Results tagged “cnn”

One Simple Trick Worked to Improve Headlines, and You Won't Believe What Happened Next

January 27, 2014

Upworthy is barely over two years old, and it's among the top 50 most visited sites in the United States. But its perception among the self-involved media discussion class is entirely defined by its headlines.

Those headlines typically reference a provocative issue, tease an unexpected revelation about the topic, and are oriented toward encouraging people to click through to the Upworthy site more than to understand the story without having clicked. And those headlines work

Interestingly, though, the media industry's reaction to a site having found a formula that actually breaks through the clutter online and makes aggregated content seem distinct hasn't been enthusiasm, but open disdain.

Horrible CNN Tweet

This trend reached its apotheosis recently when a misguided social media manager at CNN used (what they thought was) the Upworthy formula in a completely inappropriate way. There was almost as much opprobrium for Upworthy in the wake of the incident as for CNN itself. Having been the source of the format, Upworthy got some of the blame when it got misused.

It seems the folks over at Upworthy are aware of the perception issue here; They've shared statistics about how infrequently they've actually used the most-parodied tropes, and how their use of these tactics has changed in recent months.

Obviously, if you broaden the terms a bit, you get a few more headlines which evoke this trope, though they still comprise a fairly small percentage of all their stories:

The reaction has built to the point where people are responding in interesting and creative ways. Alison Gianotto (of noise) created Downworthy as a programmatic way of modifying "hyperbolic viral headlines" and it's been greeted with delight by people frustrated with the pervasiveness of this style of writing.

I'm not so sure this argument is as clear as the anti-hyped-headlines narrative would presume, though. Writing evocative headlines is a good thing if it gets people to see content of substance. Sure, it can be manipulative if misused, and frustrating if key information is omitted for no good reason. But part of what makes this style of headline so remarkable is that it is a distinctive voice. There are media outlets that are a century old which don't have a personality that's distinctive enough to be parodied without context to a large audience; Upworthy (and the lesser sites aping its style) have gotten there in two years.

Ultimately, many of the objections to this style of content are from people who feel like good stories should be able to find an audience without such "tricks". And of course, they're right — stories should be able to find an audience. But they don't. So good narratives have to be marketed, and innovations that discover new ways to be effective in attracting audiences are a useful, and necessary, part of making media succeed online. It was only a few decades ago that USA Today adding color to its newspaper was seen as somehow "undignified", or beneath the level of seriousness appropriate for a journalistic endeavor. Certainly we don't have to be quite so puritanical about the ways content aggregators market their content. Great headlines are a wonderful art; I maintained a link blog for years primarily because of how much fun it was to write "better" (to my mind) headlines for existing articles or stories. The fundamental identity of many tabloids is about the way they construct their headlines. There's no reason that can't be true online as well.

And while I'm always loath to extend the biological metaphors over "virality" in content, there is obviously a precedent in the realm of biology of viruses which are overly aggressive and have extreme short-term success at the expense of their long-term success. In those cases, we see evolutions that lead to much more sustainable behaviors. I have no doubt we'll see that happen in the media ecosystem.

[Disclosurebrag: Upworthy is a customer of ThinkUp. I felt Upworthy's headlines were interesting and useful as a strategy before that was true.]

All Over The Web

January 20, 2010

Just a quick roundup of some recent conversations I've been having around the web:


  • Fast Company interviewed me about applying the lessons of Web 2.0 to government. I'm always happy when I can mention my love of New York City and pop music while also talking about the importance of using the web for civic purposes. They also published this Rennio Maifredi photo of me, which my Twitter friends agree is very creepy.
  • Reddit did an "Ask Me Anything" thread where people could ask me whatever they want. I answered a bunch of the questions in text, and a video of me answering the most popular ones will be up shortly.

Hopefully you're not all too sick of me after that; I'll try to share some of the recent presentations I've made at events I've been speaking at recently as well — I'm very excited about a lot of the conversations I've gotten to participate in lately.

CNN, Your mother must be proud!

March 12, 2006

Sometimes I see things and assume that either someone has the same sick sense of humor that I do, or else people have completely lost their sense of the absurd. From the sidebar on this CNN news story today comes the following poll:

Who would you rather have overseeing operations at U.S. ports?

  • Arab-based ports company
  • U.S.-based mafia

Whoa, seriously? Somebody went to j-school for that? I am certain that your mother must be proud you're the guy who put that on ($10 via PayPal to the first person who can get me a definitive answer about who's responsible for this lunacy.)

And two thirds of people who voted are in favor of known criminals running our ports? (Technically, it's only 64% of the 55880 votes cast so far, but that's still amazing.) Jon Stewart is clearly being overpaid, because some anonymous web wizard at CNN is a lot funnier than anything Comedy Central has conjured up.

Check out the results for yourself, or just cast your own vote to see what everyone else thinks.