Ten Amazing Facts about the English Language (No.7 Will Shock You!!), or: The Art of Clickbait

Read on to find out some of the most amazing facts about the English language! Facts such as…

  1. Probably the most amazing fact about English is the fact that this article won’t actually contain any mind-blowing facts about English. Well, at least no facts more mind-blowing than you can normally find here. Instead, I want to look at the fine art of clickbait.
  1. Clickbait isn’t really anything new. Well, except for the click part I suppose. Journalism, especially tabloid journalism, has always shamelessly indulged in drawing people in with over-the-top headlines, often in stark contrast to the more mundane reality found in the smaller print. This might all seem quite dishonest, but writers are quite clever in using hyperbolic language that is still subjective. After clicking through five pages and downloading a few viruses, to finally get to the article you were promised, you might complain that what this 90s Kids’ TV star looks like now is not, in fact, jaw-dropping. But, the writers of the article might argue that to them she looks jaw-dropping, and therefore avoid being accused of actually lying.
  1. What’s interesting about clickbait specifically though, is that it exists on the internet, where an ever-changing visual grammar has developed to help us recognise particular article types. Of course we reasonably expect that there’s a truthful relationship between an image and the person named beside it. That’s part of a system of meaning created between images and text, dating back to the first times pictures were accompanied by captions, and based on the assumption that authors and journalists are honest in representing the image. But online, there might be no editorial oversight of a website to make sure everything’s above board. And the need to stand out from the competition is going to make people deliberately misrepresent articles. So we might see a heavily-photoshopped picture of a former celebrity, only to finally get to the actual article and see that they actually just look slightly older. And we’ll get angry because we feel we’ve been lied to, because we assume a truthful relationship between the title and the image. But again, an author might say, Oh, we just put that photoshopped picture there because it looks interesting: we never actually said that that’s what they actually look like now. We just told you that what they look like now will shock you, and for some reason you assumed that the shocking picture of them beside the headline is what they actually look like now. It’s a clever but nasty use of language: technically honest but designed to deceive you.
  1. But as someone who writes, what annoys me most about clickbait is how it affects how people write. Apart from the sensationalism in article titles, I’ve also noticed an influence on the main text of articles. You can see it in the way articles are so often broken down into lists…
  1. …even if it doesn’t make sense for them to be in a list, and writers end up splitting an idea between different items in the list. Some ideas are just too complex to fit into a list. That’s why we have paragraphs. We might take them for granted, but paragraphs are great things. Not only do they help us represent our ideas, but I find that sometimes thinking of how to paragraph an article helps me to see what the ideas I’m writing about actually are, and how they relate to each other. Paragraphs both reflect the structure of our thoughts, and help us to structure our thoughts. Lists though, emphasise simplicity, and can force a writer to simplify their ideas to make them easily digestible, or perhaps to spread a complex idea awkwardly across different points.
  1. And again, the need to stand out from the crowd and grab people’s attention seems to drive content more and more. When I see people give advice about blogging, it’s often along the lines of: write about topic X, look at what people are talking about and write about that, write in list format, use a question or certain key words in your title etc. And of course if everyone follows this advice and tries to stand out from the crowd then, ironically, no-one does, and articles all blend together. And, in trying to give people what they want, clickbait writers will aim for the lowest common denominator, cashing in on nostalgia (only 90’s kids will understand these!), or preying on people’s insecurities (one tip of a flat belly!). Not that I’m above all this of course. I’ll usually try to think of an interesting title for an article, and often I write about popular topics. But if I write about something popular or topical, it’s because I’ve been thinking about it and want to share my thoughts, not because I want to jump on a bandwagon. And I do want as many people as possible to read what I write. Because I think some people will find it interesting, but also to satisfy my need for approval. But whenever I write a post, it’s always because I have some thoughts that I think might be interesting to read, and that I can write relatively competently about.
  1. BOO!!! (told you it’d shock you)
  1. And I as I alluded to in point 6 (only people who remember point 6 will get this!), I worry that the clickbait mentality has invaded the blogosphere, as a lot of blogging advice I see around the place is about getting more views and followers. Which I get, because if you felt that no-one was reading what you write, it’d probably be hard to keep going. I remember the feeling of complete mortification the first few times I wrote, thinking how ridiculous it was that I writing such pretentious nonsense that no-one would read. I get the basic desire to have people read what you write. But I see so little advice about writing well (and I often think I’d like some: no-one ever gave me any advice about writing, so I’m flying blind!), and that worries me. First and foremost, shouldn’t you try to write good posts, and then try to get more followers so they can enjoy your interesting, well-written posts? Maybe I’m just being pretentious in thinking that blogging should be about good writing. Maybe blogging is something different entirely. It can be about good writing of course, but maybe it’s more about spreading ideas in whatever way you can, and writing doesn’t have to be a big part of that (a lot of you take great pictures or share interesting links, for example). Even if that’s true though, there’s still the issue of appealing to the lowest common denominator. By the way, I’m not complaining about certain blogs, or tarring them with the clickbait brush. I simply don’t know enough about blogging to say it’s all turning into clickbait or otherwise. I’m just a little concerned that most advice about attracting readers to your blog doesn’t seem to mention writing well. All I know is that I like writing, and when I think about this blog, I think about it as something that I write. And what got me through the awkwardness of those first few posts was that when I reviewed and edited them, I was satisfied that they were generally comprehensible, and contained ideas that might be interesting to some people. (By the way, I’d never really planned to write about blogging advice in this post, only clickbait. But I usually just start with an idea and let things evolve as I write, so I do end up going off on tangents I hadn’t expected. If you look closely, you’ll often see me in the final paragraph get back to what I’d started writing about in the beginning, with varying degrees of subtlety)
  1. Ironically, in the middle of this post about the pitfalls of prioritising attracting readers over writing well, WordPress informed that I now have 500 followers (though that’s just 500 WordPress fellow-blogger followers: I don’t know why the site doesn’t count my 8 loyal email followers!). 508 is a big number to me, so thanks to all of you. It’s heartening to know that there are at least 508 people out there who might appreciate something as objectively nerdy as this blog, so thanks again: it does make it easier to write when I know you might think it’s actually worth reading about vowel shifts in Proto-Germanic.
  1. The last one’s always really short, and weak, isn’t it? Makes it obvious that they struggled to find ten interesting things to write about, and just wanted to be done with the article.

