It’s in the Title: Sex, Lies and Flamebait
As a child, you’re told not to judge a book by its cover. As a whole, that’s stupid and impracticable. To not judge a book by its cover, you have to either read the book or read a bunch of reviews and opinions about the book. If you always try to do that you’ll never leave the book shop. The same applies to the internet, with it being even more unreasonable for you to have to be expected to do your research before you click on the article. The title is all you see. The title is everything that matters.
Let’s go back to the early days of print journalism. At first, newspapers didn’t even have large headline titles – paper was expensive, so they crammed as much as they could onto the page as possible. But, by the late 19th century, the number of publications began to soar. Competition was fierce. It was time to attract some attention, to be special. ‘TAXES RAISED, WAR DECLARED‘ they shouted loudly, each clamoring for your money.
Not much has changed since then, newspapers all rely on that main front page headline to guarantee sales. Depending on the quality and audience of the publication, the sensationalism of the title can vary drastically, but the ultimate goal is always to draw you in, get you interested.
With online, every article is a front page one. Every single one appears individually on Google, on Twitter, on Facebook, on Reddit etc, and the site itself. More than ever before, the headline, the title, is the most important part of an article from a business perspective.
Of course, the fact that the internet is far less regulated than print, and that anyone can become a content creator, means that headline quality control is virtually nonexistent in many industries – especially games journalism.
Ok, so here’s the disclaimer – I want people to read this article, and I want people to read all of my articles. That’s partly because I don’t want to feel like I’ve wasted my time writing something, partly because I have a large ego, and partly because it could eventually lead to me getting paid more. So, to ensure that people do indeed read my articles (or those of other PSLS writers), I try to make the title interesting. For example, this very article has a title that explains the piece, but with the ending of “Sex, Lies and Flamebait” it is sure to get more interest than something with a far duller title like, say, my similarly themed article “Press, Release“.
Therefore, the question every writer, editor and copy editor has to ask themselves is “how do I make this title interesting?” If the subject is light hearted enough, a good way is always a pun – PlayStation Aww: Kitties Rendered on Next Gen Console. If the subject is severe enough, simply state what happened – Hackers Take Down PSN, Data Compromised. If the subject is fascinating enough, find suitable descriptive terms – Incredible Nathan Drake Pics Show How Beautiful He Really Is.
Unfortunately, the problem is that most news simply isn’t incredibly interesting. It can be interesting to those following the game or the developer, but it’s not a ‘megaton’. It won’t require the site to have to buy more servers. The solution? Pretend it’s interesting.
Jaw Dropping Naughty Bear Screens Will Make Your Eyes Melt, Doves Fly Out Your Ears.
Competition online is so much stronger than in 19th Century print news that it would need a sensationalist title to do it justice. Every single news piece has to be hyped and inflated until it no longer tells you what actually happened, and only serves to misinform you.
It gets worse.
Opinion pieces are a huge part of journalism, especially games journalism. We do it with Daily Reaction and individual opinion pieces and features like this very article. In my, heh, opinion, there’s nothing wrong with them. But, as they have absolutely no connection to news, they can have even more sensationalist titles. They can virtually say what they want. Hit-grabbing, attention-seeking, flamebait titles are thought up, and excuses for articles are quickly written to try and justify whatever outlandish statement has been cooked up this time.
Each time I take a look at games journalism I end up attacking a specific games media outlet, but today I’ll take a look at a place that should really know better – Forbes. Everyone is familiar Forbes, a huge, well respected print publication that also publishes on Forbes.com, the 287th largest website in the world. Apparently, the site that has the slogan “Information for the World’s Business Leaders” also likes to do a bit of games coverage, such as “6 Reasons To Buy An Xbox 360 Instead Of A PlayStation 3” or… “6 Reasons To Buy A PlayStation 3 Instead Of An Xbox 360“. Wait, what?
In each case, the title is created to stir up a bit of a fuss and, especially with the Forbes name attached, that’s exactly what each article did – even though they offered contradicting statements from the same author. In the case of the 360 being better post, a commenter called the article ‘link-bait’, to which the writer replied:
Link-bait? No. It’s meta-commentary, and it requires that you read to the end.
At the end, he had written:
All that being said, I think the “console wars” are silly. This piece is a companion piece to my earlier post “6 Reasons To Buy A PlayStation 3 Instead of an Xbox 360.” It’s not that I’ve changed my mind. Truth be told, there’s many reasons to buy either one of these consoles. They both have many wonderful qualities and many shortcomings.
The number one reason to go with either the PS3 or Xbox 360 is the exclusive titles, and that really boils down to a matter of taste. There are many great exclusives on both systems, but gamers will never agree on which are the best.
First off Erik, that’s not meta-commentary. You wrote an entire article with a flamebait article simply because your last one did really well. And, why is this little comment shoved at the bottom where you know most people won’t read it? Is it because it basically says ‘this whole thing is an opinion, all opinions are relative, and therefore this entire article is utterly pointless’? And, if that conclusion is what separates meta-commentary from link-bait, what does that make your pro-PS3 article that didn’t have a similar conclusion?
It’s not just games journalism, the same can be said for a Forbes contributor piece titled “Why Apple is Great and Everyone Else Is Not Even Close“. I don’t even need to point out how utterly painfully one-sided and intentionally provocative that title is. Oh, and I’m not even going to mention that the writer of said piece owns shares in Apple… a fact that was only brought to light by a commenter, rather than being prominently mentioned at the top like it should be.
Of course, these are Forbes contributors. According to Forbes, ‘the opinions expressed are those of the writer’, and a line is drawn between them and full on staffers. But that’s wrong, people clearly see the Forbes name and not the fine print and are influenced by what they see as Forbes’ content. And, even if they see the fine print, it’s a bit misleading. These guys (and gals) are essentially freelance Forbes writers:
We are strengthening our staff of full-time editors and reporters and carefully selecting hundreds of qualified contributors. In fact, we now have 440 contributors, both paid and unpaid. Every single one was hand picked by those who can best evaluate their knowledge — our own editors and reporters.
Some great handpicking right there, I’m sure. But why on Earth would these writers want to write such obvious sensationalist articles?
It’s a simple deal: there is a flat monthly fee, a bonus for hitting certain unique visitor targets, and a fee per unique user after bonus targets are achieved. For paid contributors, the arrangement requires a certain number of posts per month and a specified level of audience engagement through our commenting system.
I’ve talked before about my dislike for pay-per-hit journalism, so I won’t go into as much depth, but the short of it is that it leads to a direct need for writers to sensationalize in order to meet their immediate traffic needs.
This sensationalism is never going to stop. MTV will continue to publish articles like last week’s “Katy Perry Goes Nude At Trevor Project Event!“, when they mean she wore a very respectable nude frock. But hey, sex sells! Forbes is going to continue to publish articles like “6 Reasons To Buy A Wii U Instead Of A PS3/360“. N4G and Twitter will continue to be rife with people sharing an over-hyped news article or a poorly crafted opinion piece that’s sole intention is to get traffic.
All we can do it not click it. Try not to fall for it, try to share articles you think are worthwhile, while deriding those that aren’t. Perhaps, over time, we can help bring down the number of sensationalist articles out there, even if it’s just by a little.