Gawker editor-in-chief Max Read sent this memo to his staff this morning:
Please add to the below list of banned words and phrases (which you should revisit if you’ve forgotten!!) the following:
• Headlines that start with “Sorry,” “No,” “Yes,” or otherwise appear to be written as the first line of a commenter response. This is, maybe, the worst headline I’ve ever read in my life, and I want to make sure that nothing like it ever appears on Gawker.com.
These headlines are among the worst symptoms of a general digital-media problem: Headline writers and editors around the internet trying to write headlines that sound like what they think their Facebook or Twitter audiences will be fooled into clicking or sharing. Usually this takes the form of a terrifying social media uncanny valley: Headlines that sound like mutant, overwritten fake status updates; headlines that sound like lines of dialogue from Markov bots; headlines in conversation with invisible interlocutors; headlines that express opinions or reactions that no normal human would ever actually have. (I’m not quite ready to ban “Watch this…” or “Read the…” or “This is…” or “Here’s the…” headlines. But I’m close!)
Not only are the uncanny-valley headlines awkward and stilted and clearly ridiculous, they’re exactly what everyone else online is doing. Which is a good hint that we should go in the other direction: When you can’t tell a Gawker headline from a Slate headline from a Vox headline from a Buzzfeed headline from an Upworthy headline, there’s something wrong.
We should be always be careful that we’re not writing for social media only–even though it’s how many of us spend the majority of our time on the internet, it only represents about a third of our inbound traffic. Our shit is pretty good. We don’t need to pander to one (let’s admit it, particularly stupid) audience.
All this being said: Let’s also not revert to boring Times-y headlines. Be clear, be direct, be interesting, be loud, be funny, be smart. If you need help on headlines, don’t hesitate to come to me or another editor. If you need inspiration, Ken Layne-era Sploid had the best headlines of any site on the internet, ever.