The stupid Internet news spat du jour features Ezra Klein accusing BuzzFeed of “straight stealing” one of the Washington Post’s features.

Did BuzzFeed plagiarize the WaPo’s Max Fisher? Did it re-report its excellent foreclosure series without pointing to the Post?

No. BuzzFeed borrowed a style of clickbait headline the Post has used to successfully manipulate our lizard brains into increasing his site’s pageviews, for which it will be richly rewarded with lucrative ads for free stamp catalogs and school-news aggregators:

Here’s the Post’s headline from two weeks ago:

9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask

And here’s BuzzFeed yesterday:

9 Questions About The New iPhone You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask

Asking for credit for such a format is 1 Question I’d Be Too Embarrassed To Ask. Particularly since, as Heidi Moore and many others point out on Twitter, the Washington Post itself ripped off the “Too Embarrassed To Ask” format from some unknown progenitor so far back in Internet history we might as well call him Australopithecus Clickbaitus.

Here’s a post from the Mindbodydoc blog in 2008 headlined, “All you ever wanted to know about farting, but were too embarrassed to ask.” Waupaca Naturals wrote “Everything you wanted to know about acne, but were too embarrassed to ask” back in 2005. Then there’s my favorite: “THE TWENTY QUESTIONS YOU WERE TOO EMBARRASSED TO ASK” about Crest Depository Instruments, from The Association of Corporate Trustees in 2001.

But we actually can trace the history of this concept and most of it goes straight back to Woody Allen.

And then there’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask,” a sex manual that not only predated the Woody Allen film by three years, but also beat the actual Internet by four months.

I expect the Washington Post will now update its “9 Questions You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask” ™ features with “inspired by Dr. David Reuben.”

Anything else would be straight stealing.


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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.