Cynicism isn’t the response our political system, or the internet, needs
“Last chance to TRIPLE your gift!”
“President Trump is Counting On You, Patriot!”
“Mitch McConnell is PRAYING you’ll IGNORE this email”
Everyone in politics writes bad subject lines because bad subject lines work.
From subject lines that seem to set up an interview, to those that promise a fundraising match (which is tricky for politicians to do legally), there are basically no good actors: a recent study shows 99% of political emails from both parties use manipulative tactics.
And subject lines are just one sign of the brokenness of our digital economy of attention. Marketers abuse urgency, scarcity, social proof, and other realities to bypass the rational part of your brain and force you to pay attention to their product.
It is a kind of virtual arms race that keeps us distracted and anxious.
Here, though, I must admit to some hypocrisy. I write emails every day, and part of that work is crafting a subject line that encourages people to open them and care about what I am writing. Across organizations, most emails are only opened by one-fifth of the people who receive them. We are doing lots of really cool things. But if people don’t hear about it because I wrote a bad subject line, then it might as well not exist.
But that doesn’t excuse some of these tactics. Why are these manipulative subject lines so bad?
They break trust between a writer and a reader. Subject lines are a kind of promise the rest of the email should fulfill—but they are false promises. You won’t personally disappoint President Trump if you don’t donate now. A “Last Chance” is just a marketing device to induce urgency. Just as the pictures on a fast-food menu always make the burgers look juicier, these subject lines are a species of dishonesty in service of capturing the recipient’s attention for the brief moment it takes for you to scan your email.
Along with being dishonest, these subject lines abuse our attention after they get it. Anger, disdain, and anxiety work best in encouraging people to open emails. The recipient is constantly assailed by capital letters, emojis, and strangely personalized appeals. They tell you to be afraid of the government. To join an exclusive club of people who care about you and are fighting the evil enemy. To foil the deceitful plans of the arrogant.
But they don’t encourage you toward virtue: to love and care for your neighbor. They don’t encourage you to do the hard work of civic duty that is rooted in your values. They only care about tapping into your primitive brain.
For your sake and mine we need to build a healthy digital economy of attention.
On my part, as an email writer, that means I need to understand what the people I am writing to actually care about—what makes something interesting or appealing to them as people, rather than what simply forces them to pay attention. We need to maintain simple integrity: a scrupulous honesty in our communication that doesn’t break the trust of our readers.
On the part of the recipient, what can you do?
On the very practical side: Complain.
When you get emails that are manipulative and inappropriate, write back and tell the organization emailing you to do better. There may not be anyone on the other end, but many times there is. If you don’t feel like doing that, mark bad actors as spam, even if they are emails you requested. While this trains the algorithms of your particular email program, it also, by extension, instructs the entire email ecosystem what boundaries to enforce.
On a more spiritual level, make sure you yourself have boundaries for your attention. Jeffrey Bilbro’s recent book Reading the Times has many recommendations for this when it comes to news, but the principles apply to all of our digital engagement. Engage the real world, away from screens. Build in attention-resetters when you find yourself anxious and over-engaged, even if it is just a timer on your phone. These won’t fix the problem. But they will lessen its ability to overwhelm you.
Last: Advocate for laws and regulations that diminish the success rate of those trying to hack your attention. If Google sends all fake meeting invites to spam, people will stop using them. If Yahoo doesn’t let emails in all caps go through, marketers won’t send emails in all caps. Apple recently announced a new policy that will make my job harder but will also protect people’s privacy by making it impossible to track when people open emails.
The internet isn’t some immutable cesspool. People built the infrastructure that makes us anxious, irritable, and angry. But that also means that people can build a different infrastructure, one that serves everyone.
Our inboxes don’t need to be full of “OPEN NOW TO MAKE DONALD TRUMP CRY.” We can make something better.
Greg Williams works in digital politics at Faith in Public Life (although opinions are his own). You can yell at him on Twitter @gwilliamsster but he’d prefer if you were kind.