Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Information Gaps in the Information Age

A couple of years ago in the Lounge I wrote about how Aristotle prefigures clickbait. Among the phenoms I noted was the habit, an irritating one, of clickbait purveyors to withhold critical information in the text of their clickable link in order to tantalize readers. The promise is that the thirst for missing but suggested information will be slaked with a simple click.

Since then, the tendency has gotten worse, and it is an irony that in this, the Information Age, dealers in information actually introduce obstacles to its acquisition. But of course there is a method in their madness, and the goal of the information gap in the online world is always the same: acquire more click-through traffic, and thereby expose the chump at the keyboard to more advertising (often in the form of more clickable links!), while possibly generating more ad revenue for the site owner.

A look at the language of titles and headlines through the centuries of print media gives some interesting insights into how this genre has evolved. The overarching trend is unmistakable: as print media have evolved, labeling information provided to their users has become more coded and scarce. But it is only in the Internet Age that the willful withholding of information has gained traction, and may indeed threaten to become the norm.

Let's look back to the Golden Age, when books and print were new and readers, a small fraction of the public compared to the modern day, perhaps had to be coaxed into expending time and effort on the printed word. Metadata of old provided a very detailed synopsis of the content it described. Here's a title page from Thomas Hariot's A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588). The page identifies not only the work and the author, but digests the book's content and even suggests who its principal audience might be. We are also treated to a biographical thumbnail of the author and we learn who his honorable associates were.

Early newspapers were also quite generous with information, helpfully providing readers with a graduated descent into the details of an article, beginning with general and essential information in large type, and proceeding with more granularity at each step down in type size or style. Here's the beginning of a news story from an 1899 Chicago Tribune that is typical of print media of the time (image from Proquest Historical Newspapers). This sort of format was ideally suited to the medium of paper, and was based on the publisher's genuine intent to be informative. Readers could quickly absorb the story's main information and duck out after any subsequent headline if they felt that their curiosity had been satisfied.

This turn-of-the-century method of telescoping news to its consumers anticipates more modern headlines, but it contains some features that headlinese of the later 20th century dispensed with: auxiliary verbs, as well as definite and indefinite articles, which today are often omitted. The grammatical shorthand of more modern headlines is not necessarily an attempt to withhold information; it is the result of a natural evolution of the genre, in which readers learned to supply the information missing according to fixed rules. Thus, modern readers will understand that "Out Lesbian Among This Year's Miss America Hopefuls" translates to "An open lesbian is among this year's Miss America contestants" and "New Jersey Police Officer Seriously Wounded in Deadly Atlantic City Shootout" has been condensed from "A New Jersey police officer has been seriously wounded in a deadly Atlantic City shootout."

Early newspapers on the internet were often only images of their print counterparts because it took some time for paper publishers moving to the online world to realize that there was a way to monetize the click. That discovery, however, set in motion the development of the headline that was intended not so much to inform the reader as to tempt the reader to take advantage of an opportunity to be informed. The listicle (an article in the form of a list) rose to prominence, with its promise of delivering a complete and satisfying bundle of knowledge broken down into digestible bites. The promise of rectifying your deplorable state of ignorance about various important matters (celebrity fashions, unfolding disasters, startling information about your mortgage) was suddenly lurking beyond a mere spasm of your index finger. Demonstrative pronouns (This could determine if your next relationship is healthy or not!) appeared ready to reveal their referent if you would only mouse over press the button to unlock the secret.

Over the course of the present century, content providers have concocted increasingly dubious ways of suggesting to the reader that a simple, nearly effortless act (the click) will be rewarded with a dose of mental or emotional pleasure, with the result that today's readers are in a Pavlovian purgatory. Our earlier conditioning has endowed us with the understanding that the purpose of a headline is to impart information, but increasingly today the purpose of a headline is to withhold information.

I logged into AOL the other day, where I let junk mail from my infancy on the Internet collect for occasional inspection and disposal. While there, I noted a new and shameless innovation: the latest headline scam is to actually deny the reader syntactically required objects and predicates, resulting in grammatically incomplete sentence fragments. Before clicking through to my mailbox I was exposed to such mysteries as "Aaron Hernandez's brother opens up on", "Whoopi reveals unexpected reason she's" and "Donald Trump's kids mocked over latest". What perversity of intent could have persuaded the minions who maintain this website that such mockery of English was a good thing? I suppose they may just have grown weary of the effort required to cast headlines in the formula that preceded this, in which prize plums of information were withheld by substitution of a demonstrative and a general noun: "Millennials in This State Are Most Likely to Still Live with Their Parents."

It seems unlikely that clicks will lose value anytime soon and so perhaps it's reasonable to expect that content providers (let us not call them writers) will be impelled to develop ever more tantalizing come-ons. Indeed, the only thing that would stop their increasingly desperate pursuit would be a decision on the part of the online community to stop taking the bait.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.