The Quiet Tyranny of Online Tips

What I am about to say will smack of hypocrisy. But I’ll say it anyway, because I think it’s true.

The growing popularity of blogs that offer advice in the form of take-home tips is dangerous.

Disclosure: I enjoy a set of wise, well-crafted tips as much as the next person. They provide elegantly simple guideposts for coping with real challenges, both large and small. Their value can even be proved, as people derive measurable benefits from what they read. Indeed, I have written quite a few of these tips for my recent blog at HBR.org, and I like to think they are useful. People who consume them tell me that I’m not deluding myself. So what’s the harm?

It’s, in part, the addictive allure of ready-made things. They give us what we need when we need it. And the more they serve us well, the more we seek them out. Each one provides a tasty reward, with all the flavor and portability of a chicken nugget. But unlike fast food, ready-made advice does not come at any obvious price to the individual, such as weight gain.

The hidden danger, it seems to me, is not in what these tips are or what they do, but in what they can displace if we’re not careful. Given their immediate rewards and apparent lack of risk, their popularity increases and content producers step up to meet the demand for items that promise “how to,” “five steps,” or “the secret.” In the process, we start to get fewer pieces in which writers (even the good ones) actually wrestle with a problem rather than serving up a pat solution. Slowly but surely, fewer online offerings plant rich seeds in the minds of readers; instead, many of them hand over, to borrow John Gardner‘s nearly 50-year-old metaphor, “cut flowers.”

“Who has time for real essays?” you might ask. Well, for one thing, they need not be long. Actually, many of the long ones don’t really earn their length; they often grow an entire intellectual plant for the reader, in large part to show what a brilliant gardener the writer is. Precious few demand or invite any more from the beholder than cut flowers do, even if they deserve more awe. But does either stay with me, the reader, for the long term? One influences my opinion of the writer; the other influences my habits. Neither transforms my mind.

The habit-changing pieces are the seductive ones, of course. Even though I still have to put in follow-up work to alter the way I behave, I have my trusty manual in tow, and the ease with which I can pocket it pleases me instantly. I may simply click away, or I may post a comment about what I have just read. Then I’m on my merry way. Whatever my method of departure, my visit has been logged and my appetite assumed. Reader, writer, and online publisher feed the habit. More tips, please. Coming right up!

It’s all good. We’re all better for the experience, aren’t we? I, for one, will continue to read — and to write — these practical pieces. I’m addicted to my own chicken nuggets. In a Styrofoam take-away container. Next to my vase of cut flowers.

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About Steven DeMaio
Steven DeMaio teaches English and math at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences in Somerville, Massachusetts. He also works as a freelance editor and writer. This is a continuation of his blog that ran for 10 months in 2009 on HBR.org.

18 Responses to The Quiet Tyranny of Online Tips

  1. Steven,
    Good luck on your new blog.
    I think that this is not a crazy move, rather a smart one. Your content is valuable. We, your readers, will join you here too.
    Yaniv

  2. Clay says:

    I would add to that the blogs that offer Top 10 list of the Best (insert something). They dilute our desire to seek higher quality and alternatives.

    Regarding “How To” blogs, there are some that have neat projects that help people learn new skills, such as the Makezine blog: http://blog.makezine.com/

    p.s. I also quit my job at what people would call the worst possible time. I always look forward to your posts and perspectives on life.

  3. Alana Renfro says:

    Steven, I have read each of your HarvardBusiness.org postings with delight and often accompanied by a moleskine notebook and a hot cup of coffee; at times the coffee ends up on the notebook, but that simply adds character. Often I go back and re-read my notes from your reflections and shared enlightenment whenever I have a moment. In light of that, *raising right hand* I will be an avid reader of Working for Yourself and wish you heartfelt renewal, joy and continuous discovery in the depth of your journey and paradigms in this new year.

  4. David says:

    Makes sense to me for you to transition to your own space. Keep up the work and continue to pay forward.

    I “retired” at 57 a couple of years ago, so I’m in your corner. dlc

  5. David Zinger says:

    Steven:

    Keep changing and all the best on the new blog.

    David

  6. Lisa says:

    I’m glad you’ve decided to take this on the road! Will look forward to reading your posts here…

  7. Hello Steven,
    I liked to read your posts on HarvardBusiness.org and will keep reading your posts on your own blog. What about adding the new subscribe via E-Mail function?
    Best wishes from Shanghai,
    Ansgar

  8. Tom Harvey says:

    Steven ..

    Ditto .. I suspect E-mail subscription function coming.

    About 10 years ago when I was in the middle of my doctoral work, I remember reading an article about the drawbacks of “list logic”. I wish I could recall the source. The premise was the same.

    Good luck!

  9. Thank you all for following me from the Harvard Business site — and for your very supportive comments.

    Ansgar and Tom, the email subscription function should now be available. Let me know if it does not work for you.

  10. Prashant says:

    How do you store your chicken nuggets to then carve personal habits out of it. I mean to then start following it religiously.

    And if you store it in a way you will tell you are storing then how do you manage the stock of it so that the number of nuggets are not overflowen to then not become a habit at all but just a good read.

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