You’ll never guess what this stunning Seán Moncrieff column is about

Social media is all about the headline. Nuance is destroyed and detail made irrelevant

Headlinification of discourse scorches subtlety and middle ground.

Headlinification of discourse scorches subtlety and middle ground.

 

I don’t write the headlines for this column. That’s done by someone else and requires a particular skill. It’s supposed to give you an idea what the column is about; to tempt you to read it, without being dishonest about what it contains. It can be tricky to get exactly right, and the approaches vary.

In what used to be called broadsheets, the headlines tend to be more sober. In what used to be called tabloids, everything can be treated in a fun way: HEADLESS BODY IN A TOPLESS BAR. When Inverness Caledonian Thistle beat Glasgow Celtic in a cup tie, the Sun came out with SUPER CALEY GO BALLISTIC CELTIC ARE ATROCIOUS. When George Michael was arrested for having sex in a toilet, it was ZIP ME UP BEFORE YOU GO GO.

Sometimes they border on genius, sometimes they are crass and cruel, but still not false advertising: they give a reasonable sense of what the article will be about.

It’s online that headlines tend to drastically depart from the content underneath them. “Stunning takedown” usually means a mild disagreement. TV shows, shirts or haircuts can “change everything forever”. Hundreds of times a day, people are promised to have their “mind blown” by something that’s uncontestably dull. Many online publications release the same story under multiple headlines, and carefully track which headline gets the best result. The story itself is close to irrelevant.

Exclamatory arms race

But hyperbole wins on the internet: a trend that has leeched into the language of ordinary social media users. The most banal event can drive people to declare that they “can’t cope” or they are “losing their mind”. Or most confusingly, from a syntactical and metaphysical point of view, that they “literally died”.

It’s become an arms race of exclamation, which you will hear in daily speech too. On a cursory listen to my children, almost everything makes them anxious, a few pleasant hours can be the best day of their life and new friend can be the best person they’ve met. Ever.

But they are young and the young always assume that their new experiences are unique in the history of time. I assume – I hope – that they will eventually tap down on the linguistic excess.

This isn’t a cranky-old-man rant about syntax and grammar: it’s about the headlinification of discourse. Social media is all about the headline – it’s often nothing but headlines. Twitter has a word restriction that forces users to simplify all reactions down to the “hot take”: invariably an uninformed over-reaction. Other social media sites have algorithms that stimulate antagonism, pushing everyone into their respective shouty corners, even if that’s not where they want to be.

Distrust of expertise

The overall effect of headlinification is to scorch the middle ground. Nuance is destroyed. Detail becomes irrelevant. Everyone gets to be right, no matter how little they know. This intersects with a broader cultural trend of the distrust of expertise. Experts have suspect motives and, it turns out, aren’t that expert at all. Anyone can google what they need to know, unarmed with years of study or decades of experience and come to the conclusion they were looking for. Never in human history have we had so much access to information. Never have we been so unprepared to learn.

Of course, experts don’t know everything and, of course, experts can get it wrong. But that doesn’t mean they get it wrong all the time or even most of the time. And all too often what they say isn’t definitive. But probabilities and possibilities don’t work in a tweet.

Any issue you can think of is framed by this fuzziness, but that gets lost in the need for definitive declarations, a habit of mind that has become ingrained in most of us. There’s a generation that has grown up knowing nothing else. Adjusting a few algorithms on Facebook won’t fix that. But if someone does figure out how to fix it, I’ll, like, literally die.

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