Non-Journalism: Why Do We Read It?
Throughout my studies of writing and all its impossible truths, I've never quite been able to stop imagining that one day, upon my thrust into elegant, floral-scented adulthood, I'd be stooped upon a moss-coated rock in some field somewhere devouring the words of Nietzsche or Wordsworth or Proust (inexplicably developing a sudden-onset French accent, of course). And yet, it's four a.m., and here I sit, 24-years-old, educated as fuck, yet somehow neck-deep into a slideshow quiz that, aside from clearly shaping the future of my life as I know it, most urgently aims to determine the which celebrity's personality would mesh best with my father's (Will Smith's, b.t.w.). (Accurate).
How have my developed interests, free time, and that once unquenchable thirst for knowledge swan-dived into this? This mess of gifs and listicles and big, fat, fluff content? More importantly, how has this passively scanned, heavily click-baited medium sprung from the likewise numerical, micro-categorized format of 4Chan boards and subreddits and into the front-lines of the modern journalistic scope?
For starters, the moment I dial down my constantly self-checked pretension (and ethereal beauty) and focus on the bigger picture, I can understand how our place within the information era, and thus a rapidly updating world, would call for such a format. The ease with which we can reach our hands in through a keyboard and out on the other side of the planet to simultaneously educate ourselves on foreign events/disasters/policies and keep informed of the lives of friends/ classmates/professors/celebrities/ etc., means our needs for data-reception have already taken on a new shape, whether we want to admit it or not. The fact that we CAN receive boundless information and entertainment, means that we WANT to receive it. Think of tapas; if I didn't HAVE to choose just one dish, if I could sample several, why wouldn't I? These articles are the tapas of journalism today.
Listicles are efficient; they eliminate the middleman, or most of the time, several middlemen. They can be a one-stop shop at times for an audience lacking the time to check into multiple platforms. However, when the subject at hand is not news headlines containing need-to-know information, nor hurricane updates or cool advances in modern science, but rather the 357 Ways the Kardashians' Noses Best Reflect the Light of the Sun, we, as writers/editors/audiences, got some 'splainin to do.
This particular genre of viral content, if you'll allow me to gracelessly and aggressively push yet another bizzaro metaphor on you, is the Fetty Wop of the journalism world. Which, for those of you who... ya know... have pulses and who roll your eyes at the hundredth guy on the subway who evidently lost his headphones in a tragic house fire and thus feels the overwhelming need to blast his playlists over external speakers, should ring true without further explanation. They are invasively crawling up every feed and every site. Clawing their way in through outlets and sites that readers otherwise rely on for their informative, hard-hitting nature, and therefore find themselves displaced and confused. Much like me wondering why I'm left to listen to this shitty, shitty song when I BROUGHT my headphones.
This, however, isn't to say this content is without its own merits. Everyone needs levity in their lives. Everyone. From the nurse pulling three doubles in a row to the college student suffering daily panic attacks. Clickbait, as hesitant as I am to say it, does more than benefit its host by expanding their reach and revenue; it distracts. It allows something, for some small, repetitive, soothing moment of the day, to be mindless. The pop song streaming in the bathroom. Or on the treadmill. Or in the bar. If everything was asking the tough questions and provoking the tough answers all of the time, none of us would ever get out of bed, and society as we know it would crumble. And my father would never find out through a weird, disjointed text exchange that he is basically Will Smith.
Listen, sometimes we just wanna read fart jokes and look at gifs of drunk Harry Potter actors. Sometimes the depression or exam or ominous texts from our bosses can wait just a moment while all of this complex, overbearing planet funnels in through this numbered, simplified, list.
But (and this is a heavy but [resist the butt joke light! Resist it! Stay here with me!]), what happens when levity invades the spaces where insight should also live?
Avoidance and entertainment and Will Smith are all fine and good until you realize they solve absolutely none of the problems you had before you fell under their comforting veil of nothingness and catchy beats.
The fact of the matter is, when it comes to sharing and opening up a dialogue and promoting the voices that have spoken to us, I will ALWAYS reach more people with a collection of photoshopped tacos or a list of synonyms for poop than I will with a poem. Or a personal aside about growth and hardship. Or an interview with someone who inspires me to continue waking the fuck up in the morning.
Raw, hard-to-face honesty in media has a tendency to be labeled as oversharing, or tiring, or not something worth our time. So sometimes we find ourselves a little empty, maybe even a little panicked, after a listicle binge that momentarily solved everything. Sometimes we need substance, primarily from someplace and someone that doesn't know us personally.
We may be in the information era, but we are also in an era of great sociopolitical uproar and voice. We are also in an era where we are shocked to hear of comedian suicides, as if we had believed all along that frivolity could sustain us, could patch up all our holes. Listicles and quizzes are easy and funny and relatable as all hell. But we need difficult, too. We need raw, too. We need to write it. And to read it. And to share it. Too.
Feature photo: Hannah Wei/ VIA Unsplash.