As part of my digital spring clean, I’ve been trying to kick the terrible habit I have of seeing an interesting looking article, opening it in a new tab and then never reading it. I end up with so many tabs open that the favicons are no longer visible and I have no idea what any of the tabs are. I decided to sort through the tabs I already had open and as I was doing so I read a few of them. I was surprised to find that most of them weren’t very interesting. They had click-bait titles that had drawn me in, but actually the articles themselves weren’t very substantive – they were fluff.
I recently read an article by Slate Vault’s Rebecca Onion about this issue and in particular about the spate of @HistoryInPics Twitter accounts that have become popular recently. The article argues that these accounts are not only simplifying history (and in some cases using photoshopped images), but they also deny the reader a chance to engage with the deeper complexities of history. The @HistoryInPics accounts don’t attribute in the majority of cases and they don’t provide links to websites where people can read up on the topic. It was a refreshing and eye-opening perspective, not least because I know that in the past I’ve been guilty of retweeting and favoriting these images. It was also refreshing because I think there is a tendency, particularly in social media, to emphasis the importance of making topics light and accessible. It’s something that I’ve had to balance in my own work – the need to simplify a topic in order to make it accessible at the risk of denying to reader the chance to broaden their understanding and be challenged intellectually.
After reading Onion’s article, I became much more aware of similar examples of catchy, easily digestible content that simplifies the wider issues. This sort of content comes in the form of lists, short blog posts and, in particular, picture quotes. One that caught my attention, and was shared by a number of my Facebook friends recently, is this picture quote:
Now, whilst I agree with the overall sentiment of this quote, I also found myself asking – is that really the case? My understand is that renewable energy can’t completely replace fossil fuels . Not if we want to carry on with business as usual. What is needed, as well as renewable energy, is less consumption. My second thought was – why is Mark Ruffalo talking about renewable energy? Not because I don’t think celebrities should talk about political issues, but because I was genuinely intrigued. The image has been liked 2,695 times and shared over 1,000 times. Picture quotes like this perform well on social media, in terms of likes and shares. They’re easy to absorb and easy to digest. But the image doesn’t answer my questions and nor does the person who posted it provide a link to any further information, not even to the original article from which the quote appears to have been taken. If you read the full interview with Mark Ruffalo, you discover that he is in fact campaigning against fracking in New York state, but that doesn’t necessarily come across from the short quote.
The above image comes from a Facebook Page called Give a Shit about Nature. It shares a lot of picture quotes and images, but the page owner also sells t-shirts and a percentage of the profit goes towards tree planting. However, I’ll leave the debate over whether Pages like this make a real difference, for another time.
I don’t always go online to be enlightened and informed. Sometimes I just want the easily digestible fluff. That’s why I usually find myself on Instagram after work – nice pictures with attractive filters don’t require me to think very much. After a long day, I just want to passively absorb. But I’m also slowly becoming aware of the fact that this passive absorption is often my default state online, even when I have no reason for it. When I could be reading interesting and informing articles, I’m lazily skimming through my Twitter feed. When I could be reading or writing, I’m liking people’s photos on Instagram. When I should be bothered, I can’t be bothered. I’m hoping it’s something I can work on – spending less time on Facebook certainly seems to be helping. Instagram and Buzzfeed lists have a time and a place and there are times when my brain just needs a rest, but time is precious and I want to spend mine wisely.
Perhaps this is a good quote to end on:
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
– Annie Dillard