The Laboratorium
November 2013

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The Simple Distinction That Will Completely Change How You Think About Upworthy

I just pulled a random headline from the Upworthy Generator:

What This Bullied Millennial Did Is Genius

This headline does two things. First, it makes you interested in this bullied millennial. Second, it is mysterious about what he did. Its opposite would be a bland headline that reveals all, such as:

New Anti-Bullying Strategy: Gandhian Passive Resistance

The two traits sound like they go together: after all, mystery provokes curiosity. But they are very different. An interesting headline is respectful of users; it explains why they should care about the post. Concealing what the post actually says, however, is disrespectful: it hides from user the information they need to decide whether it’s worth their time to find out more. An interesting but transparent headline would be more like:

Millennial Flummoxes His Bullies by Quoting Gandhi

What unites interestingness and mystery is not concern for users, but rather a desire to maximize click-throughs. A user who knows what the post contains might realize it’s not for her.

Unlike Upworthy, BuzzFeed mostly fights fair; its headlines are usually transparent. “38 Pictures That Prove Cats Have Hearts of Gold” does what it says on the tin. I’m not especially interested in cat pictures; I won’t click on that link. With an Upworthy-style headline, I don’t know that cat pictures lie within until it’s too late. BuzzFeed tries to entice you into reading more, but Upworthy tries to trick you into reading more.

Of journalism’s many traditions, putting the most important information up front is among those most worth preserving. It signals a basic attitude of respect for the reader as a reader. Upworthy is explicitly progressive. It thinks highly of its readers’ capacity to improve the world—but also appears to believe that they need to be fooled into improving it. The uplift comes with a side serving of contempt.

Once you recognize deliberately mysterious headlines, they’re everywhere. Phrases like “in one chart” hint without telling. So do constructions like “here’s how X will do Y,” “this X will change the way you think about Y,” and, of course, the infamous “one weird trick.” Starting today, please join me in never clicking on them.

Coming Soon: Speed Scholarship Week

Inspired by This American Life’s “20 Acts in 60 Minutes.” I’ll be running Speed Scholarship Week here at the Laboratorium starting on Monday, December 2. Every day until I run out of papers, I’ll be posting an all-new, never-seen-before draft. How far through the week can I get? Tuesday? Wednesday? Thursday? What crazy new topics will I cover? Big Data? Bitcoin? Edward Snowden and the NSA? There’s but one way to find out, and that is to stick around.

The Cancer of the Internet

My annual Jotwell review is up! This year, I praise Finn Brunton’s wise and witty book Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet. The review nearly wrote itself; Brunton has so many clever observations and memorable turns of phrase that I had a hard time choosing which ones to quote. Here are some excerpts:

Much of Brunton’s story of spam is told through the eyes of its enemies, from the vigilantes who made tried to burn out commercial spammers’ fax machines to the modern programmers who build increasingly complex filters to identify and delete spam. Significantly, this is history through the eyes of its losers: the story of the tide as related by King Canute. Brunton conveys effectively the sheer frustration felt by anti-spam activists. The network they loved was being abused by outsiders who pointedly rejected their values, but they found themselves unable to stop the abuse. One countermeasure after another fell before the onslaught: killfiles, cancelbots, keyword filters, blackhole lists, and so many others.

Roughly the second half of the book is devoted to the remarkable technical evolution of computer-generated spam. Brunton traces the rise of keyword stuffing, hidden text, Oulipo-esque email generators, spam blogs, content farms, Mechanical Turk-fueled social spam, CAPTCHA crackers, Craigslist bots, malware as a source of spam, and online mercenaries renting out botnets to the highest bidder. This escalation-from a pair of immigration lawyers in over their heads to a “criminal infrastructure” industry (P. 195) in less than two decades-is nothing short of alarming.