Last week, an article was published on Huffington Post Canada (my fave offshoot of The Huffington Post) titled The Decline Of The Millennial Empire. The article basically said that self-absorbed lists on the internet are rotting millennials from the inside, because they perpetuate “a false culture — one that’s characterized by sweeping generalizations and empty consumer habits.” That by pigeonholing ourselves into a bunch of loose stereotypes perpetuated by a handful of people sitting behind laptops, we’re happily diluting our cultural worth and intellectual potential.
As a person who sits behind a computer and gets paid money to make these very lists on a daily basis, I do not disagree. Listicles like 23 Soul-Crushing Truths About Being 23 and 52 Things You’ll Go Through The 52 Weeks After Graduation, both creations by yours truly, are predicated on exploiting the collective identity of a mass populous. They’re framed in an undeniably definitive, arguably abrasive nature that basically says this is what this in-group is like, and if you disagree, you’re probably an outlier. From “facts” about being 23 to generalizations about growing up in Wisconsin, listmakers create the narrative for you–by attempting to explain “your life, exactly”, we’re indirectly attempting to construct “your life, exactly.”
The author of the Huff Post piece (a marketing agency), explains why this is bad:
“The problem is that we don’t just read these lists — we internalize their characterizations. And slowly, we find ourselves not only nodding along to, but celebrating a culture that isn’t necessarily ours. We perpetuate a cycle we don’t even understand with our viewership and interaction.”
Perhaps. But when we attempt to characterize the decoding process of an entire generation, aren’t we also falling victim to the exact thing we’re arguing against? And aren’t we, arguably, only focusing on a very tiny corner of a much larger picture?
First off, the only reason why anyone makes these lists is because people read them. BuzzFeed and Thought Catalog make a milkshake, and millennials are all like yo, this milkshake is sooooo good. These lists and self-absorbed articles boil down to simple supply and demand–if no one consumed them, nobody would publish them. But people continue to consume lists with same voracity they talk about binge watching on Netflix, so websites continue making lists. Which may be the fault of the website, except that the website is a business. So for a website like Thought Catalog, taking away lists would be like a restaurant taking away half of their most popular food items, and then replacing them with the stuff that people never really order.
The HuffPo article recognizes this, and it concludes by telling people to go to a different restaurant (“Even if an article looks enticing, refuse to contribute to its site traffic and ad profits.”). I, on the other hand, think that you should go to whatever restaurant you feel like going to–one where you enjoy the food, and one that has a solid quality of food relative to its price. This is important to keep in mind, because many of these 20-something articles aren’t exactly five-star restaurants, nor are they exactly trying to be. They’re more like a cheeseburger and fries–you know what you’re getting, and you’re not investing everything you’ve got into the meal in front of you. They get the job done, exactly how you expected it to.
Secondly, this idea of culture being “characterized by sweeping generalizations and empty consumer habits” isn’t anything new. Since the beginning of time (so like, the 70s), for-profit media has been created with this sort of “Oprah Effect” very much in mind. Value-affirming media is always going to exist. It’s why Republicans and Fox News sustain one another, and it’s why we continue to go see the same romantic comedy year after year. Thinking about it this way, an article about the 43 Ways Millennials Can Live Better isn’t that much different than a sitcom about a suburban family of four who gets into arguments, but ultimately loves each other. They’re both commodifying values, and they’re continuing to do so because the consumer doesn’t disagree.
The Huffington Post article recognizes the reality of the current cycle, and encourages millennials to ignore the urge to click. But my question is, why? 43 Things Only Farmers Understand isn’t news, and it isn’t trying to uphold itself to a supreme standard of journalistic integrity. It’s purely entertainment. And it’s what entertainment has always been; no different than a movie about three best friends celebrating their friend’s 21st birthday, or a standup comedy bit about what people who shop at Trader Joes are like. They’re simply commentaries on the world around us.
Whether or not these commentaries are of quality is purely an individual judgement call, and the fact that this sort of entertainment is intrinsically linked back to business will ensure that they’re always approved by the majority–because if they aren’t, traffic will slow, box office sales will drop, and the business will cease to exist. I think this idea applies to both a website as a whole and individual writers. If a list-maker makes a list someone thinks is terrible, that person will probably not be following the author on twitter. If a website has too many shitty articles, that website will lose its cultural resonance.
Whenever I watch Football on Sundays, I’m always reminded that CBS is America’s most watched network, and that CSI is the most watched show in America. I have never watched CSI, and I don’t really know anybody who watches CSI. But people clearly watch CSI, and people clearly enjoy CSI. I’m guessing that CSI is no Breaking Bad or The Wire, but to assume that it’s even trying to be seems a wee bit judgemental. Maybe CSI is to television as cheeseburgers and fries are to restaurants, as millennial lists are to the internet. You know what you’re getting, the investment is low, and the numbers show people don’t disapprove.
Adam Smith talked about the invisible hand, the self-correcting force in a free market that ensures the market will always settle upon a product distribution method (for the internet, type of content) and price (level emotional/intellectual investment) that are the most beneficial to the collective community. With content on the internet, we’ve got the invisible tweet–the invisible “like,” the invisible email. Again, these listicles may not be the highest form of art, but there is clearly a demand. When that demand drops–when people stop clicking, retweeting, and pinning–they’ll cease to exist.
But for now, I can give you at least 33 surefire reasons it’s what we want.