Against happy news

Good news is one of those things that no one at all can in good conscience come out against.  However, here I am, not even a curmudgeon in training, about to write about how good news on Facebook in the form of links from sites such as Upworthy makes me cringe.

I not only cringe, I also take a second look at the person perpetuating the link.  Why? Because these sites purposely manipulate our best instincts by taking deceptive headlines that promise much to lead readers to outdated and fairly ho-hum material, sometimes historical material that any well-educated person should know about, all for the purpose of generating hits for their site (and for the revenue also, one assumes). Worse, they often miss the point, all for the cause of being uplifting.

For example, on January 25, Upworthy offered a photo of Sojourner Truth and the headline “163 Years Ago, A Former Slave Rocked The World With These Words” followed by the teaser, “One of the most inspiring performances of “Ain’t I a Woman?” I’ve ever seen.” Let’s think about this. Sojourner Truth originated the speech. Another version of this headline, one that is more straightforward and would not get as many click-throughs, would be “Sojourner Truth made a cool speech–who knew who the heck Sojourner Truth was or what she said? It was all so  loooong ago.” No one is going to use that headline of course, but the one used pretty much says the same thing.

Click the link and you find a video of actor Alfre Woodard performing Truth’s speech, underneath a superficial intro that marvels that Truth spoke these words in 1851.

If my Facebook friends are truly that easily amazed or know so little, I’m sad. For example, does Sojourner Truth’s famous speech “surprise” and “amaze” you? If you have never heard of Sojourner Truth, perhaps so, but I hope the surprise is not based on the fact that she was black and a woman in 1851.  I first heard that speech in high school sophomore history class, and its foundational significance for the women’s movement was not lost on me. It is important to note where and why the speech was given as well as by who. It was given at a Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, and Sojourner Truth was an invited speaker, a respected part of the women’s rights movement.

Let’s apply this “uplifting link” trope to something else historical and see what happens.  “150 years ago a former bankrupt business owner rocked the world with these words.” This uses the same juxtapositioning of  powerful speech in unexpected places. Just like the Truth link, it uses manipulation to gain the desired “This is new and wonderful!” effect. You may not immediately identify that former business owner, but if I had played fair and given the title of the speech, “The Gettysburg Address,” you would have known, and I hope you would have wondered why I used such a misleading description for President Lincoln.

This is why I will no longer go to some sites frequently shared on Facebook, even if the headline sounds fascinating. It rarely is and I don’t want to add one more hit to their inflated tally. Make no mistake– Sojourner Truth’s speech was amazing, one of the most powerful speeches ever made. What I find reprehensible is masking its significance in order to use it as linkbait.

Posted by

Author of the poetry collection The Tethered Ground and Professor of English at Missouri State University. Contact me for readings or for workshops on writing/publishing and on teaching writing online.

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