Popular & Quality Aren’t Mutually Exclusive Concepts, Actually


By: Chrissy Stockton

Alex Halperin over at Salon published an article discussing how having improved metrics for measuring online readership is reducing ‘meaningful’ readers on the internet. Like, because people can know instantly that Miley Cyrus articles are really popular, they’ll publish those articles over Syria coverage, as “click bait”. The implied understanding is that Miley Cyrus as a topic can’t be meaningful, but Syria always is, and that there is no value in ‘empty calorie’ reading.

When we talk about increasing the ‘quality’ of journalism, we assume that ‘quality’ means a certain thing–traditional. But our best thinking occurs when we don’t blindly adhere to what has always been done.

This is why I just can’t with old media. They operate under the assumed capital ‘t’ Truth that the only thoughts that have any value are those written by culturally established people (white bros with degrees) about Very Important Things. I can’t understand how highly intelligent people keep up with this farce. It’s a disservice to critical thinking as a cultural skill to tell people that they only have the ability to think critically when a fancy journalist is packaging them a pretentious thought to think about.

You can, and should, think about everything critically. And you should do it regardless of the ‘quality’ of the journalist you are reading or the high brow/low brow level of the topic. You can watch the Miley Cyrus coverage and think “what does this say about womanhood in our generation and cultural expectations of women?”

Media has gotten in the unfortunate habit of existing to spoonfeed otherwise intelligent people pre-manufactured opinions so they don’t have to do the legwork of coming up with their own. It’s certainly intellectually beneficial to read other people’s opinions or high brow “news” coverage, but it’s only part of a balanced diet of what we need as human beings. When we read ‘cheap, low calorie’ content, like Halperin’s example of a popular advice column, we have an invitation to form our own opinion about them, because even where an opinion is provided, it’s a whole lot less intimidating to critique a low brow writer or topic than a high brow piece which is presented as expert level thought.

It reminds me of a quote from Michelle Obama’s DNC speech, “when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity…you do not slam it shut behind you…you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.” She was talking about economic wealth, but I think this applies to intellectual wealth as well. When you get really good at critical thinking, because you’ve been blessed with a high IQ or good parenting, or a great education, you shouldn’t spend your energy monitoring who is allowed in the club. You should spend it helping other people get through that door. This means breaking down the false assumption that meaningful thoughts only have the ability to occur while reading ‘quality’ content, and there are only a small, select, finite group of things that intelligent people should talk about.

Instead of calling stories whose main pull isn’t intellectual “cheap” — and trying to gatekeep people from their interests — accept that a massive amount of people are interested, and use the story as an opportunity. I think there’s room here to meet people where they are at and go ahead and assume everyone is capable of having meaningful thoughts that are valuable to human conversation because each voice provides an insight into a unique experience.

Thinking in terms of considering reading worthwhile only if it adheres to this standard definition of ‘quality’ is a red herring. It distracts us from asking whether there isn’t more to be learned from the kind of articles people want to read. We forget that at some point in history we decided that war coverage was news and that talking about your own feelings and life experiences was navel gazing. Maybe there’s more to being a human than ‘quality’, and maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.