It may not rise to the level of “torture,” but it sure is annoying – the constant resort to a “dangling this” in hyperlinks intended to entice readers to click on them. What comes to mind, especially after observing its use, is the water drip torture – often referred to as “Chinese water torture” or “Spanish water torture” – which consists of a steady drip of water on the forehead.
This . . . , This . . . , This . . . ,
Clickbait can be a little more low-key, or it can be more raw – “weird trick” “jaws dropped” “you won’t believe what happened next” …. If you’ve surfed the web even a little, you’ve probably seen it all. A lot of clickbait just assaults your curiosity.
The “dangling this,” on the other hand, is a kind of shortcut – a crutch word in the web content world, perhaps, or maybe the poor man’s clickbait. But once you notice it, dangling-this clickbait becomes quite irksome, and arguably more insidious in its approach to enticement than the frontal attack of most other clickbait.
“Some clickbait headlines leave out a key element to lure in the reader.”¹
Poor man’s clickbait gives you just part of what might be some legitimately useful information. Rather than try to lead you on through choice of wording (clickbait has a lingo of its own), the tactic is to deliberately omit a central piece of information, which is most easily replaced with a “this…”
Devolution of headline writing under clickocracy
Attention as measured by views, and views as generated by clicks, mean money. So a lot of talent, resources, and effort are put in to getting and keeping people “engaged” in web content. And that has given rise to a whole new set of ways of inciting curiosity.
In a way, clickbait is a descendant of old-fashioned newspaper headline writing. but with some some variations. The headings for articles are composed with a particular style due to space limitations (especially in print) and a desire to catch the reader’s interest. But they invariably give the reader a whole idea of what the story is about. Or at least it used to be that way.
“Headlines need to be accurate, first, and to fairly reflect the theme of the story.”²
Dangling-this clickbait deliberately departs from that practice, and sometimes it’s as simple as a swapping out:
- Headline: “Vermont will pay you $10,000 to move there and work from home” (CNBC)
- Clickbait: “This state will pay you $10K to move there and work from home” (WAAY)
Worth noting that (re)writing the heading this way is not done to economize space. It’s just a cheap way of getting the reader to open the link to fill in the blank (“which state is that?”).
One newsletter’s many “dangling this’s”
I’ve been subscribed to Ladders‘ newsletter mailings for quite some time – they sometimes have some interesting content – but late last year I began noticing an increasingly clickbaity tone of the newsletter headlines featured in its emails, many of which used the dangling this. Rather than unsubscribing, I left all their emails on my server beginning in January to see if there were a pattern. I’ve extracted all the clickbaitesque uses of “this” in titles over the 5+ ensuing months in the following list (which is sorted alphabetically).³ There are over 40 instances, not counting repeat use, making approximately 2 dangling-this headings per week (drip, drip, …). The list illustrates the extent to which one organization – certainly not the only one⁴ – is relying on poor man’s clickbait to present its content via email and on its website.
- A 75-year Harvard study says this is the key to life
- Abusive bosses do this weird thing after being mean
- Amazon’s Jeff Bezos says this phrase will destroy your career
- Doing this in the first five minutes of networking is a game changer
- Learning this language could make you some serious cash
- New science says this can fix sleep deprivation
- No one’s naming kids this anymore because of Amazon
- Richard Branson says this is the most important thing he looks for in an employee
- Science says this weekend sleep trick can save your life
- Sending a job application at this time of day will murder your chances
- Stop doing this at work immediately if you want to succeed
- Stop making this huge mistake on your resume
- Studies say drinking coffee can be good unless you’re doing this
- This age is the latest you can start a new career
- This algorithm can figure out when you will die
- This behavior by Millennial bosses drives some employees crazy
- This behavior by your spouse may be sabotaging your career
- This city has the most burned out workers in America
- This common employment practice may be shutting out older workers
- This high-paying job has the worst divorce rate
- This is the loneliest profession in America
- This is the most stressed state in America
- This is the No. 1 reason your interviewer won’t like you
- This is the one email mistake that’s unforgivable
- This is the profession most likely to cheat on their spouse
- This is the quote Jeff Bezos has taped to his refrigerator door
- This is the single dirtiest place in the airport — and it’s not the bathroom
- This is the surprising thing that has people most stressed at work
- This is the top reason employers expect more people to quit this year
- This is the unhealthiest job in America
- This is what your pre-bed routine says about you
- This is why ‘very unattractive’ people earn more money
- This job is seeing its salary shrink the fastest
- This job listing may make you very angry
- This morning routine can save you 20 hours a week
- This profession attracts the highest number of psychopaths
- This simple life hack will make you much happier
- This sleep trick can add years to your life
- This state will pay you $10K to move there
- This surprising thing about your appearance may be killing your career
- This surprising thing is a sign that you have high intelligence
- This weird office phrase can reveal more about you than you may realize
The solution to dangling-this clickbait?
Personally, I try never to click on clickbaity headlines – I didn’t open any of the above links for example – so as not to encourage their use. In the rare case the topic seems interesting, one can do a quick websearch to find a link with a more complete and informative title. Treat your clicks as a votes of approval for the approach used.
1. “The Weird World of Clickbait: It’s Today’s Yellow Journalism,” ThePilot.com, 6 Feb. 2018
2. “Writing headlines for print” (Based on a lecture by Ross Collins, professor of communication, North Dakota State University)
3. This list was simple to generate: Searched for The Ladders newsletters in Gmail; copied over the list, screen by screen, to one file in my go-to text editor (EmEditor); then, since items in the text were tab delineated, copied all that and plopped it into Excel; then sorted and manually deleted batches of rows to isolate the group of titles; then copied the list back into EmEditor to manually delete extraneous text; then copied it over here and bulletized.
4. Surprisingly, even the respected Smithsonian Magazine resorted to dangling-this clickbait for an article about the town of Liberal in rural southwest Kansas: “This Town In Kansas Has Its Own Unique Accent.”