36 characters is not enough

A week or two ago, a BBC News headline popped up on my RSS reader. The title said, “Ancient cave women ‘left home’.” Typical, I thought and sniffed in disgust at my monitor. I stared at the headline a moment longer, pondering an unhappy, dirty, hunched-over woman with bad hair sweeping a cave, tending a fire, and caring for unhappy, dirty children. In a flash, I realized my imaginings were preposterous. Where would she get the broom? That thought piqued my curiosity, and I clicked through.

On the full article page, headline read, “Ancient cave women ‘left childhood homes’.” Ahh, I thought. That’s different. In fact, that means sort of the opposite of what the short headline implied. And now we’re on to something.

Nature is smart. Our genetic code (and the code of all the animals that I can think of off the top of my head) is hardwired to prevent incest. Survival of the species is not enough. Nature intends for creatures to thrive by the resulting reproductive problems.

With lots of mammals, bears and lions for instance, adolescents are left on their own when they near sexual maturity. In the case of bears, a mother abandons her cubs around 17 months of age, when she is ready to for her next chance at reproduction. This is partly due to the fact that she won’t have the resources to for care for her teenagers if she is caring for a new litter. And partly because her previous mate may not be her future mate. She needs to protect the cubs from a potentially territorial male who will think nothing of killing them and her if she gets in the way. This makes good sense from the perspective of evolution even if the life of a bear seems lonely and estranged.

A lion’s situation is slightly less grim and a whole lot more social. A female gets to stay in the pride of her birth for as long as she chooses. In most cases that means she gets to spend her whole life with her mother, sisters, aunts, nieces, cousins, and daughters. They share chores like hunting and caring for cubs. When the boys become sexually mature around two years of age, they get chased out of the pride. As unhappy a fate as that sounds, they get to take their brothers with them. They roam and form bachelor prides. Joining together with other young males, they hunt and sleep and laze about until they are ready to rule their own prides. All in all, it’s not a bad deal. Diversity in the gene pool is ensured, and siblings get to stick together.

Reading the article about cave women was the first time I really thought about what this means for humans. We know this is a good practice, avoiding incest. Every country in the developed world has legislation against it. (Although I have no idea how you would go about enforcing a law like that. It’s not like pulling a guy over and checking if he’s wearing a seatbelt.) But in cave man and cave woman days, how did they know? Maybe they didn’t know. Not really. Maybe making out with your sister or your cousins has always been weird. Or maybe the women were claimed in tribal warfare. Perhaps they were kicked out of their tribes when menstruation began. There’s no way to know based on the information gathered so far.

I’m fascinated by this. I’m fascinated by cultural history and how we are and are not like the other mammals. I’m even fascinated by my own accidental misunderstanding of the article. The idea that ancient cave women were left home—I assumed that mean they were left at home as domestic help while the men were doing all the “real work.” I wish I could take an Anthropology elective for my ALM at Harvard Extension, but it won’t count toward my English Lit degree so it will have to wait.

But, what got me started on this blog post was that headline—the first headline—the one that was so misleading. My misunderstanding (I think) was easy to understand. The title said, “Ancient cave women ‘left home’.” This was the short version of the longer title. This was the one that appeared on my feed, the version that prompted me to navigate to the full article and read more. This could have been intentional, written by a witty copywriter with an eye on the click-through statistics. But more likely it was done by a person in the BBC’s online department who helps manage Web content. That person could have a writing background and editorial control over news stories, or she could be an intern who believes the limit on the RSS feed headlines is somewhere in the neighborhood of 36 characters. Except it’s not. Because there is no such limitation on the feed. Which makes the situation a whole lot worse. The worse situation is that the content management system used by BBC News probably includes a content type called something like “short headline”. This is the content that is used in RSS feeds. And the person managing Web articles is forced to shorten the standard headline to conform to the character limit of this field. And, voila, we get RSS headlines that mean something very different from the standard article headline. This works as long as subscribers click through, attracted by rather than repelled by the short headlines. And it works as long as it doesn’t happen so often that frequent readers feel duped or annoyed and stop subscribing to the feed.

It doesn’t work if the meanings of articles are radically changed to meet the limitations of the software managing the content. The mantra “content is king” has been drilled into us for so long, we’ve almost forgotten that the content must be trustworthy. Misleading headlines damage journalistic integrity and a reader’s trust in the provider of the news. Lacking trust in the content, readership drops and a Web site and a brand can be wrecked. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, that 36 character limit in the hands of an unskilled person can destroy a news source. If you’ve only got 36 characters, choose them wisely.

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