If you use social media (e.g. Facebook) a lot, you’ll notice that your friends probably share a lot of crap, ranging from Farmville invitations to ‘inspirational’ (*cough*) articles. Over the years, you probably noticed that a lot of the articles they share seem to follow a small set of clichéd patterns. Here are three particular ones I’ve come across.
1. n Things
Look at the image above. The article itself and the majority of the ones linked on the side follow the same pattern: “6 Reasons…”, “5 Things”, etc. In fact, I deliberately used such a pattern even for this article, to help get the message across.
An “n Things” article is typically little more than a random list of items, often based on the author’s limited experience and viewpoint rather than on any relevant sources. There is no particular structure in such articles. In fact, even the numbering itself is misleading: these articles often list items in no particular order. This is in stark contrast with factual news articles which use the inverted pyramid as a model to present information progressively in descending order of importance.
A variant of this is the “Top n” article, such as “Top 10 places to visit in Dublin”. In this case there really is an ordering. However, it’s not always quite reliable. If it’s some top 10 list on someone’s blog, then that’s just the (only?) 10 places he happened to visit. Some more reputable sites might refer to some actual statistics, but the criteria used to evaluate the items and come up with a ranking are usually quite debatable.
I’m not the first person to feel uneasy whenever I see a title that ends in a question mark. In fact, Betteridge’s Law of Headlines states that:
“Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”
Again quoting the above-linked Wikipedia article, Betteridge was quoted thusly about a particular article:
“This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no.” The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.”
I don’t think this requires further elaboration.
3. Future Predictors
Articles that contain the word “Will” are usually one of two types. If they end in a question mark, then refer to Betteridge’s Law above. If they don’t, then they’re making some kind of grand statement about how things will be in the future.
You might think that people writing such articles have been blessed with the gift of prophecy. More often than not, however, they have no idea what they are talking about. Such articles tend to make grand claims about the future, either depicting some sort of utopia or scaremongering on the bleakness that is to come. But in reality, nobody knows what will happen in the future, and the people who write these kinds of articles are usually not among the few who might be able to make educated guesses about what will happen.
Not convinced? Check out the comments for the above Slashdot article.