The Scourge of Listicles

I recently returned to Medium after a few years off when the team behind the app embarked on a slew of experiments that put me off the whole thing. It has been quite the experience coming back after so long. 

Just as I was getting used to the new digs, I noticed an avalanche of self-help content bearing down wherever I looked. You know the type: the optimised-to-be-clicked-on stuff that drives “engagement” (and thus dollars) by referencing the wonderful lives of famous people, new studies or bestsellers (or studies that become bestsellers), and everything you can learn from these people or studies or some famous over-referenced (and frequently unread) ancient text—The Art of War, The Mediations, that sort of thing.

The classic form of these posts is a numbered list of light condensed points designed to allow easy reading on a smartphone and ready sharing into the global stream of viral digital content. In short, a listicle.  

I cannot get away from listicles on Medium. And really, they are everywhere; the Global Order of Internet Content Producers appears to have resolved that this is the only way to write online and be read. It might just be that I am stuck on the wrong side of the algorithm (our new overlord), or I am only the latest person to discover that the entire site is a constellation of listicles with the singular purpose of highlighting my inadequacies and all the things I need to hack. To open the app is to be pummelled by unsolicited advice on every and anything: how to sleep better, eat better, exercise better (or eat and exercise better), earn more, write better, speak better, what books to read, what Steve Jobs and Elon Musk can teach us, 7 Quotes From Marcus Aurelius that will change my perspective on life

It is utterly ridiculous. Yet for a good part of my life, this was just the sort of cotton candy “wisdom” I clung to and allowed to govern my affairs. I was awash with feelings of discontent, believing I did not measure up, constantly looking to become someone other than I was, looking to people whose realities and contexts differed greatly from mine. I read a lot of books written by middle class Californians; but why should I relate to their experience except  in that vague way every human can relate to every other human? Why should their stories inspire me? The experience of a middle class Californian growing up in the 60s or 70s is about as removed from that of a middle class Nigerian growing up in Nigeria in the 1990s as it is possible to be. (Here we see the limitations of that oft-repeated, little understood economic term “middle class.”)

But here’s the thing: everyone thinks someone else has the missing link, the secret sauce, that hidden truth. We are captive to the notion that there is a system out there, unknown to us, that will enable us to have a better go at life. Never mind that some of these “things” are as basic as… sleeping or drinking water. Never mind that there is no way to tell what is good advice and what is just something that has worked in a very specific context that does not extend to our own unique circumstances. We are infinitely suggestible, and we latch on to anything that sounds vaguely like self-improvement gospel.

Let me give you a sense. For a time I was completely taken by the ideas from Napoleon Hill’s mega bestseller Think and Grow Rich. The book (and every motivational book before and since) explicitly assumes that there is some secret in the universe that the wealthy and powerful have discovered and tapped into which made them into what they are, and you too can experience the same outcome—*wink wink* you can be wealthy too—if you just imitate them. Note: this does not refer to a trade secret or an economic opportunity or arbitrage. Rather, what the writers would have us believe is that success is down to something far more mystical; some force invisible to people of weaker wills. Do what these successful people do and you will be fine. But if you fail, clearly you did not imitate them well enough—and whatever you get is on you. Hill, writing in the 1930s, uses famously rich men like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, J. D. Rockefeller, and a whole assembly line of 19th and early 20th century industrialists to make his point. It does not surprise me that in 2020 the subjects of this same genre are a new set of brash billionaires—Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Mark Cuban and others. And it isn’t just billionaires or celebrities; any popular figure or study can be established as an authority with which to condescend to us. Sometimes it is just a guy who lost weight and now has a god complex.

Now, not every listicle is garbage. If a post on how to get healthier makes a point as explosive and revealing as “drink more water,” for instance, well, you have to give that to the writer. But like essentially every post on the internet, there is just enough truth and useful advice to obscure the fundamental silliness of the entire message. And this is generally what a listicle is: a bulletpoint list of mostly bad advice with a sprinkling of something worthwhile.

I am hoping I escape the algorithm at some point. If I can’t, I may have to wish Medium goodbye finally. That would be a shame, they have some good stuff on there.

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