viewership goes up and they can charge more for ads, or to a viral video that actually has nothing to do with that site and is just there for, well, the same reason. The headlines are purposefully vague to arouse curiosity—“Oh, I won’t believe what this cat does with a bowl of cereal, eh? We’ll see about that!”—because when you click on their mostly vacuous shit, they get money.
This is a relatively recent phenomenon, and frankly, I don’t think it’s going to last forever, but like a lot of lowest-common-denominator moneygrabs, it poses an interesting question: How is this at all different from what commercial media has always been?
Headlines are there to snare the attention of the reader. They have been since it was William Randolph Hearst’s papers sensationalizing the events of the day in order to best their competitors. Television does the same thing. Who’s loudest? Flashiest? Fox News. They’re also number one. For better or worse, people seem to consistently want to be beaten over the head with stupid, meaningless shit presented as loudly and with as much (often false) simplicity as possible.
To look at BuzzFeed, or the Huffington Post, or UpWorthy, or whatever the rest of them are—hell, the BBC does it now—and find, “26 Problems ‘80s Kids Know” or “35 Things You Will Never See Again In Your Life,” yeah, it’s a waste of time. It teaches nothing, doesn’t inform, doesn’t enrich. At most, there’s some reference made that you can relate to in a general way—which is probably also what you got from the headline and thus why you clicked—but how new is it compared to commercials that start out with questions about your house, your beat up car, your children? Or news stories that ask, “Have you ever wondered…?” before actually getting to what they’re taking about?
I guess the point here is that the easy point of view is to say that culture is a continually dumbing, continually distilling downward spiral of intellectual retardation and crass exploitation for profit. Well…
Well maybe it is, alright? Maybe things just keep getting stupider and stupider and every time you think it can’t possibly get any worse, the bottom drops out and there’s some new low and the word “feels” has replaced “feelings” and you just want to kill everything in your immediate vicinity thinking about it.
I’m willing to wager that 300 years ago when someone started saying “you” instead of “thou,” there was a whole group of people who felt the same way. Whether we like it or not, culture is not a static thing, and what seems ridiculous to us for one reason or another might actually have more to do with our perspective and generational ability to relate (your parents’ parents thought Buddy Holly was unlistenable noise) than whatever it is actually being either new or any worse than what was there before.
We’ve always been on this spiral, but we’re still here, still spinning, and maybe some of the tradeoffs for what we can and have accomplished are worth a lost syllable or a dopey trend in blog-post headlines. We’ve mapped the human genome! It might not feel that way when someone who you generally respect is recommending you click on “Why Bring It On Is The Best Movie In The Whole Wide World”—but maybe if you step back, you’ll see we’re not actually any worse off than we’ve ever been, and more importantly, that that person has always been an idiot with shitty taste.