Reading this article will save your life 2


The things you could do with those pretty letters…

There is something very disturbing going on on the world wide web. You probably don’t even realize it, but you look at it every day. And slowly but steadily it is affecting your health. It undermines your sanity. If you don’t take action, you too will eventually succumb to this phenomenon. Fortunately there is a way to protect yourself. Read on to…

Exaggerated headlines

Actually, the above lines were just to grab your attention. But now that I’ve got it, you might as well stop and think why you clicked on the article. Did you truly believe that reading this article would save your life? How many online articles have you read that did?

Yet this is the style in which article titles seem to be written today. “OMG! You won’t believe what happens to this guy 3 minutes into this video!” (He falls of his bike.) “Five things you MUST know about Android.” (You probably know them already.) “This cat can do something UNBELIEVABLE.” (Play with a ball of yarn… yaaawn.) If you check your Facebook, Youtube, or Twitter feed, you see claims like this passing by all the time. And usually the article, video, image, guide, or whatever they point to is highly disappointing.

The worst one I came across was a video on YouTube called Jazz for Cows. On Facebook someone had shared it with the title ‘It is amazing what these cows will do when a group of Jazz musicians play for them‘. I’m normally not one to give away spoilers–and if you want the amazing experience yourself you should click on the video now before reading on–but what happens is that the cows walk towards the fence and curiously look at the musicians. That’s it. Not only is this far from amazing it is boring as hell to even sit through the two minutes of the video.

Fighting for attention

Where does all this insane language come from? It is obviously effective in getting our attention. From a marketing perspective you could therefore argue that it is not only understandable that headlines are written this way, but that it is inevitable. However, if that were the case, then why weren’t newspapers written like this 20 years ago? Why are most book titles still relatively normal (although this is getting worse)?

XKCD headlines comic

XKCD hit the nail on the head with this comic.

I think one cause is the massive information overload that the world wide web provides. 20 years ago a newspaper had at most five other papers to compete with at the news stand. Reporting an interesting story with a catchy title would be enough to win a customer. Books have always faced more competition, but they also have a much slower turnover.

Compare that to an online video site like TouTube, where 100 hours worth of video are being uploaded each minute (source: YouTube statistics). Even if you would be watching YouTube videos 24/7, you still could see less than 0.02% of all videos. In this swamp of entertainment, only the very catchiest titles get any attention at all. No one watches a video of “My son playing with the harmonica”, but “It’s AMAZING what this three-year-old can do with the harmonica” might get you some clicks.

Another cause could be the shortened attention span for text in a more visually oriented environment. In a book store you might take the time to browse the back flaps of some books to determine whether it’s worth reading or not. But online you are used to judging the worthiness of a piece of content by no more than a picture and a headline. That makes the headline (and the picture*) more important.

Headline inflation

I would call this phenomenon headline inflation. It is the use of increasingly bold and outrageous claims in a title to refer to the same (mundane) content. So what might have once been ‘An essay on liberty’, would now rather be titled ‘5 things you absolutely need to know about liberty’, and at some point in the future might read ‘ZOMG! If you don’t read these insights into liberty NOW you will not make it through the night!’.

Headline inflation is not just interesting, it is also quite annoying. Just like you don’t want to read things from PEOPLE WHO WRITE EVERYTHING IN CAPITALS AND WITH TONS OF EXCLAMATION MARKS!!! or from people who use bold face for every word they write, you don’t want to be constantly intrigued by a title only to be disappointed by the content it refers to (as you invariably will).

Headline inflation is a sub-set of the broader phenomenon of language inflation. I haven’t been able to ascertain who first coined the phrase, but it has been in use at least since 1980 (when the late William Safire used it in his April 6 column on language). C.S. Lewis referred to the concept in a 1956 letter to a fan, although he didn’t call it language inflation.

Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

— C.S. Lewis

(I have Angelina Stanford’s article ‘The Problem of Totally Epic Language Inflation‘ to thank for putting me on track of the C.S. Lewis letter.)

The problem with language inflation is that it’s self defeating. If you use a stronger claim than your competitor to describe something, it may at first get the attention of the public. But once the competition catches on, there is no extra benefit to you. Moreover, your audience will grow numb to your language. At that point the inflated language has been normalized. Now everyone has to start looking for even stronger language to stick out of the crowd.

The future of headlines

If language inflation is any guide, headline inflation will go down the same path. We will encounter bolder and bolder claims on the internet, without any rise in quality of the content behind it. I’ve already stopped clicking on YouTube videos that promise that something unbelievable will happen a few minutes in (unless I have some other indicator that the video is worth watching).

There is not much we can do about it. I would urge anyone reading this to exercise restraint in their headline use. While you can (and should) use language creatively to draw attention to your message, try not to add to the ongoing devaluation of words. I for one will do so, and the title (and first paragraph) of this article will remain the one completely outrageous and exaggerated headline on this blog.

* Have you ever noticed how on Facebook you’ll often see a still of a YouTube video showing a sexy woman with deep cleavage or other revealing attire; then you watch the video, and the still turns out to be taken in passing, with very little relation to the main topic of the video? Go figure.


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2 thoughts on “Reading this article will save your life

  • Midnight

    When I first read this blog I thought: what’s the message (apart from a plea to use decent and proportional language). After re-reading my feeling is, that there is nothing new. Old publishing tactics (German BildZeitung, UK tabloids, Dutch Telegraaf, loads of gossip magazines) have only reached the internet (actually, already quite a while ago) with the same objective: to drive up sales, attention, etc, I remember this already from my time as a kid when reading Reader’s Digest. But I agree Martijn, when correcting my students papers I usually downsize their language as scientifically not defendable. It would be interesting to learn whether there are significant national or etnic differences in this habit. If I visit the US all at a sudden everything becomes suddenly more great, super, spectacular than I am used to at home. Chomsky may have had thoughts about this.

    • Martijn Post author

      @Midnight: You may be right that there is nothing radically new here, but if you’d look at headlines that would be considered excessive or outrageous 30 years ago, they would seem pretty tame right now. I think that headline inflation is an upward spiral. Only the exponential growth of available information (through the advent of the internet) has exacerbated the speed of inflation. I do wonder, though, for how long we can keep this up; language has only so many superlatives in store for us, and we’re exhausting them quickly.