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Aim and fail: the worst cliché online today

The things that captivate us most are the things that are the least reducible.
By Eve Fairbanks
Special to The Washington Post (*)

Is ‘All You Need to Know’ the most insidious formula conquering our reading life?

On June 9, the data-journalism website FiveThirtyEight.com published its lead story previewing the World Cup. Its first two sentences read: “All you really need to know is this: the World Cup gets under way Thursday in São Paulo, and it’s really hard to beat Brazil in Brazil.”

Could “all you need to know” be the most insidious, reductive and lame story formula currently conquering our reading life? Everywhere you turn there’s another purported ne plus ultra explainer purporting to tell us “absolutely everything we could possibly need to know” about some current event, some curiosity of history, some deep mystery of life on Earth. It’s in the Wall Street Journal (“all you need to know about the [Crimea referendum] vote”), Vox (often, like “Everything you need to know about Israel-Palestine”), Time (“all you need to know about sequestration”), CNN (“all you need to know about the Jerry Sandusky trial”), ABC (“everything you need to know about the Syrian civil war”), the Huffington Post (“all you need to know about GMOs”), the LA Times (“everything you need to know about kohlrabi”), and, of course, BuzzFeed, which offers both world-historical contributions like “everything you need to know about the schoolgirl kidnapping in Nigeria” and philosophic ones like “These 13 Questions Will Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Yourself.”

The Washington Post has been guilty of this too.

“Explainers” and hubris have both been a part of journalism for a long time. “It isn’t journalism unless it comes packaged with a bunch of bragging,” Jack Shafer, the longtime media critic now at Reuters, told me, pointing me to the Chicago Tribune’s long-running billing of itself as “The World’s Greatest Newspaper.” (And, of course, there’s The New York Times’s “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” now repackaged for the web as “All the News That’s Fit to Click.”)

But here’s why this journalism trend is worse: it combines both those things, and, stirred, together, they make something way worse than either one alone. It creates a kind of nuclear bomb of simplification, levelling nuance, ambiguity, point of view, and open-endedness — all things we stopped watching cartoons and began reading to get.

The form is prima facie ridiculous. Could a page of bullet points really be “all we need to know” about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or ISIS? Defenders of the form have two explanations for its value: 1) marketing, and 2) the idea that most people actually have no capacity to comprehend the information they encounter online. The first one, I get. Like “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” “all you need to know” exhorts you: click on my story and nobody else’s!

“Good backgrounders can deliver again and again,” James Ball, the head of special projects for The Guardian US, told me. (Since around 2007, his paper has been delivering us “everything we need to know” about oysters, belly-dancing, divorce, Yemen, climate change, and myriad other topics, including the Muppets.) “Having a good long tail and evergreen content,” he explained, “really helps the numbers.”

Conservative writers have bitterly criticized the second defence — that people need “all you need to know” explainers because otherwise they can’t navigate the confusing sources of information available in the highly partisan, Internet age — as condescending. “The hazard of appealing to readers who feel stupid is that intelligent readers will get the feeling that you think they are stupid,” the American Spectator wrote of Vox. Although Vox also publishes terrific pieces complicating popular orthodoxies, like this fantastic evisceration of the Myers-Briggs test or this complex review of the science behind organic produce, unfortunately, when it comes to its “all you need to know” formula, the criticism is fair.

Yes, the Internet is confusing. But the corollary doesn’t follow that the journalistic ideal in the digital age should be a kind of brutal boiled-down simplicity, the literary equivalent of an iron helmet against the hail of information now raining relentlessly into everybody’s life.

This approach is a wilful darkening; it creates more problems than it seeks to avoid. Ostensibly intending to empower us, like armour itself, the journalism helmet paradoxically emphasizes our sense of vulnerability and weakness by implying we cannot, even if we really tried, assemble valuable ideas on something like the Thai coup on our own. Vicki Mayer, a media-studies scholar at Tulane, e-mailed me that the “all you need to know” media format helps people who feel “[we] can barely keep track of our own lives.” (The idea that clarity and simplicity are writing’s greatest virtues now permeates our literary life: the most common question I get from editors on drafts is “what’s the take-away?”)

History and current events are so lush and textured and deep and ambiguous; we can’t reject their marvellous complexity because we’re frustrated with the number of hits we get when we google something. Instead of striving to present “all you need to know,” isn’t it more wonderful to acknowledge the tininess of our window on the world, a pinhole which, if positioned right, might allow our readers to glimpse something really distinct and particular and beautiful? Here’s a different idea: the smaller and more deeply-investigated an idea is, the truer it is likely to be.

The “All you need to know” journalistic formula failed perhaps most dismally to capture the World Cup. Soccer really is the beautiful game, a mix of star power, teamwork, the variability of the turf and the weather, and psychological elements like the home-field advantage and the pressure of high expectations, put together and then constantly reshuffled over the course of 90 irreducible minutes — 90 “little infinities,” to crib The Fault in Our Stars’ phrase. The “all you need to know” World Cup explainers tended to be extremely long, even longer than those explaining Syria, to try to reflect some of that spellbinding complexity. FiveThirtyEight used “a diagonal inflated bivariate Poisson regression” to create numerous charts backing its claim to offer those interested in the World Cup “all you really need to know.”

Some of its predictions were wrong, like its Bayesian-analysis-backed touting of Brazil; others were right, like its forecast that Costa Rica could surprise us. But even if they had all been right, they wouldn’t have been all we needed to know — not a tenth of it. We wanted to know how Robin van Persie looked when he made his Flying Dutchman goal, how the amazing Algerian team would play while observing Ramadan, and the words David Luiz would weep after his team’s epic collapse.

We streamed the games and read the blogs that strove not to boil it down but to expand our information and offer dense, minute-by-minute accounts of the games’ tiniest details, to increase our sense of texture, to show us the fans, the rain, the noise, the snot, the tears, the endlessly changeable way the players swirled around the ball. It turns out the things that captivate us most are the things that are the least reducible.

@evefairbanks

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