Thursday, January 08, 2015

Teaching the Listicle Generation

I was startled recently to find my students in The New Yorker--not by name, of course, but the article opens wide a window into my students' values and thought processes.

In "The Virologist," Andrew Marantz explores the peculiar world of Emerson Spartz, the "King of Clickbait," a 27-year-old creator of online viral content.  "The ability to make things go viral felt like the closest thing we could get to having a human superpower," he says, but is he using that superpower for good? Let's take a look at the principles that seems to rule his sites:

  • Interesting is more important than true.
  • Popularity is more important than accuracy.
  • Short is better than long. 
  • Originality? Bah, humbug. Once it's out there, it belongs to everyone.
  • Feeling is more important than thinking.
  • Superficiality rules. If you can't say it in a bullet point and a photo, it's not worth saying.
  • Beauty is even more irrelevant than truth.
  • Virality = quality.
Although he calls himself "one of the most avid readers I know," Spartz doesn't read straight news, he says, because "It's conveyed in a very boring way" (or, as my students like to say, it's too dry.) Spartz's idea of quality? Clickbait headlines linked to illustrated lists stuffed with advertising. "The way we view the world," he says, "the ultimate barometer of quality is: if it gets shared, it's quality. If someone wants to toil in obscurity, if that makes them happy, that's fine. Not everyone has to change the world." (Glad to know he approves of my life choices.)

The saddest line in the article, though, is this: "Asked to name the most beautiful prose he had read, he said, 'A beautiful book? I don't even know what that means.'"

And that's when I realized that he was speaking for my students. The way they look at me when I rave on and on about truth and beauty and originality and transcendence--they're a bunch of little Spartzes sitting in the desks, wondering when I'll shut up so they can go back to clicking on listicles full of plagiarized factoids masquerading as news.

And I'm trying to make them read Henry James? What was I thinking?!

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

And I thought it was just my students....