Why the Internet is Turning Us All Into Germans

Photo by Simo Räsänen & Tauno Räsänen, CC BY-SA 3.0

In the last few years, a couple of my essays have been featured on Medium. Overall, it was a very pleasant experience and I really appreciate the feedback and constructive criticism from the editors. One thing, however, bugged me. Every single time, the editors changed the title of my essays. I admit that the titles were sometimes a bit obscure, but the editors continuously turned them into something bland and unimaginative.

Their motivation for this is clear: a title is the main reference to a posting. Given the attention span of the internet audience, a title should be literal and easy to understand. The task of a title is to persuade potential readers to click on the link and read the posting.

However — I like weird, witty and misleading titles for essays and articles. The fact that The Economist used the headline ‘Global Warming’ for an article on the world wide consumption of chilis still makes me smile.

It is often said that Germans have no sense of humour. This is not true. (You probably want proof for this statement. Ok — here, here, and here.) However, Germans do have a problem with ambiguity. Germans are not very good when it comes to nuances or subtle meanings. Conversations in Germany are straightforward. You say what you mean and you mean what you say. Statements are true or false. There is very little room in the middle.

A good example of this very direct and uncomplicated approach to communication are German translations of book or movie titles. The deadpan title of the comedy ‘Airplane’ is translated as ‘Die unglaubliche Reise in einem verrückten Flugzeug’. This is such a crap line that I won’t translate it back. You get the idea. The title makes it very clear that you are supposed to laugh during the movie — just in case you are a bit unsure about it. In general the German translations of foreign movie and book titles are so terrible that I consider them a national embarrassment. (Surprisingly, the dubbed German version of ‘Airplane’ is actually quite good.)

This German approach to titles is becoming a global phenomenon. No matter if you are on Medium, Tumblr, Blogs or online newspapers — the title of a web page tells you exactly what to expect. This predictability is both vociferous and boring. It is a trend that leads to such idiotic clickbait headlines like the title of this posting.

The combination of vociferous and boring titles can be explained with attention economy — but it is also an intrinsic problem of reading on the web. If you get a paper magazine, you know what it stands for and what it is about. Headlines can be more ambiguous and more fun. If you are reading a magazine, you have already bought it. If you are hopping from one site / author to the next, you need clickbait to get the attention of the readers. And suddenly you have to write titles that would make a German movie executive proud.

So — you are probably asking: what’s the point of this posting? Well, I just wanted to let you know that I have reverted the title of some of my featured essays back to their original state. I left the content as it is. But I changed the title and sometimes removed the generic stock photo that the editors picked for my essays. A bit of spring cleaning and the return of the original intentions.

Here are my featured essays in their former glory:

If you have not read them — now is a good time.

(As an admission to my German heritage, I kept ‘Why do Websites look the same?’. But I went back to the original calligraphic illustration made by Stef. And you can read the initial title in the URL.)

Furthermore, I am currently in writing mode, so you can expect more essays on design from me in the next few weeks and months. And if you don’t understand the title of a new posting, then it’s probably worth reading.

Professor for Interaction Design at FH Potsdam, co-director of Urban Complexity Lab | http://uclab.fh-potsdam.de | http://esono.com

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