Headlines, in their original 17th-century form, existed to tell you what section of a book you were in and what page you were on. Usage of the word in a newspaper context came later, in the 1890s. Then, their existence was justified because it had been freshly born of necessity: if your primary mode of story discovery is to look at a newspaper frontpage, you need headlines to tell you where to go.
That function, now, has been largely outsourced. On a site like BuzzFeed, or the New York Times, the front page headline still serves that diminished original purpose (and as long as we have front pages, it always will). But for many stories — a growing number — that headline is not the most important one. The headline that’s most successful on Facebook or Twitter, or in a link from another site, is that story’s headline *by default.*
This might seem like a subtle change, but it’s experientially significant. When someone arrives on a story, the headline they followed is the only headline they need to see — to show them another promotional headline is to oversell or tell them they’ve been misled; it’s like welcoming someone to a “casual get together” by saying, “welcome to Joe’s birthday party.”
Canonical online headlines, at most, tell you you’re in the right place; that the tweet you followed was not a lie. But headlines as we write them today aren’t even very good at that. If they’re nü-internet-style headlines, they’re sales pitches or orders (see Choire Sicha’s fantastic Take A Minute To Watch The New Way We Make Web Headlines Now from a couple weeks ago). If they’re classic, print-style headlines, they’re meant either to stand out in sea of text or tease you into reading more (online, however, the choice has already been made — you chose to visit the page). What stories on the internet need, then, is not a headline but what’s known as a dek — a simple description that both confirms the remote headline and adds to it. A boldfaced introduction, in other words, that flows seamlessly into the first sentence. There’s no need to reset with yet another headline.
This is from a post at Buzzfeed that is over a year old now, but I just came across it, who knows how. Given that most sites are probably even more reliant on social media for inbound traffic than a year ago, it still holds.
I think the harm of having your own headline for posts is a bit overstated. For one thing, I still have quite a bit of inbound traffic from newsreaders, and the headlines matter in an RSS reader interface.
I rarely begin a post here with a headline, and the act of having to come up with a headline after the fact helps me to coalesce the thesis of the post. Sometimes having to find the through line forces me to go back and trim excess, and quite often I realize there is no good logline and just abandon the post in my drafts folder.
Still, the Buzzfeed article did get me thinking that I'd love to have a widget of some sort on each of my posts that would pull in the top headlines as written by people who linked to that post on Twitter, Facebook, another blog, etc. I can only imagine that if you sorted that list of alternate headlines by the highest to lowest traffic drivers you'd see the most linkbaity headlines on top.
If someone comes up with a tool like that, let me know.