“Do NOT read this!!” says the subject line of the email.
“What in the world?” you ask yourself, as you click on your new piece of mail.
“Now it’s too late!!” reads the first line. “You have been visited by the Ghost Girl of Lost Soles!
“If you don’t forward this to 7 freinds by Midnight Tonight, she will find u in ur sleep and Kill U!”
“Fucking Christ,” you scowl, as you delete the email mindlessly.
You’re mildly irritated. Why is that, exactly? We can find a few reasons.
The first is that you’ve been needlessly threatened. This email found you, in your own inbox, disturbed your day, and issued a threat. It’s an empty one, but it’s a threat nonetheless, and it’s unpleasant. You’re legitimately worse off than you were before you read the email.
The second reason is that one of your friends was clueless enough to forward the email to you. You shake your head as you consider the prospect that someone might really believe in the Ghost Girl of Lost Soles.
Chain emails were a nuisance back in middle school. Lately, though, a new annoyance has reared its head. And despite its surface appearance, it’s not that different.
Check out this list of 7 different things. Number 4 is RIDICULOUSLY AMAZING.
I thought this was just a normal video—until THIS happened. You won’t believe your eyes!
This video will COMPLETELY change your perspective—in just 30 seconds! Now that’s pretty neat.
I’m talking about clickbait headlines. They’re the chain emails of the 2010s, and, unfortunately, they’ve overtaken my Facebook news feed.
On first glance, our two offenders might seem completely different. One’s a death threat, and the other’s a cool article, albeit one without much substance.
And at first, this might have been true. In the earlier days of Facebook, titles were more straightforward. “7 Travel destinations to see before you die.” “A new perspective on equal pay in the workplace.” The shrewd economist in me saw it as follows. The curator of content proposes a transaction: “We’ll show you some valuable content. In exchange, you will give us ad revenue.” There’s nothing intrinsically wrong about this. Any voluntary business transaction, after all, should represent a win-win scenario. When you buy a tennis racket for $40, the business wins, because it gets your $40, and you win, because you get the tennis racket. So I have no complaint with curators, journalists, and so on, who attempt to earn my clicks by fair and honest means.
Clickbait titles are different story. The key distinguishing factor is that, by virtue of how their titles are constructed, they actually place the reader in a worse position for having read the title. “This dude tries to prank his girlfriend—I STILL can’t believe her hilarious response!” This title, certainly by intention, places me in a position of ignorance—of not knowing—simply having read it. Earlier, I was going about my routine. Now, though, I’m disconnected from the inside joke. I’m out of the loop.
But I can alleviate my distress. All it will take is one simple click.
Now, the difference between the headlines of then and now should be clear. Straightforward titles offer a transaction, one that all parties can benefit from. Clickbait titles, on the other hand, put the reader at a distinct disadvantage. Then, in exchange for a click, the article will perhaps place the reader in a good state, but more importantly, will remove the reader from his bad state. And I don’t want to be placed in a bad state in the first place.
Clickbait headlines are the new chain letters. By the time I’ve read the headline, I may as well have read the words “Now it’s too late!!” Both clickbait and chain letters ensnare their unlucky reader, and the reader has to act to become unsnared.
In fact, clickbait might be even worse. I have no problem just deleting the chain letter. In the case of the clickbait headline, though, I might actually want to see “This Crazy Dog Thinks He’s Human.” The threat of being left out is a bit more real than the threat of a ghost. Scrolling past a tempting headline is more damaging than deleting a silly email.
Of course, I could just click to ameliorate my position. But that would give credence to the methods of the click fishermen, which is something I refuse to do on moral grounds.
This brings me to the second annoyance of chain letters: those who forward them. People who repost clickbait are perhaps worse. It boggles my mind that they would not only succumb to the hard-sell tactic, but also choose to inflict that tactic upon others. They don’t even stand to escape a threat in this case, so they have no excuse.
The best that we can do is to ignore the clickbait, keep scrolling, and hope that others will do the same.
So, whatever you do: do not share this article. Or the Ghost Girl will get you.