Recycled Ideas: When Popularity and the Highest Bidders Choose What We Read

There are so many things to say. There are so many things to read. I am daily daunted by the number of topics and causes and ways that we can remake the world. I want to be a part of the change, to be a person who uses my energy to make the world a better place for people to live in. But to be honest, sometimes it seems to be a fairly garish and somewhat shallow endeavor.

Here on a blog, in the most ironic of moments, I am conflicted by the way that blogging and the internet have opened up topics and discussions and rants and ideas in ways that didn’t exist in my youth. This can be a beautiful thing. Without this burgeoning exchange of life, there are so many things that we would never know or think about or engage in. There is change that happens in these verbal waves crashing together on our collective screens, and good change should be honored and adored in any form.

But if I am completely honest, I sometimes find the deluge overwhelming and a bit seedy. People write about popular topics ad nauseum, blogs begin to echo each other, good ideas get buried underneath flashy/cutesy banners that advertise us to death, and we slog toward change. In my cynical moments, I am forced to recognize that people jump on topics, hot topics, which will raise their SEO. They drive conversations to get hits. They provide pop-ups that invade your screen so that you will give them your email. They tweet their fingers off in search of followers. They market and market and then market some more, and in such a glut, the same recipes show up on 57 sites all citing each other as inspiration with only slight changes distinguishing them, and the same topical articles circulate dizzyingly through the news and blog channels.

We have transitioned into a world where we can never get enough. We can’t have enough readers, we can’t read enough information. We love our excess because hidden in the excess are the last four letters of what we are all chasing—success.

I am not inured to this trend. I write about topics that I think people will want to read. I walk the line of being a bit revelatory but not too inflammatory. I market, I post, I tweet a little. I fall asleep at night wishing more people followed my blog, and I wonder how many people will someday buy my little book that is at the editor’s this week. I am not immune, but I am a little bit scared.

I am wondering where all this is going. And I am wondering what the glut is costing us. In a world where we can all put our thoughts out there, there is no doubt that good emerges. However, in such a social experiment, plenty of drivel emerges as well. And if it is packaged correctly, it may rise. So much of what I read is to sell something—a brand, an image, a feeling, a book. This is not bad. We need to work and sell to eat. We live in an economic environment that demands that we put our shoulder to the grindstone and grind away. And I admire that. I admire the people who have quit their jobs and provide for their families through the more ephemeral world of the web.

But this generation of ideas that are sold to the masses is not without risk. There are a lot of people saying good things, but where are the people saying the revelatory? There are plenty of people amassing fans and building empires, but where are the paradigm-changers? There are plenty of people selling us their easy-to-digest ideas, but where are the people who are saying what we need to hear and do not want to?

No doubt some of them are in the super popular world of the web, but historically popularity has not chosen well. And to be completely blunt, ideas that are strapped to economic enterprises need to be questioned and measured and taken hold of carefully.

And so in the midst of all of the words, we become a culture inundated by people who can sell ideas, regardless of whether those ideas are good or not. 

I have no doubt that there are good thinkers and doers in the world, but also am fairly convinced that most of the people who are thinking and doing in the ways that we need to help us become the world we want to be are not blogging or tweeting or spending their time trying to sell us their thoughts with flashy websites and swag.

Here as I venture into the world of publishing, I know that my position is contradictory to my actions. I blog, obviously. I am deciding to publish my own book and sell it. I think it’s good, and I think it’s worth reading. And I know that the state of selling words and ideas in our current world is the very thing that makes this possible for me. And I am thankful for that.

But like everything in life, there are two sides to any coin.

Even in the midst of the beauty that is created by the movement to let us all get our words out there, I think the selection process of what becomes culturally significant is dangerous. The article that made the most people get their ire up gets flooded with hits. The video that made us laugh, no matter how dumb, rises. And our whole lives become a popularity contest. We watch what has been gathered for us by news outlets and buzzfeed in the hopes that their choices will drive us to consume advertising. We read blogs that are well-advertised or that pop up on our screens. We read what is easy. We read what is provided for us. We read what is popular.

I guess I truly believe that deep, revelatory thoughts can be found in a blog or in a well-circulated article or maybe even a twitter feed. I hope that on occasion they even make their way onto this blog. If I didn’t think I were changing the world, I might not be inclined to write here. But I also think that good thoughts take time and energy and emerge in places that we don’t suspect.

We have become a culture who perhaps accidentally thinks that if it is important, it will find its way onto our screen, or it will be in the first three pages of a google search. But that’s not how it works.

Sometimes change comes from unexpected places. The elderly, a population who often does not engage online, can be full of rich thoughts, and I wonder how much of their collective wisdom our generation is missing as we engorge ourselves on these new technologies. And more often than not, fabulous ideas come from children, a population that has been mercilessly co-opted by parents and adults to illustrate our lives online while their little voices remain relatively silent. And then there are just the people who write and think and develop and engage in communities, but never become big. They never hit their break. They never tweet. Their writings never pop up on our screen. And yet in the midst of all the good they are doing, they still have something to say.

The internet is self selective in enormous ways. In research there is a serious concern about collecting data that is not riddled with selection bias because this kind of data will not provide a true picture of what we are trying to see. I am concerned that the internet is doing the same thing for our generation of thinkers. The selection is highly biased and results in us all reading the ideas of the few that market well and become big. And because so many of these ideas are at our fingertips and fill up our days, I wonder how many of us search out more beyond the web and find the thinkers and writers and dreamers who are content to simply dig into the world around them and develop ways of seeing the world without throwing it into our feeds or onto our screens.

I imagine that this has a terminus, that there will be a correction. I think that someday we will long for the richer, the deeper, the more transformative than what is haphazardly shuttled around the web, regurgitated again and again. At least I truly hope that we will. And I truly believe that what is good will stay. And what is bad will fall away. And what is drivelly popular will stay longer than it should.

But in the mean time, I want to seek out voices that are telling truth, and preferably fairly original and revelatory truth. To find the people who are saying what people don’t want to hear and therefore won’t give a thumbs ups and a share, but are telling us what we need to be aware of. To watch and learn from the people who are doing the good in the world all around me. To find the people who will still be saying the good even when the easily digestible court of public opinion is gone and the swag is old, and we are left with only the words and the thoughts that live in them. Because it is the thoughts that inhabit the words and actions of deep, loving, and thoughtful people that will ultimately change the world.


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