I Thought That Shocking Headlines Didn’t Change the World. Boy, Was I Wrong.

Louisa Leontiades On Writing, On Writing-General

Watch The First 54 Seconds. That’s All I Ask. You’ll Be Hooked After That, I Swear. ~ Upworthy, 4.6 million views (and counting)

It’s official. We’ve discovered the way to make people click (and stay at least 54 seconds). It’s called the shock factor. Or rather – the promise-to-shock factor. We’re so addicted to cultivating our own emotional responses and the possibility of our own potential popularity by sharing them, that sites like Upworthy – the baddest of the click bait bunch – get over 87 million unique hits a month.

Yet as Upworthy rightly claims, it’s not because people click that articles go viral, it’s because they share them. And if the article content doesn’t deliver on the promise of the headline, then no-one shares it.

Upworthy’s content is underpinned by a three-point check list;

  1. Is the content substantive, engaging, and maybe even entertaining?
  2. If 1 million people saw it, would the world be a better place?
  3. Does the content actually deliver on the promise of the headline?

And if that weren’t enough to convince you of the seriousness of their mission, two of the founders include Peter Koechley, a former managing editor of The Onion, and Eli Pariser, a co-founder of Avaaz. The former site reframes perspective through satire, and the latter campaigns on initiatives of social significance. They are both sites that aim to change the world.

Virality has many components. Among them social currency (the kudos brought to someone by sharing), emotion (the ability to move, shock, make you laugh), practical value (teachable, how-to articles) and story-telling. Because people don’t think of themselves in terms of information, they think of themselves in terms of narratives.

Traditional news outlets do not deliver content in terms of narratives (although as their readership drops, they’re also starting to catch on). Compare the headlines ~

We can stop it. ACPOS Rape Prevention Campaign

and

Oh, So In Scotland They Actually DON’T Promote Rape Culture?

They’re the same video. One uploaded by the local government and one by Upworthy. Guess which one got the most hits and changed our ideas.

Writing to Shock or Simply Shocking Writing?

I’ve been challenged recently by a client who asked me whether I wrote to shock. I don’t. But I pay great attention to how my stories are framed, the white space on the page, and the headlines of my articles.

Many might choose not to share, like or even read my articles. They are the same individuals who order the Guardian to their home on a daily basis, and despise the ‘clickbaity’ nature of my titles, not to mention the honest and shocking nature of my disclosures. It’s not about me, although they would beg to differ. It’s about them.

It’s about their dislike of displaying emotion in public, touted shameful by those who believe in keeping a stiff upper lip. It’s about admitting they might undergo the same challenges and struggles as everyone does. They call it weakness. It’s about not being willing to confront their demons, and above all about being comfortable in the false illusions that they choose to live in. It’s their choice of course. But I choose differently. I choose the truth – my truth – even when it’s shocking. Because shock creates revolution and change.

When I started writing I didn’t only want to change the world. I wanted to change my world. I wanted to work from home, earn money by writing and enter into debate about issues in which I only had one perspective. I wanted to learn, grow and see others also learn and grow. But I also wanted to be considered as a serious writer – worthy of the Guardian rather than the The Sun. And I was a product of the same environment that drove my family to ignore my writing. So for a long time I resisted writing headlines that shocked.

Is there a serious writer in the world who wants to be tarred with a cheap tabloid brush? Is there an individual anywhere who wants to be rejected by the people they love most in the world as I have been?

But after years of being a struggling writer, I decided it was time to change my perspective. My dreams, both selfish and selfless were more important than my fears. So I wrote ‘My Vagina Smells like Shame‘… the article went viral with over 300K hits. Women everywhere cried said ‘thank you’. They got a little more compassion and a little more understanding of the struggle they faced everyday. Writing a headline that shocked, had made my world and their world, a better place.