Round of applause for yourself. If you are reading this, you are a part of the minority these days.
A 2016 study conducted by Columbia University found that 59% of the links shared on social media weren’t ever clicked by the person who shared them. That means almost 60% of the articles your friends recommended to you, they never read.
Which, in case you aren’t getting it by now, explains the title of this article and the applause for having made it this far.
The truth is, most of us have been guilty of it. A clever or controversial headline scrolls into view, and there you go clicking like and sharing with no more than a passing chuckle or nod of affirmation. A thousand words lay behind that headline, you read none of them. Maybe you opened the article—scrolled through to skim the subheadlines; maybe you actually read some of it; but the majority of the articles shared on your newsfeed aren’t being read at all.
Welcome to the world of headlines—and you thought trying to say something profound with just 140 characters was a challenge. Insights now come compressed into a “4-simple steps” sound bite.
The Subtle Art of Self-Manipulation
Writing a good headline is a richly rewarded art/science. Copywriters have always known it, but these days its the whole game. Just do a google search for “headlines that convert.” There are online headline generators to help increase your chances of getting shared.
One of the key success metrics for most content creators is social engagement. A writer may spend days crafting their argument and fact-checking their sources, but writers know the headline is what counts. Often, the writer isn’t even writing their own headlines. An editor with enough distance from the actual work is better positioned to offer a title that will ensure it gets the best engagement.
Social engagement matters. Social networks want to surface content that gets engagement. If you like it, and your friends like it, Facebook and Twitter are far more willing to keep exposing the content to friends down the line. And an insider hunch, Facebook and Twitter make more money through advertising when you don’t click through to an article, but like, share, and keep scrolling on their platform.
Put it all together, 59% of sharers base their decision on a featured image and a headline—that’s ground for their social approval and the public endorsement of an idea. Content creators keep refining their headlines hoping for a viral moment. Platforms keep promoting the headlines earning the engagement. And after thousands of impressions and hundreds of shares, maybe a handful of people actually read the whole article.
Opinions Easily Shared
The fast-paced nature of our social liking—requiring only our thumb—allows us to offer an opinion without the taxing responsibility of actually forming one. How many times have you liked a post before considering if you really do in fact like it?
What motivates this mindless sharing? Self-definition. A big part of our sharing is defining ourselves and receiving social confirmation of our identity. We share headlines to position ourselves. Far easier than having to read is leading others to believe you have read. A New York Time study found that 68% of people share content to give others a better sense of who they are. A quick headline share is an easy vehicle for articulating your persona of opinions.
A generation ago, most opinions reached only as far as the local diner’s morning coffee gossip. You might have an opinion, but there weren’t very many people interested in hearing it. But an opinion with only the click of a button, that’s a new world.
It’s a world we have been warned about. From Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman.
“In America, everyone is entitled to an opinion, and it is certainly useful to have a few when a pollster shows up. But these are opinions of a quite different order from eighteenth- or nineteenth-century opinions. It is probably more accurate to call them emotions rather than opinions, which would account for the fact that they change from week to week, as the pollsters tell us.
What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information–misplace, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information–information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing…
I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?”
Or as Postman puts it more succinctly later, “People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think”
Postman had in mind television. The torrent of social media news and opinions is a multiplication he could never have comprehended, but it’s the oxygen we breathe.
To Read Or Not To Read?
So, what are my four simple steps for curing the world of uninformed and hastily made opinions… I got nothin’.
Well, there is this—we could start by actually reading.
But then again, you’re already in the 41%.