Policy: Technology

What's the appeal of really stupid articles on the Internet?

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Philip Klein,Twitter,Media,Technology,Social Media,Internet

As the broader economy floundered over the past several years, one area has boomed: the proliferation of outrageously stupid articles on the Internet. You know what I’m talking about. The type of articles in which somebody tries to make a shocking point and does it poorly, and then everybody wants to talk about how stupid it is.

People post it on Facebook, and their friends comment about how stupid it is. They make snarky jokes about its stupidity on Twitter. They email their friends saying, “Have you seen this stupid article?” And they relive its stupidity when they're out with their buddies.

There was a prominent example of this on Thursday when Slate ran a piece in which the author blasted a doctor who, after a child is born, “holds your child up to the harsh light of the delivery room, looks between its legs, and declares his opinion: It's a boy or a girl, based on nothing more than a cursory assessment of your offspring's genitals.” Eventually, the author concludes, “Infant gender assignment might just be Russian roulette with your baby's life.”

This was just one article that went viral this week, but there’s an endless supply of examples.

There was the July 2012 Tablet article in which an author, who previously recounted her experience dressing up as Anne Frank for Halloween, wrote about the show “Breaking Bad,” describing “how the cancer victim at the center of the AMC series justifies my skepticism of Holocaust survivors.”

There was the one in January on the website xojane by a self-described “skinny white girl” who said she broke down crying after a yoga class in which she saw a “heavyset black woman” who was new to yoga struggle with various positions.

There aren't many articles that I remember from months or years ago, but these are seared into my memory because they were so widely circulated and because they were so stupid.

I feel like in the new media age, there’s now a career path in writing articles that go viral merely because people find them especially stupid.

It’s not really worth rebutting these articles individually, because that’s beside the central point. What I find to be an interesting question is: Why do we want to distribute stupid content to our friends and networks precisely because we find them so mind-bogglingly stupid? What is it that makes stupid content so difficult to resist?

My working theory is that it’s the modern, social media equivalent of daytime television for educated types. It’s somehow rooted in our vanity. Reading and mocking stupid content on the Internet makes us feel that much smarter.

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