Imagine if I’d elected as the tagline for this post: “If you don’t read this you’re probably wasting your life.”
You’d likely think I was being an overdramatic jerk, but you might click on it anyway, just to see what I had to say.
Like the rest of you web connoisseurs/consumers, I’ve come to know a thing or two about the reality of the “clickable headline.” Thank you, internet.
What can I say? I like Buzzfeed. Sue me.
I like seeing 23 photos taken one second before utter catastrophe. I like someone showing me the 40 most powerful photographs ever taken. The 21 absolute worst things in the world? Yes please.
I like it, but I know it’s garbage.
It’s garbage in at least two ways: 1) the content of the internet no longer lives up to the headlines, so we’re constantly being pranked, and 2) the needless devaluing and demeaning of words is, to me, a crime against the English language.
That sounds heavy, but bear with me.
The ever-rising letdown
Maybe at one time the internet was about information and communication; now it’s about pageviews.
And because that’s the case, there are really only a few possible strategies for luring eyes to your website: say something first, say something smart, say something ridiculous.
It’s that last one I’m concerned about, because it’s now so prevalent. Clickbait is not new, but I think its severity is new in the mainstream, in the once-reputable sources of our headline culture.
Between Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and the Huffington Post, our popular media conscious is saturated with Onion-like headlines. “23 times Orlando Jones won the internet!” “21 Google search hacks that will change your life!” “12 reasons Aisha Tyler is our spirit animal!” “20 reasons being a girl in summer is the worst!” and all those “You’ll never guess what happens next!”s
These are all real headlines.
And, while occasionally funny, the entertainment value definitely doesn’t validate the preposterous string of words that got me there.
Who are the writers pandering to? The infant in us, easily terrified, easily thrilled, desperate for a visual or literary lollipop, anything sugary sweet.
The propulsion of such content to the top spot on many a media website – not to mention its demoralizing clogging of facebook feeds – leaves me feeling overwrought with, to borrow their vocabulary, impossibly, devastatingly, wildly, insanely, dumbfoundingly inane absurdities. I feel duped, played, linguistically-abused.
But, for some reason, I click anyway because I just have to know the “29 genuinely astonishing facts you learn in your twenties.”
Call it selling out. Call it a scam. Call it false advertising. It was funny at first. Amusing, the way you’d sort of fall for a little trick. But now it’s flat annoying. It’s pure trickery. Life on the internet has become a spoof – not just on personal profiles, but on popular media. This is digital treachery, two-timing sweettalk, not from artificial intelligence, but from actual intelligence.
We always knew the internet was full of lies, but now, even the things that were worthwhile are becoming less and less.
It’s bad enough that internet surfers feel resentment about the content of misleading headlines, but it becomes worse because this sort of idiomatic deception is fast becoming the norm. Not just online, but in everyday speech.
This misuse of the English language, the epitome of hyperbole, is all over the place now. Headlines are not true anymore; they are mirages meant to get you to enter.
I went to Buzzfeed and here are a few choice phrases plucked from the frontpage, no searching required: “the greatest cinematic duo of all time,” “17 insanely clever products,” “the 26 most American comebacks in the history of the world,” “why killing a lion is the most cowardly thing you can do,” “19 truly devastating Scottish people problems,” “23 reasons Wetherspoons is the best thing that happened to Britain,” “51 impossibly beautiful bras.”
Man, that’s a lot of superlatives.
For real, “the greatest of all time,” “the most cowardly thing you can do,” and don’t forget those “truly devastating Scottish problems.” What does it mean for a comback to be “the most American”? I’m not sure what a bra that is “impossibly beautiful” could even look like, let alone 51 of them.
And, what I’ve found, is that the people who compile these posts don’t know either.
See, complaints about the corruption of the English language have long spun forward in Britain and North America. Much of it is probably true. (And, frankly, I know that I take liberties with language in this very blog, including hyperbole.) But much of that pollution referred to the misappropriation of words or a failure to use them correctly.
The problem we have today is the actual devaluing of what words mean.
Our preference for exaggeration has trumped connections with saying what was actually true. Meaningful statements are being replaced with whatever sounds cool, listenable, likeable.
For a long time, I’ve said about some things that they are “the best thing ever.” But now, it seems everything is capable of being “the best” or “the worst” or “the most horrifying” thing ever. And, more than that, what we say almost demands that we use such overstatement if we want to be heard above the din of all the other consummate adjectives.
What does it mean that something is “the best” or “the worst” or “the most extreme”? What does it mean that someone “failed so hard they almost won”? Or that something “will absolutely blow your mind”? Or even, anymore, that something is “important”?
We know what these phrases are intended to mean, but they’re used so flippantly that they’ve come to mean nothing. And still we can’t look away. We can’t ignore.
Huffington Post could (and often has) told me about “the most important thing in the world right now” and “what you must see before you die,” and I no longer believe them – I’m actually rather irritated with them – but it’s like an impulse, like a self-preserving need to click and see, because what if. What if this is actually important? What if this will actually change my life?
I know if won’t, but those kinds of luring phrases demand attention.
It’s like a child who everyday says there’s a fire in the kitchen. Of course after a few of these you don’t believe him anymore, but you simply have to check, because what if.
Slowly we’re erasing serious meaning from the language. We’re sacrificing the weight of words for the urgent need for pageviews.
How long before the Times leads with the Page 1 splash, “READ THIS IF YOU WANT TO SAVE YOUR LIFE”?
I’m infected too. I’m sure I’ve abused adverbs and overdramatized my thoughts in this very post, because, God forbid, you might have stopped reading had you not been lured by the promise of unrivaled content.
But, we should ask ourselves, at what point is meaning abandoned? Language may be fluid, but at what point have we turned the wide ocean of words into a glistening-but-ultimately-shallow puddle for our own pitiful amusement?
I fear Shakespeare and Hemingway would hate us, what we’re whole-heartedly doing to the language.
I wish we would stop, but we won’t until the language is further watered-down, until more sugar is added, until the sea of meaning is dried to but a single inch deep.