A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
Six Reasons Why Aristotle Prefigures Clickbait
"Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." That's Aristotle, writing in the fourth century BCE. Most of the wiles and schemes by which modern-day crafters of clickbait entice you to take the fateful step of clicking on a link were anticipated by the Master.
The art (if you would call it that) of trying to direct web traffic by the use of hyperlinked snippets of text is essentially an exercise in rhetoric—an attempt to persuade. Clickbaiters, it must be noted, are chasing the low-hanging fruit. They are not trying to persuade you to adopt a radically different opinion, change your life, desist from your bad habits, or save the world—although they regularly suggest that such things are easily available to you. All you have to do is click on the link.
1. All Power to the Listicle. Haven't heard of the listicle? You're reading one now, an article in the form of a list. Chances are you see a headline inviting you to absorb listicles dozens of times every day. Aristotle did not invent the listicle but his analytical method is an archetype of it: analyze something into constituent parts or types, enumerate them, and explain what they are. We're all comfortable with that. It gives a huge boost to the notion that subjects can be comprehended in no more steps than you can count on the fingers of your hands. "Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds," he wrote, nearly 2500 years ago. Perhaps today it would be Three surefire ways to drive home your point. Today you are also only a click away from Two words that will change your life forever and other such grand promises.
Arika Okrent, a writer for Mental Floss, wrote an insightful article about the ascent of the listicle some months back for the University of Chicago Magazine. Headline listicles seem to be most comfortable with 10 or fewer items, unless pictures are involved, in which case the numbers may rise to higher double digits: 20 images that sum up the Leaving Certificate from start to finish. Listicles about reasons and ways are both particularly popular in groups of 10: 10 reasons why bicyclists and motorists have trouble coexisting. 10 reasons why it's good to buy a home. 10 ways to make your new space your own. 10 ways to use Twitter to pump your business.
2. Persons of Interest. The first of Aristotle's three modes of persuasion depends on the personal character of the speaker. Here I do not advance the idea that persons of lofty character are responsible for clickbait. Indeed, it would be much easier to make a contrary argument. It should be remembered that rhetoric is a neutral tool that can be used by persons of virtuous or depraved character, and every shade in between. We live in a culture that reveres celebrity, in which the actions, judgments, and experiences of the famous are considered worthy of our attention, and they are referenced regularly via clickbait in attempts to draw us in. The argument seems to be that there is something edifying in imitating, or at least knowing about, what successful and prominent people do. See What Kim Kardashian, Kendall Jenner and More Are Wearing With the Latest Kardashian Trends. Martha Stewart just defeated her arch enemy. Ellen feels ashamed that she lied to her fans for years. See the secret she hid so well.
3. Can You Feel It? Aristotle's second mode of persuasion depends on "putting the audience into a certain frame of mind." Here we arrive at what is perhaps the clickbaiters' most potent toolbox. Life regularly throws us experiences that evoke emotions, very often of a kind we might not choose to suffer. The temptation is great then to experience positive emotions, especially when the promise of them is free and only a click away. These Gay Dads Got An Unexpected Surprise When They Adopted Their 4 Sons. 26 Things That Will Turn Your Bad Day Around in an Instant. I Couldn't Stop Laughing at These 23 Foreign Sign Fails.
By contrast, we revel in the horror and tragedy experienced by others, from the vantage of the comfort that we do not have to be a part of it other than as spectators. To put it in a way that draws on Aristotle's Poetics, we greatly enjoy the relief of fear and other negative emotions that is handily accomplished by their being aroused through the representation of the misfortunes of persons other than ourselves: 30 photos that will make you grateful for your commute. 15 extreme selfies that will make your stomach churn. The Most Miserable states in the USA. No One Applauds This Woman Because They're Too Creeped Out At Themselves To Put Their Hands Together
4. Look Ma, I'm learning! Also in the Poetics, Aristotle makes the observation that "Learning things gives great pleasure not only to philosophers but also in the same way to all other men, no matter how small their capacity for it." Today, the target capacity for learning is very small indeed, but it is clear that we all still delight in it, and clickbaiters are happy to provide us with opportunities to ingest such nuggets as Are butter, cheese and meat that bad? Odd Coke commercial focuses on the worst thing about soda. You'll Be Amazed and Shocked by These 19 Facts About Japan. This principle may also be an explanation for the rather irritating phenom, common on websites, in which the paragraphs of a lengthy article are interspersed with hyperlinks to other articles that clickbaiters imagine you'll want to follow, perhaps to further atomize your already debilitated attention span.
5. The Big Questions. Again in the Rhetoric, Aristotle notes that "in speeches and epic poems the exordia provide a sample of the subject, in order that the hearers may know beforehand what it is about, and that the mind may not be kept in suspense." Headlines of old followed this formula and strove to encapsulate a summary of information that provided the reader with two things: succinctly expressed facts, and adequate information with which to reasonably decide whether more information was desirable—by reading the article. Today's clickbait headline departs from the Aristotelian ideal and removes the first of these two useful services by providing few or no facts but often suggesting that if you click, you might be able to acquire one or two. This is a favorite ploy of AOL, Huffpost, and other mass-appeal websites, where you will have to click in order to learn the missing information from such headlines as Gay Marriage Ban Dealt Federal Defeat In 14th State, Kelly Clarkson gave birth to a baby girl -- and gave her an adorable name, and This could determine if your next relationship is healthy or not.
6. It's good for you! In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle opines that the end of politics is to secure the Supreme Good, in which the state and all of its citizens live in prosperity and happiness. But he concedes that "to secure the good of one person only is better than nothing." Clickbait crafters generally demur from pursuit of the Supreme Good, but they can usually bank on the fact that you'll be interested in the "better than nothing" aspect, securing the good of one person only, and that person is you. Who will pass up an opportunity to correct a small character flaw, or to make life better by obtaining the good that lurks behind such headlines as The Most Common Words You're Probably Mispronouncing. The One Exercise That Just Might Change Your Running Forever. The Secret to Shiny, Healthy, Perfect Hair.
Human nature seems little changed in more than two millennia, and language is very easily adapted to marry the convenience of technology to the ancient rhetorician's art.