The Quiet Tyranny of Online Tips
December 11, 2009 18 Comments
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.