Clickbait and the Nature of Suspense

On Wednesday, posted a story that purported to give a definitive answer to what really happened at the infamous ending of The Sopranos. The tweet that announced the story attracted the attention of the Twitter account @SavedYouAClick, which takes great pleasure in spoiling clickbaity headlines. Nataurally, @SavedYouAClick tweeted the answer to the headline's question: "Did Tony die at the end of The Sopranos?"

Nilay Patel wrote a furious response in The Verge.

Because the headline was phrased in the form of a question — the question of the entire series — Jake Beckman, who runs the Twitter account @savedyouaclick, decided that it wasn't worth it. He "saved you a click" and tweeted the reveal.

This is bullshit.

It is bullshit because he didn't save anyone a click at all — he stole an experience. That story is great. It is absolutely worth the click.

The first response I read to Patel's rant was Nick Herr's at Pixel Envy:

If the article is so dependent on the teaser headline that a single tweet can bust the whole thing up, then Beckman did save people a click.

This was echoed by Jake Beckmann himself, who told the New York Observer,

I’m one person with a Twitter account...If I can disrupt your content distribution strategy from my iPhone, then maybe something is wrong with your content distribution strategy.”

The whole controversy reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock's old adage about the nature of suspense. Lesser storytellers often assume that suspense comes from a lack of knowledge. And it's true that a lack of knowledge can lead an audience forward. It's a lack of knowledge that lies at the heart of every cheap cliffhanger ending and the plot developments of TV shows like Lost. But lack of knowledge is ultimately a distraction, because instead of human drama, the audience becomes obsessed with information, and once the audience gets that information, they usually find it unsatisfying. Because information is, in the end, not dramatic.

Hitchcock said the secret of real suspense is giving the audience more knowledge. Show the audience that there's a bomb under the table that none of the characters can see. Then let the audience watch in horror as the characters go blindly about their business, with no idea they're about to be killed. Rather than trying to solve some ultimately pointless mystery, the audience now feels deeply invested in the heart of the story: these characters.

The problem with clickbaity headlines is not that they're a cheap method of enticing the reader. The problem is that, by using a lack of information as the enticement, they distract the reader from what might be truly valuable.

I clicked on the link to find out what really happened to Tony Soprano, and I was so enticed by the headline that all I did was skim the article for the answer. Once I found it, I felt completely unsatisfied, and didn't even finish reading. If Patel is right and the article is a brilliant analysis of the legacy of the Sopranos, that experience was ruined for me.

By the headline.