On Living in the Age of the Catchy Title

Dr. Jennifer Love wrote a very nice, simple, astute commentary about how necessary it is to be counterintuitive in the public marketplace of ideas. She’s complaining about an emphasis on titillation over substance. Her final paragraph:

“The counterintuitive has its place. But our love affair comes at a cost. It leaves little room in the public consciousness for social scientific work that is incremental, for work that shores up and teases apart, for work that complicates, for work on the boundary conditions—those fragile social and mental habitats upon which decisions turn. In other words, it leaves little room for most of social science.”

If she’s right, it’s a terrifically sad thing to say. I’m certain she is to some degree, but there are some offsets, some bright spots in the argument.

There’s a side of this argument that gets lost easily. This information is trying to reach a very different audience mix, with much more information. There is a much larger amount of social science research coming out now, which saturates a market to some degree no matter how good or bad the work is; and there are a million new channels to get it out to people who are interested, but not interested enough or rich enough to get themselves a journal description, or an education. The information on social science is reaching down-market, if you will, and doing so for good reason– because a lot of it is practical or interesting. I really liked that last paragraph, as it addresses the real problem: that, rather than this counterintuitive aspect really ‘growing the pie’ in terms of overall demand for social work, it is instead becoming a much more important sub-market of social information that encourages us to publish in this way, and it risks crowding out attention and funding for work in the field that isn’t as well suited to such an approach.

I’m frustrated, too. Like many, I’m very ambivalent about titling being everything. One of the few solutions for someone like me is a form of deception: drag them in using the title to create a straw-man enemy, say, and then provide a useful, rational (piecemeal, tentative, contingent) argument. This has the reasonable downside that being deceptive has with everything, even my dog- they might go away and not want to come over as much. So I don’t like using it. It’s also annoying because we don’t even mean to bait-and-switch, per se– we just want people to read something substantive. We write it, and, later, figure out a title that will help people get to it. And that title doesn’t end up a good summary- “Panglossian: Dimensionality within Temporal Models of…” It ends up mentioning sex breathlessly, and having a how-to vibe.The best example of this I’ve ever found is Tim Ferris’ work, “The Four Hour Body”, which he’s followed up with four=hour stuff about all kinds of things. I actually like some of Ferris’ work- actually I like people he refers me to on Twitter, but that’s something- but there’s a huge hurdle one has to get over: he’s always lying in his titles. The work itself is fine: fix your fitness the smart way; spend a little time to get a lot better at cooking; take a vacation nearby. He’s the best teacher of the modern communication form Dr. Love is bemoaning: lie flagrantly to get in the door, and then tell the truth well. I’m so bought in to this principle now that I interpret the title as something much less ambitious, and I think everyone is doing that. We like the lie, though: perhaps it speaks very well to our subconscious fantasy for a new body in four hours- and, though our conscious mind doesn’t believe it, we know the guy’s popular with other people, and we assume that we’ll get some good information about getting in shape quickly and scientifically. That, in fact, is what Ferris does, and he does it very well. What’s interesting about Ferris is that, in person, he’s very good at slinking around the lie with a combination of a magician’s attention redirecting skills, mild confessions to exaggeration, and a relentless focus on his message, whatever it is. In other words, he lies big-time, but he’s very serious about the subject he lies about. I’m no Tim Ferris- I’m more of a little-time liar- but I’m doing something similar now, working up an approach to political psychology I’m calling “The 2-Minute Expert”, as in “Polarization- The 2-minute Expert”. When the video or writeup is done, I’m desperately trying to get them to somewhere else to learn more- you know, throbbing beats and unclad models pointing to links to “Why the FAE’s the Shit”. Just kidding. Actually, my approach is only a little lie, because 2 minutes on the right things about personality aspects of ideology, or negotiation theory, or polarization can get a rather amazing change in people’s perspective, 10 times what they can get in 100 times as long watching Jon Stewart.

Two reasonable takeaways below, then, that don’t sound so tsk-tsk about our crummy informational future. So we don’t sound like we’re whining about how great the old days were.

1) Assume a hierarchy-of-information delivery model that you begin with titillation, like an amuse-bouche, a kind of pre-appetizer at some fancy restaurants, or at French friends’ houses. A stunning little entry into something maybe not quite as great, but still good. The title isn’t the whole story, and it may even be a lie- but the reader will get the general idea, and their nonconscious mind is allowed to be fooled enough to let their conscious mind act on the subject matter. Then tier your output, so the first part is quick enough for down market, with further sections, reference or continuance for those actually interested beyond what’s useful at cocktail parties.

2) take this type of initial-shock requirement as advice-in-spirit to alter our method of delivery with variety and creativity: alternate media, interview, graphics, leveraging emotion, humor, etc. You can skip the initial lie or exaggeration that way, if you want, or not worry about tiering the information if you like- and hope that the rest of your delivery cleverness will get your information to the right people. A simple example I go back to personally, that doesn’t seem like one, is Daniel Gilbert, who puts out studies I can only understand after 13 rereads, and then only if I’ve prepared with vipassana and psychotropics. They also seem totally useless at the end, probably because I haven’t the gift to extend the points. Yet the guy can put out a breathlessly elegant, funny book (with one of the prettiest covers I’ve seen) that rivets the points into place for me, and he’s good at marketing it on the web with pithy sayings. Such ‘vertical’ capability with information is still what we need, albeit with modern dispensing techniques- it’s still very much an antidote.

I try to do both: more accurately, I’m trying to do the second while incorporating the amuse-bouche approach however I can, as part of the general toolkit modern life gives us to get attention from the right people. These solutions can be extremely difficult for some of those categories from Dr. Love’s final paragraph who are losing now; the information age is also the titillation age, reflecting our consumerist/me orientation, which people seem to miss is getting much more developed, resulting in a kind of ‘distracted generalist’ perspective that has patterns like this one we’re discussing. One field I love is Operations Research, and it has a lot of applicability in the real world, but can’t get out there because only an utterly lying-title version of the first model above would get any clicks- the stuff is not very friendly, even if it is important.

The good news is that new and broad audiences are out there, thanks to the internet; the bad news is they ain’t always very deep, they can be fooled, and funding for deeper work is being funneled to sales-optimized, shallower work. Thinking in terms of a communication model for our output, and building a raw capability of all the dimensions of communication will let you give a good run at the money against the counterintuitive-and-shallow approach. If we’re trying to achieve depth, in a chicken-brain world, let’s us treat it like the difficult project it is. Not a great answer, but it’s the only one I’ve got from here on out.

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