Andras Kornai wrote me on Tuesday to comment on a prominent pattern he’d seen in online clickbaiting, exemplified by:
You Won’t Believe What This Cop Did When The Cameras WEREN’T Rolling. WOW!
Man Attempts To Hug a Wild Lion. What Happens Next Stunned Me
He’s collected hundreds of similar examples and wondered whether others had noticed the pattern (many have in fact been annoyed by it) and whether it had gotten a name (not so far as I know). In this particular schema, the “hook” is an expression of astonishment or surprise, which can be expressed in a number of ways, referring to the reader (“you won’t believe”, “you’ll be amazed”) or to the presumed writer (“… stunned me”, “I couldn’t believe”), in a variety of syntactic constructions. As a temporary expedient, I’ll refer to this as the SURPRISE! clickbait scheme.
The scheme is “semi-formulaic”, in a way that’s reminiscent of the precursors to snowclones (see “The natural history of snowclones”, here): a culturally significant idea is given a number of formulations; one version achieves special status (in a formula); and then this formula serves as a template for new expressions. The SURPRISE! scheme hasn’t yet crystallized as a formula, but it’s nevertheless recognizable by its form(s) and functions.