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Why the most popular post on Medium sucks
Not too long ago, someone sent me one of the most popular Medium posts of all time. So that you don’t get distracted, I’ll let you email me if you want a pointer to the post.
The main thing that’s interesting to me about this post is that it’s simultaneously great and awful.
In short, the post claims that having an aversion to boredom is what’s wrong with you, and if you can get comfortable being bored, you’ll have a super power. Reading it leaves you with a strong impression you’re being reminded of this very important, obvious thing you know you should be doing but keep forgetting to do because you’re distracted and have a compulsive need to act rather than reflect. The sense of urgency you feel when reading it (“This guy is absolutely right, I’m going to start being more reflective. I’m going to resist my need for constant stimulation.”) is a testament to how well the author writes.
The problem is that the post is self-evidently useless. If the post had any value at all as self-help, it wouldn’t have been popular on Medium. I’m not saying good ideas can’t be popular ideas. I’m saying that this particular post is telling the reader, “Hey, don’t take action, just stop and reflect” and what do readers do the second they’re done reading it? Do they reflect on its message and not take action? No! They compulsively share it, comment on it, etc.
That post wasn’t recommended to me because it provides an achievable means of bettering myself since people can’t even follow the advice 5 seconds after hearing it; no, I heard about this post because its design favors propagation.
This reminded me of a question I’ve been wrestling with for a long time. How many good ideas aren’t so much good ideas as things that were designed first and foremost to be popular. We’ve shown that a viral idea needn’t be useful, but is a useful idea always a viral one? A whole buttload of questions open up when you start trying to think about this.
We will spend some time thinking about it though. And in doing so, we will be able to come up with better ways to evaluate information; we will have a good list of ways that information environments shape the kinds of information that can flow through them and how we can subtract out environmental noise to nevertheless mine useful information from these contexts; and we will be able to put contrarianism in its proper place and know exactly what it is, how to cultivate it systematically, and whether or not it’s worth being a contrarian.
You and I both probably spend a lot of time acquiring information, probably to a near pathological extent. I do it because it energizes me and I believe that it’s possible to obtain an edge by knowing things. Since we are staking so much of our time and world view on the value of information, thinking through these questions is worth doing. I hope to share what I’ve discovered in attending to these questions for several years, and maybe you can tell me what you think about some of these questions as we develop them.