3 Types of Content to Avoid: Your Ultimate New Year’s Guide to Sanity!

(last updated on February 4th, 2019)

The Internet can be exhausting — it keeps showing you stuff to click on — it’s now shown you this, and you’ve just clicked on it — see how it works?

In 2019 i will continue to move and stay away from social media — the ecosystem where three categories of content seem to thrive in their most spurious forms: the news, self-help, and listicles.

#1 The News

It’s no conspiracy theory that the news have been generally designed with one key incentive in mind: to capture your attention and sell it to advertisers. Your favorite newspaper costs a lot more to make than the $1–2 per issue or however much you pay for the online subscription — if you even pay for one anymore. That’s not the business model — the business model is to get your eyes on the personalized ad you’re most likely to click on right next to the story on Trump’s latest tweet — and social media, which came along promising to irreproachably curate your news in exchange for your personal data, turned out to have just taken this idea to a dystopian level.

I’m not saying the news are necessarily lying to you — they’re probably not outright lying to you, even if they do have an agenda on top of their ad revenue (although the growing incentive to capture and retain your attention does increasingly cause them to communicate something that is at best unverified). I’m not saying the news are not interesting either — gosh, they’re so alluring! Nobody would read them otherwise. No. ‘Fake news’ notwithstanding, the biggest problem with the news is that unexamined reliance on them for information will distort your perception of reality. They draw a disproportionate amount of your attention to the damage, loss of life and potential consequences of the California wildfires, while neglecting to adequately inform you about the daily catastrophe of malaria in the developing world. It’s not that those behind the news don’t care about people suffering from malaria — it’s simply been determined that you wouldn’t pay as much attention to that as you would to the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s recorded history — and they want you to click on that calculated ad popping up on top of it!

If you paid any attention to the news, you might never want to go to Ukraine. However reality can not only be quite different but, to some extent, perhaps even unrelated to what you might have seen on the news, as i experienced in my very first time in the country.

I eventually moved to Ukraine about a year and a half ago, and this is what i can confidently say so far: it’s a huge and diverse country under insanely complex circumstances.

Between utter despair and enterprising optimism, you’ll find the whole spectrum here.

You won’t be missing much without the news.

First of all, you don’t need most of that stuff being advertised anyways. You know what you need, or at least you should — look it up — ask around — you’ll find it — you’ll even get a good deal for it!

Concerning where to go to stay informed about current events, there is now a wealth of podcasts such as Sam Harris’ Making Sense (and some references therein) that are delivered as ad-free, transparent, in depth conversations with authorities on the topic of interest, discussing many of the very questions you might be asking yourself about what’s going on in the world. If you must consume the news, then i strongly encourage you to at least supplement it with such commentary.

By the way, this piece of advice includes comedy news — stay away from them — they will eat your brain — just listen to Reggie Watts, and such as, a lot:

#2 Self-Help

I’m mostly referring to that article or video claiming in its very title to be the last thing you’ll ever need to read or watch to become the next Elon Musk or whomever — as long as you’re willing to snap your fingers and immediately rearrange how you spend about 10% of your time.

To begin with, you probably don’t need most of that either. At least i find it highly controversial whether whatever you believe anybody has achieved should be the standard for your success.

But even if it should, success stories can be deeply misleading — simply following someone’s morning routine will most likely not bring you their results — you might also need some of their genes, environmental history, network, and who the hell knows what else — my favorite account of the complexity of social and economic systems is Duncan WattsEverything is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer. Furthermore — or further to the point, conventionally successful people have wildly different morning routines — now what?

If you do want to level up on any aspect of your life, then you’ll need to prioritize and work hard on it. Do some research. Pick up a book or sign up for a program — preferably something written or designed by someone who has spent a significant amount of their time training for that. Follow the blog or podcast in which they regularly write about it or discuss it with other people with experience in the feature of interest. Join a meetup or online forum and start interacting with other people pursuing the same path. Do all of the above — or yet something else that involves some action and commitment!

