Or there may be, but I’m not going to list them out here. But headlines like that are just one contributing factor to a big problem: the continued erosion of critical thought and deliberate consumption and the hive-mind sharing that mocks the very independence of thinking that we praise the web for giving to us.
Have I written titles with numbers in them or how-to posts? You bet. Just yesterday. So, bathe in the hypocrisy for a moment if you wish. However, they’re starting to make me feel dirty. I regret doing it. I’ve finally reached the place where I’m just not going to use them anymore. They’re a gimmick. I don’t need them.
I’d rather have six people read a blog post that actually care about reading the information and contributing to the discussion than hordes who want to skim a list, hope they absorb a few things by osmosis, and believe that they now have ALL THE SHORTCUTS they’ll ever need to write great content or be influential or write a book or start a business or find success. Or even sixteen words and phrases they’re using wrong (and so they can just stop thinking about the rest of them). It’s starting to become painful.
The reason people write this stuff is because people click on it (whether they read it or not is still debatable to me). Humans are creatures of habit, and we follow the path of least resistance more often than not. We want someone else to do the hard work of thinking for us – even if that means breaking something down into an arbitrary number of parts or steps – so that we can absorb something more easily. And trust me, they are arbitrary.
The writers like me that have done it know exactly what we’re doing, too. It’s subtle manipulation to gain a read because we know the human condition is drawn to ease, simplicity, and summary. If the goal is traffic and mass eyeballs, carving something up into digestible, visible, clever little pieces does it beautifully. Some of that content is also really incredibly smart. But not all of it. The crappy stuff is nearly indistinguishable from the good stuff on the basis of format alone.
We back up the value of “easy to consume” content by saying that attention spans are at an all time low, that we have information overload, that people just can’t process big chunks of information.
If that’s universally true, then I’m writing for myself more than ever before. Because I think we’re capable of more than that.
Just yesterday, a well-know business magazine put out, under their masthead, a blog post from a freelancer that was absolute dreck. It was full of clever language that said nothing at all, generalities that have been pummeled in every business book known to humanity, and moreover, many of the conclusions were complete and utter garbage. But hey, if it gets a click…and it did. All over the place. People sharing it that I consider smart, accomplished professionals with comments like “Yes, this.”
I’m willing to believe that a few of those people really did agree with the content, and that we are philosophically simply on different pages there.
But the majority of them are sharing an article because their friends shared it. Because someone they respected tweeted about it, so it MUST be good. Because it’s in Important Business Magazine so surely it’s a useful, worthwhile and well-thought piece of content. Because they scanned a title and a few subheads, thought it sounded halfway smart, and they needed to feed their content machine so someone would retweet them.
That’s so frustrating.
We have all of this information at our fingertips. We can get smarter exponentially faster and find the information that will better inform our choices and decisions and expand our perspective, or we can numb our braincells with frightening speed and never have to think critically about anything again because the Almighty Internet will simply tell us what to think and what to share and who should be the authority on something because their post on Twitter tips went crazy.
I don’t want to write like this. I probably did at one point, because it was easier. Because that’s what “real” bloggers did. Or because when all else fails, churn out a “how to tips” post on something and check off the box for the day. Guilty. I admit it. At this point in my writing maturity, I regret settling when I knew I was doing it. You also deserve more.
I don’t want to check off boxes anymore. Not when I write, not when I read, not when I share.
I would rather dig and find the one article today that drives me to think harder and smarter about my life and what I do than be the sharing machine that pumps out a dozen articles a day from the same, tired sources in the same, tired form saying the same, tired stuff. I want to be a resource, sure. And I want to be “social”, whatever that means, by pointing to work that I think is really well done. Today that might be tons of things. Tomorrow it might be nothing at all.
I call bullshit on mindless spreading of mediocre information. We are smarter than this.
I know for a fact that there are brilliant, hard working, incisive people in my midst. I talk to you all the time, meet you at events, see you online. I’m challenging you – us – to do better. To look at an article and say “Are those really the six steps? What’s missing? Do I agree, disagree, and why? How does this help me or someone else? What does this make me think about next?” To comment intelligently. To write your own post. Even to sit quietly and say nothing at all but think through what you’re reading.
Critical thinking is so absent sometimes it hurts me. (Which is not the same as vitriol or snark or that guy that constantly has to play the contrarian. You know that guy.)
But critical thinking, meaning the ability to question your own assumptions and the assumptions of others. If you agree vehemently with something and think it’s the most brilliant idea that you’ve ever heard, to practice the art of articulating why you feel that way. To apply some reasoning to your emotions, for better or for worse. To look a piece of research and wonder about the sources of the information or the bias of the analyst or the motivation for the company who sponsored the study. To know that the author who wrote the best-selling book is still capable of turning out an article that’s not so great (and that that’s perfectly normal, human, and okay, not cause for an internet uprising).
Thoughtfulness takes more time. Accept that.
When the giant flood of information threatens to make us drop our standards, lean back, and become mentally sluggish and obese, we have to snap the hell out of it.
The web can and will transform the way we communicate, work, think. It’s up to us to decide that the transformation will be something to be proud of.