“User-Generated” Is a Poor Substitute for “Reader-Submitted”

Why public opinion is boring.

Twitter thinks I live in Gwangju city, South Korea.

It’s mistaken—my actual location is on the other side of the world, in Dayton, Ohio—but I decided to change my account’s settings because I just couldn't stand to keep seeing “Trending Topics” in my own language.

You’ve probably felt the abrasion too, or learned to ignore it: the constant stream of #beibers and #snookis and #iphones and #politics and #vaguelyracistjokes and then #reallyovertlyracistjokes. It’s not that genuinely interesting topics didn’t occasionally come to the fore—my belief in a deity was reaffirmed on the day that Roberto Bolaño cracked the top ten—but that the flood of insipid “topics” so often drowned them out.

And while these trending topics could often be offensive, more often, and more tiresomely, they were simply banal. Over and over, twitter users seemed fixated on proclaiming that #realmen could do x, y, and z, or that #we’renotfriendsanymore because of this or that reason, or that #youknowshe’saho if she exhibited such-and-such behaviors. We heard about #reasonsiloveyou and #reasonsihateyou and people being #blessed and people who wanted everyone else to #stfu. It was a trainwreck of sweeping statements and broad generalizations, and when people weren’t engaging in petty disagreements they were offering petty affirmations.

Why do I bother to remind you of how irksome this all is? Because twitter, and “trending” matter in general (topics, search terms, tumblr image macros, etc.), are the new Dr. Phil or “Chicken Soup for the [demographic] Soul”: rather damning evidence of the public’s never-ending desire for the easiest kind of platitudes.

Not that we haven’t always had these kinds of bromides; people have always been quick to offer easy answers on #whysheleftyou and #threethingsguyslove, to make sense of the world by claiming that #weallknowonepersonwho acts a certain way or that #godisgood.

What’s new is the unmediated medium. It’s interesting, to me, that this sort of platitudinous content has always been “user-generated” (or “reader-submitted,” in the old phrasing) for the precise reason that anybody competent enough to gather, edit, and publish such collections is invariably too smart to any longer believe in the junk they gather. Self-help books are bulked up with sidebars, which are just verbatim customer testimonials; every article in Reader’s Digest is book ended by cutesy reader stories; and even advice columnists, whose entire job is to dole out insight, occasionally open up their articles to reader responses to a particular question.

What this means is that all this easy-to-produce and easy-to-swallow content is a deliberate lie—the people putting it out there, the people actually in control of the means of production, if you will, would be hard-pressed to generate such pabulum on their own, and instead rely on their customers to produce their own comforting responses.

What makes twitter different is that this content is no longer mediated; it no longer passes through the filter of selective publishing, but is passed straight from producer to peer-producer, unedited and uncut. The same thing goes for “inspirational” image macros on tumblr or chain-letter statuses on facebook, or google’s auto-complete suggestions for popular queries; the consumers of platitudes are indistinguishable from the creators.

Why does this matter? We already know that a laissez-faire approach to the web makes for stupid-malicious input—look no further than youtube, or the comments section of any prominent news site. But what I think we haven’t considered enough is the damaging potential of well-meaning but equally stupid content.

Let me explain: the opportunity for unedited publication makes for a flood of crap content—which, obviously, has happened. At the same time, though, we’re now more likely to recognize it as crap content, precisely because there is so much of it and precisely because it is no longer required to bear, and therefore does not bear, the imprimatur of a recognized publisher.

Much has been said, and more will be said, about the “empowerment” of marginalized producers via the internet; the internet makes possible the discovery of previously obscure but brilliant authors, musicians, artists, thinkers, etc. But not only is this largely not true (obscure producers typically remain obscure on the internet), but it misses the flip side: the masses now lose what little cachet they had. True, your comforting tweet about all dogs going to heaven now has the potential to reach more people than it would have in the pages of Guideposts (especially if the editor of Guideposts was inclined to reject it), but if and when it does, no one will pay much attention. Without the prestige of an editor’s acceptance, “reader-submitted” becomes merely “user-generated”—made, but not necessarily approved of.

So while for the time being I’m going to keep telling twitter I live in a country whose written language I can’t decipher, I do think the banality of trending data re-entrenches the position of established publishing structures. If the public knew before to not trust everything they read, they know it doubly now. If you’re an editor,or anyone in a gatekeeper position for content, good news! Your job may change form, but it’s not going away. If you’re a producer looking to gain immediate access to an audience, the situation’s looking grimmer. Readers are starting to know better than to pay attention to other readers, and are starting to take their fellow polloi with a grain of salt; it’s a sobering situation, but #that’sjustthewayitis.

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