18 thoughts on “Ten Amazing Facts about the English Language (No.7 Will Shock You!!), or: The Art of Clickbait

  1. What a great reflection. I appreciate your humor and information. I hope that writers will continue to bravely share their unique voices. Blogging offers the opportunity to freely share what we might not be able to find in other media sources.
    And I always learn from your posts. (Isn’t there a rule that it is poor form to start a sentence with and?) There is always something new to learn about English. That’s what makes it interesting. Keep up the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I’d say not starting with a word like “and” is more advice than rule, but I understand the logic. Conjunctions like “and,” “but,” and “or” join parts of a sentence, so they should be within a sentence. But sometimes putting one at the beginning of a sentence really emphasises the connection you’re making between the two. I’m very fond of staring a sentence with a dramatic “But” to hammer a contrast home!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s always interesting dilemma do you use a search engine friendly title ‘how to…’ ‘7 ways to….’ or go for the artistic view and choose something very appropriate that will likely disappear when it moves from the front page. It’s a hard choice which I change my mind about a lot

    Liked by 1 person

    • Me too, looking back at my titles, they vary from being really clear and simple to “only make sense when you read the whole thing!” It’s a tough balance to strike, and it’s important to accept that getting people’s attention is important.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I always associated the “10 Amazing Facts” madness with YouTube videos and Buzzfeed articles where the creators assume most of their potential audience have the attention-span of a 2 year old. Do they make a significant number in blogosphere?
    Btw, I too thought that blogging is about good writing until recently. And I wouldn’t mind being clickbaited as long as there’s some good writing involved.
    Another blogadvice I read most often is “to make sure you let them know you care about their cat”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an interesting but of advice! I’ve never seen it before, but I can see where it’s coming from 😊. I see list-like posts on some blogs, though it is more common on YouTube and Buzzfeed. At least on a blog it’s usually interesting content, unlike traditional clickbait.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I almost nearly didn’t click on this post because I’m old and wise enough to know click bait is spam 😉 However, I realised you were doing it to make a point, about how annoying click bait is, which is a point I approve of.

    I think a lot of blogging has been reduced to click bait because people are all about getting followers (lots of people trying to monetize) and it works for them so they don’t see why they should change and start writing meaningful content instead.

    I like what you said about how blogging advice rarely focuses on how people can be better writers, which is a shame, that would be much more interesting to read I think!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have to admit, I had mixed feelings after I posted this. I thought some would avoid it, and others would click in hoping for some amazing facts, and get annoyed! It got a lot of views compared to other posts, so I the latter was often the case!

      Like

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