The Problem With Click-Bait Headlines

Danah Boyd, author, researcher, and professor — which makes her more qualified than me to comment on just about anything — asks: “Is the Oculus Rift sexist?

And what follows is not what you would expect. It’s not a diatribe against game hardware or another fight over masculine dominance of video games. Instead, it’s a discussion of how men and women apparently perceive depth cues differently, a detail the Rift designers may have missed if their testing pool is male-centric. It’s a reminder that biology is complex, audiences diverse, and everything you think you know is wrong.

If you are familiar with NPR’s recent prank, you will not be surprised that Boyd found it necessary to add a coda to her post responding to critics who are arguing about the headline. Defending it, she says:

My title was intentionally, “Is the Oculus Rift sexist?” This is both a genuine question and a provocation. I’m not naive enough to not think that people would react strongly to the question … [b]ut I want people to take that question seriously precisely because more research needs to be done.

And a part of me goes “if you wanted people to take it seriously, why did you provoke them?”

This is why the NPR prank worked. They chose a headline that appeared to summarize a very provocative argument and got precisely the reaction they expected. Some people argued with the premise, some people posted predictable hell-in-a-handbag comments, and on Facebook my friend’s brother-in-law swore and closed the browser as soon as he discovered he’d been tricked onto an NPR site, worried that liberal nonsense would eat his thinky-stuff.1

When you make an argument, you encourage a number of immediate responses. First, among the people who are inclined to agree with the argument, you create a sense of tribal membership — an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ dynamic where the ‘us’ includes both reader and author. For those who are inclined to disagree, you create an immediate backfire and people start thinking about reasons you are wrong.

When you phrase your headline so that people think they already know your argument, the tendency many people have to talk rather than listen kicks in and folks start composing arguments in their heads rather than reading the words on the page.

The upshot is that headlines that provoke tend to spur to action and argument, not contemplation and reasoned discourse. If you really want people to think about what you’re saying, the last thing you want to do is provoke them.

Update, 28 April 2014: Dustin Rowles of Pajiba had his think-piece turned into clickbait when Salon rewrote his headline.


  1. Unknown are the number of people — like me — who read the headline, assumed they had just read the Cliffs-notes version, then moved on. 

Image Credits: Flickr / SteFou!

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