One woman starts to watch a TED talk. What happens next won’t shock you at all if you know that woman’s personality.


Confession: I am a very passive consumer when it comes to online content. I subscribe to a select few news sources and blogs via RSS and occasionally even read what articles are posted, but other than that I mostly rely on the collective intelligence of Teh Intarwebs to tell me what’s worth reading–by which I mostly mean, I allow Facebook and Twitter to curate the information they provide to me. By which I really mean, I allow the people I follow on Facebook and Twitter to tell me what to read.

Sometimes this works well. For instance, an assistant professor I had for one semester from grad school almost always posts links to incredibly thought-provoking articles about cultural issues, ranging from gender and race issues to gaming to gentrification. But if you believe my friends feed, collective intelligence isn’t so intelligent after all. Or, to quote Men in Black: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”

This struck me today when I went to watch a TED talk that was referenced at a conference I attended yesterday. More precisely, it suddenly occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last TED talk that someone linked. A few years ago, Facebook and Twitter were full of them. Now Facebook is pretty much all Buzzfeed, all the time. So an article about how Oakland is waging a merry little war to kick Google out of their city gets buried next to “articles” like “31 Grilled Cheese Sandwiches that are Better than a Boyfriend” or “Which Disney Sidekick Are You?” (Iago, apparently) or “At First You’ll Be Confused By This Story In The Beginning, But Then It Hits You Like A Ton Of Bricks.”

Even when you click into some of the more interesting articles, you’ll get bombarded with utterly stupid stuff in the sidebar. The Guardian and Huffington Post are especially bad; the aforementioned article on Google and Oakland contains recommended articles like “The imperfect but honest image of a woman’s body” or “The top 10 sexiest works of art ever.” Great. Thanks.

What happened to TED? What happened to “Ideas worth spreading?” Are Facebook and Buzzfeed in a secret conspiracy to dumb down Amurrica? Or is it just that my peer group has shifted in the last few years?

(To be fair, Upworthy might actually have some decent content; they just hide it behind the most obtuse descriptions possible. And TED talks are not by definition wonderful; they just tend to be more thought provoking than 26 animated GIFs that illustrate that you are a part of a specific generation or geographical region.)

I have no solutions, of course, beyond installing FB Purity and blocking the keywords “Buzzfeed,” “Upworthy,” and “Zimbio,” all three of which are now hidden on my Facebook feed. Maybe it’s time to revive RSS as well: “Read the news you actually care about; ignore the crap you don’t.”

My one real conclusion is this: think before you link. Do your followers really care about the arbitrary results of a “Which Beyonce song is your personal anthem” quiz, or do they care about your life? Is that link killing brain cells, or building them? There’s certainly room for entertainment, of course. But as a rule, we can do better.