Here’s how it started. On social media and elsewhere, I keep bumping into articles that promise simple solutions to intractable problems, or instant insight into complex matters. Preferably in a conveniently small number of parts or steps. You know, listicles. (Arguably, the word itself is as much as an abomination as the online content it describes.)
A few made-up titles will elucidate what I’m talking about: “If You’re Not a Millionaire Yet, There Are 5 Things You’re Doing Wrong,” or “These Are the Early-Morning Habits of All Successful Athletes,” or “This Aboriginal Herbal Infusion Has Just 3 Ingredients And It’ll Cure Your Hangover Every Time,” or “How to Offload Your Anxieties: 10 Lessons I Learned from My Divorce” — that kind of stuff.
Posts of this ilk are the lifeblood of sites like BuzzFeed, Upworthy and Mental Floss. Social media thrive on the stuff. But even though my focus is more on the thoughtful exchange of ideas, and I find myself strangely drawn to the Siren song of such posts.
The Ambivalence Trap
Don’t get me wrong, I do see the allure of listicles and other clickbait articles. They sound so attractive, so confident, so decisive. (I’m an introvert and a skeptic, you see, so I am by default in incredulous awe anyone who has the chutzpah to step up to the world and say I’ve got the solution to your problem and you’re going to love it.)
Also, I’m assuming that the authors are not charlatans, that they speak from experience, and that they honestly want to help. I know, I know: color me naive.
So I may have clicked on one or two of those baits, or a few, or a lot, or too many. But I’m still waiting for that promised earth-shattering revelation that’s going to completely transform the my life. Instant self-help heaven? So far, no dice.
Listicles Make Me Feel Like an Idiot — Part I
Even before I click, the baiting title already makes me doubt my sanity. What kind of dunce have I been if I haven’t figured out yet that achieving perfect health can be done in just six simple steps? You say that there is a sure-fire way to publish a best-selling novel in less than a year — I must be a total loser to still be plodding along like a clueless novice.
Let’s call it the syndrome of “If it’s that easy, how come I’m not there yet?” It makes me feel inadequate. It’s instant, just-add-doubt impostor syndrome.
The thing is that I know it’s a simplification, I know the listicle can’t live up to its title, I know life is always more daunting than our hopes and fears want it to be.
And. Yet. I. Click.
Listicles Make Me Feel Like an Idiot — Part II
I get it, of course. The whole point of listicle clickbait is that it draws you in by overpromising, but the effect that has on me is just to leave me underwhelmed. You click, you read, and then realization sets in. Who was I kidding? If it really were that easy, everyone would know the answer already. No one is going to post an article called “The 7 Best Ways to Put on Your Underwear.”
What I’m left with is the feeling that I should have known better. As a skeptic, I know not to trust extraordinary claims; and I know that the chance I’ll be presented with extraordinary evidence is very, very slim. So why do I keep wanting to click-click-click?
The Call of the Dark Side
To be fair, I’m being a bit of a curmudgeon here. Many of these clickbait posts are more well-considered and nuanced than their headlines let on. The titles, after all, are just meant to draw you in.
And they do. By contrast, my own posts get nowhere near that kind of attention. Which is fine. But still.
Then I read a writing-advice listicle. It promised to change my life. It said that yes, I just needed to get over myself and do whatever works. Get out of your ivory tower and give the audience what it wants. If nobody clicks on your link, the rest is academic. Hmmm. Before I knew it, I was feeling the call of the dark side. Cue Darth Vader’s voice: “Join me and together we can defeat the internet! The algorithm has foreseen it! It is your destiny…”
Then again— nah, that’s not my cup of tea.
The Good Fight
So I’ll keep on chugging along. Fighting the good fight. In the tug of war between what and how, content and form both matter. But in the end, I’m in content’s corner.
Living, thinking, writing — these are hard work. It a messy business with no simple answers or shortcuts. One day I’ll write a listicle explaining why this is true in nine simple steps.
Now please excuse me while I go indulge in some clickbait.
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PS. A quick shot-out to Brian Brewington’s article “Will All of The Medium Magicians and Miraculous Morning Makers Please Sit Down For Just a Moment,” which prompted this piece.
I clicked on your post! Having read it, I don’t feel like a fool, just happy not to be alone in my ambivalence regarding click bait. Thanx!
Thanks Ronald! I am curious how the future will look back on this era, in which the dissemination of just about ALL types of information is starting to follow the rules of advertising.