We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are in possession of divided attention spans, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain predictable tendencies, that among these are excitement, arousal, and reaction– and to secure the control of these passions, the author must direct them with great purpose and careful calculation, so as to properly court the consent and readership of the content consumers– (Becker’s Declaration of Sentiments, 2019.)
It has come to my attention that there are those who regard the titling scheme I follow for many of my columns as “clickbait.” They argue that I design my columns to simply derive the most views possible and provoke a reaction. To a degree, they are right. I do purposefully design the titles of my articles to be interesting, thought provoking, and attention grabbing. I have been and will always be transparent about my intentions: I want people to read my columns. For the sake of further transparency, I also want my readers to offer feedback as well. I want feedback regardless of whether readers enjoy or despise a particular column and regardless of whether they offer coherent, useful criticism or simply inform me, as one commenter did, that “Reiss. You are full of crap.”
Thank you. I can assure you that after a weeklong spring break vacation that was both really fun and also excessively indulgent that I am, literally, full of crap. Cruises are not for the faint of heart and they are definitely not for those with bad cholesterol. That being said, I am not full of crap for arguing that young men who produce economic value should be compensated for the value they produce. Even as I may be full of crap, that argument is steeped in truth, oriented toward equity, and derived from the dignity of all men, despite the anger of Facebook’s “basketball reactionaries.” But I digress.
Let’s acknowledge some more self-evident truths. Here’s one: there is an intra-organizational competition for eyeballs within The Chronicle itself. I wish there were not such a competition and that each columnist simply received their fair share of views in some abstract, objective sense, but that is not the case. So in acknowledgement of that reality, I fight. I fight for views, I fight for engagement, I fight for some modicum of influence over the opinions of my fellow Duke students and the body politic, no matter how small that influence may be. I fight by writing titles that capture people’s attention. I continue that fight by writing content that is, ideally, engaging and thought provoking, challenging and constructive. I finish that fight by trying to source my articles adequately, by comprehensively editing with the help of my amazing editors, and by trying to answer questions, address concerns, and respond to every utterance of “hey, your opinion sucks.” To the latter, I always respond: “Okay, why?” My desired end is engagement.
I could create sanitized, straightforward and less provocative titles. For instance, I wrote a column titled “Housing reform betrays Duke’s diversity.” That is a big, bold interesting statement. I could have titled that piece “A new perspective on the development of housing reform.” The alternative title would have remained true to the content of the piece (I do give a new perspective on housing reform), but it would have failed to display attributes I valued in the original, more provocative title. For one, fewer people would have read it because that title is bland, unoriginal, and essentially a copy of a dozen other faceless articles that have been written about Housing Reform. Instead, I used my original title, “Housing reform betrays Duke’s diversity,” to emphasize my differences with the majority of the Housing Reform advocates while simultaneously making a bold statement, that I subsequently back up in writing, about how their proposals fall short.
Let me be clear: I make my titles provocative and engaging to attract readers, but I will also defend my titles on the merits. All my titles are simultaneously provocative and substantive in that they attract attention but they also accurately reflect my argument. For instance in my last column called “An open letter to Zion Williamson: Don’t come back,” I start with what was, clearly, an extremely inflammatory opener. But I back the title up! Agree or not, the book matched its cover and therein I did express what I felt were good reasons for why Zion should not come back. You can say my reasoning was “full of crap,” but the title is not.
Ultimately, I appreciate “clickbait” titling because it is honest. At least more honest than the supposedly more dignified and reserved alternative methods of titling. Clickbait is an honest expression of why people read opinion journalism or casually go online in general. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we do not read newspapers for raw information or out of some sense of intellectual or civic obligation. We consume content to escape. Worn down by the troubles and travails of everyday life, the petty squabbles and nagging problems, we browse our feeds to broaden our perspective past our own lives and to leave the existential wear and tear behind us, at least briefly. When we read opinion sections, when we engage with something that, for lack of a better phrase, “gets the people going” we detach from our humdrum problems and are able to focus on something else. So yes, I offer escapism. Hopefully it’s of a high caliber. Ideally, my articles are interesting, informative and worth the time spent reading. At the same time, not all forms of clickbait are created equal. Most clickbait is utter dreck. Whether or not my content is high quality is up to the estimation of the reader. But the reader cannot make that estimation… unless they read it.
I hope that my readers think about ideas that are larger than any of us and issues that have significant, fundamental implications for how human society operates. I know I think bigger than myself each time I write a column. I think about the readers, I think about who I want the readers to be, I think about how said readers will respond, and I think about how those responses can be rebutted most effectively. More than that, I think about the change I want to see in the world and what I can do, with my limited platform, to make any sort of a positive impact. For me, clickbait is a means, not an end. It is a means to excite people and thus encourage engagement with ideas I care about and think others should care about too. If accusations of clickbait and Facebook comments are the worst slings and arrows I face, then I am blessed to be a columnist for The Chronicle. Until next time, and thanks for clicking.
Reiss Becker is a Trinity sophomore. His column usually runs on alternate Mondays.
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