10 Ways to Say Nothing New

Posted by Nishant Shah at Jan 31, 2014 01:35 PM |
The rise of the listicle, a safe, non-thinking information piece that tells us what we already know.
10 Ways to Say Nothing New

Digital Natives: Picture by Indian Express


Nishant Shah's article was published in the Indian Express on January 19, 2014.


I Always Like to begin the New Year with a self-fulfilling prophecy, assured in the fact that like New Year resolutions, it will quickly be forgotten in the attention deficit times that we live in. Nevertheless, it is always a fun exercise, to play Cassandra, and utter ominous things about the time to come. I am looking at my fasterthan-byte feeds online and trying to figure out the new trend that is going to be the absolute death of us in 2014. I did some research (Google search), consulted some experts (asked friends on Facebook),analysed critiques (trolled on Twitter), and looked at current trends (followed funny Tumblrs) and finally have the answer. The thing that we must brace for is the list — or rather the listicle (an article that is written like a list).

Have you noticed it? Almost anything that is anything on the internet lately has been presented to us as a list. There are lists for everything — of things people say, of things people do, of things people want to say about people who do things. On websites in the business of making things go viral (and slightly fermented), the listicle has emerged as the next best thing.

Now, I don’t want us to run away with the idea (10 ways to run away with ideas — coming soon on Viral Nova) that lists are new. Lists have always existed and have been one of the most basic forms of archiving, sorting and storing human knowledge and information. However, the new lists that are doing the rounds on BuzzFeed, Reditt, Viral Nova and everywhere else need attention. The listicle is an incredible performance of the strange, the silly and the deranged. Like reality TV judges, they are empty, cliché-ridden and yet seductive. They are supposed to produce profound truths, give us insights into our everyday practices, harness the wisdom of crowds and help curate overloaded information feeds to distil what is most relevant and useful. In itself, that is a fantastic ambition and for somebody who is constantly moaning about there not being enough time to follow everything on the internet (way too many videos of pandas making friends with wallabies on Vimeo these days), I appreciate the ability that listicles have of reducing read-time and giving us tweet-sized nuggets of wisdom. Bam! Our lives have changed!

And yet, as you look at these lists, you slowly start realising that listicles are significantly empty. They try to pass on the banal, the boring, the insipid and the extraordinarily common-sense as knowledge, information and wisdom. I am randomly looking at the last five listicles on my timeline — 20 reasons why a 20-something would never survive Hunger Games (right, because that’s the message of the books — get children to kill each other!), 31 insanely clever ideas to remodel your new house (a lot of them using chopped up coke bottles and toilet paper rolls for that intimate ambience), 18 ways of discovering happiness through travel (my first rule is “be very rich”), 25 universal horrors of hair removal (let it grow! Let it grow! Let it grow!) and seven ways of making a to-do list that works (get it? Get it? A list about making an efficient list. May I please say #FacePalm?)

So, snide remarks aside (10 ways to let go of sarcasm?) what does this mean for us? Why are listicles so popular? Why are the tech-savvy, educated people online, who could be overthrowing authority (all hail, Snowden) and feeding starving children in a poor country of their choice — why are they all spending the time with listicles? I am proposing that the listicle is the final death of politics, criticality and thought on the internet. We have already seen how online conversations quickly devolve into an exercise in creative name-calling and racist, bigoted bullying. The internet has already shown us that all debates end in accusations of fascism (Godwin’s law) and that anything that you say online is going to offend somebody who will then come back, like the ghost of Christmas past, and haunt you. In the hostile space that the internet has become, not the very least because everybody is not watching porn, searching for pictures of animals, or pirating music and movies, we are all trained to be the saints who were persecuted for their beliefs. There is no such thing as a bad person on the internet. Everybody is smug, holier- than-thou, and even when wrong, are saintly wrong, and thus martyrs. For a medium that was supposed to encourage conversation, unless you are in the company of people you know, the internet has become a hunting ground, where the only thing you can do safely is make a list. And hence, the listicle.

True, once in a while, there are some really cool listicles (though they might lead to mild electrocution or house burning down, but hey, no pain, no gain, right?) and they do help in visualising and transmitting information very fast. At the end of the day, listicles are the space that conversations go to die. The listicle is a safe, non-offensive, non-thinking information piece that tells us what we already know, confirms what we had always suspected, and gives validation to the impressive schools of thoughts like “My grandmother says so” and “I have heard that”. It is a way by which we escape deep thought or engaged talk, basking in the enchantment of our own brilliance, no longer in need of thinking anymore, because look, look how beautiful our thoughts look in the listicle, and look, how many people are sharing it! The listicle has risen and it looks like it is just going to get more popular. Maybe it is time to write a listicle about why we shouldn’t be writing listicles.

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Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and board member of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and is a professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Germany, and is Dean of Research at ArtEZ Graduate School, the Netherlands.