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◌  1 reason why listicles get clicks

17 July 2012

Today I enjoyed Jory John’s satire of stupid list articles. Unless your information hygeine is unusually rigorous, you will have skimmed over the titles of several such listicles already today. I saw some at the bottom of the page when I read an article in The Onion, for example.

There are many theories about why this form is so popular as click-bait. One is that they’re easy to research (or steal); I think this must be true. Another is that they provide a kind of micro-habit–forming series of small dopamine bumps, and I believe this too. But I think there’s something else going on as well: they have useful titles.

Titles are hard. Most writers, I think, want titles that work well for people discussing a piece after the fact. This is often a colorful figure from the text: off the top of my head, The Hedgehog and the Fox, What Are People For?, and Encounters with the Archdruid. If you know the writers, each of these is interesting because you know they can pay it off, and sure enough, after you’ve read the texts, the titles are apt. But if you don’t know the writers, and the titles appear in a sea of other titles all trying to be interesting, they tell you nothing.

Listicles have titles that tell you what they’re about. It’s a strict convention of the form. It’s true of very few other titles, even among link-bait. Mostly they’re colorful, like the belles lettres examples above, or shallowly provocative, or an unedifying play on some popular phrase or famous title – or something else besides telling you exactly what you’ll be reading.

It does not follow that everything that you want people to read should have a completely straightforward title. But I do think it’s a useful reminder that, when introducing something to strangers, it’s useful to say what it is.