Change is an active process. Reading those articles/watching those videos and trying out what your current favorite one says for about a week until the novelty dissipates is most likely just distraction and procrastination.

#3 Listicles

Listicles seem to be most often about something i wasn’t even interested in, but now think is the most important topic in the world to believe i’m learning something about. They’re designed to be consumed mindlessly, like cheese puffs — and also sell advertising space, by the way — and typically teach me nothing of substance about anything i actually care about.

Wanna become acquainted with remote places on Earth? Search the web! Post a question on some travel forum, and get involved in the discussion of what being ‘remote’ even means — is it remote in the sense that it’s physically far away from anywhere else in the world where people live? — because it’s uniquely difficult to reach?? — because it’s been culturally isolated for a very long time!? — because it’s largely unknown!!? Read up the Wikipedia articles about the places you get referred to. Perhaps there’s a well produced documentary or a well written book on them, or maybe someone has visited those places, taken good photographs, talked to people living there, and written an engaging account of it on their blogs!

Don’t settle for the listicle. Maybe an opportunity to go there yourself is not even such a long shot — as it turned out to be the case for me with the opportunity to visit the Faroe Islands in 2016.

It’s not that i’ll avoid lists altogether — in fact, i like lists —  very much so! I just prefer the kind of list that helps me think about how they’re constructed, and actually teach me something about the underlying theme. For example, if you’re interested in the intersection between ethics and entertainment, the Very Bad Wizards podcast is a good place to find such thoughtful lists — their episodes on their five favorite movies on the nature of reality or dystopias immediately jump to mind. This is a passionate podcast by avid consumers of pop culture who also happen to be scholars in the subsuming fields of moral philosophy, psychology and neuroscience.

If you’re not interested in something, then don’t worry about it — and if you are, then don’t be shy to go all nerdy on it!

Oh, you noticed!

That’s right — this is (almost) a listicle — and essentially a self-help one at that — that’s two out of three!

It’s OK — you didn’t know better 😉

But now you do — so, share it (just not on social media, please), close the tab, then move on with you life!

This is the 2019 revised and updated edition of the article i first published on Medium on January 3rd, 2017, and then re-published on this blog (with some changes) on January 15th, 2017 — it’s become a bit of a tradition for me to revisit it every New Year, and fun to observe how it has evolved. Featured photo courtesy of Nicolai Berntsen.

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2 thoughts on “3 Types of Content to Avoid: Your Ultimate New Year’s Guide to Sanity!

  1. I really liked the part where you say “conventionally successful people have wildly different morning routines”, it made me laugh. Now i’m thinking to myself like “hm… whom do o want to be like – James Bond, Axel Rouse, Stalin, Oscar Wild or Barrack Obama? What morning routine should i pick up? I guess, this year i want to successful among ladies just like James Bond, so I’m going to wake up at 10:24am on the weekdays and at 5:42am on the weekends. And also I should drink tequila-banana milkshake everyday after breakfast and all the women will be mine!”. This is hilarious, Mika!

    Also I’m a bit confused with this self-help thing you say we should avoid and further down the road you say we should read blogs that talk about the aspect of life we want level up. So how is it different from a self-help article, only thatbot’s many in one place? And also there are self-help books written by scientists, psychotherapists, you’ve even started one.

    1. Thank you for the comment 🙂

      About the “self-help” bit, when i sat down to write the first version of this article more than two years ago, it actually came to me largely as a reaction to another article i saw on Facebook that i wish i had saved the link to. That article was not the first one of “that” kind, and i was sick of it! So, i wrote this one 🙂 I should indeed give clearer examples. If i come across any notable examples of what i have in mind, i’ll update this piece with links to them — though now that i’m out of social media it might be a little harder for that to happen :p

      I have absolutely nothing whatsoever against “self-improvement” — on the contrary, i’m encouraging people to take a proactive (if skeptical) stance about it — i hope i’ll be able to make this point a bit clearer in future iterations of this piece!

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