Health

Why I Finally Stopped Reading Garbage Online

Spending free time with obviously bad content is a waste if the payoff is only getting to say, along with everybody else, "Yeah, haha, it sucks."
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
January 6, 2021, 3:52pm
A man looking at his phone in a dumpster
Collage by Hunter French | Images via Getty
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An end-of-the-year series about ditching what isn't working anymore, especially generalized approaches to "self-improvement."

For the first few months of the pandemic, my partner did a recurring bit. He’d look over at me from down the couch, peel his face into a cartoon Grinch-esque smile, and say, “Hey, we should watch the Hillary documentary tonight.”

I had no interest in Hillary, a documentary our friends had admonished us against seeing, and which seemed tedious, boring, and way too recent for me to care about. “No, absolutely not, I’m not wasting my time with that,” I told him repeatedly, even as we were swimming in time, had more of it on our hands than perhaps ever before. The amount of time spooling out in front of us was entirely his point: He wanted to watch something—spend hours with a piece of content—that he knew to be bad, because he thought it might be funny.

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If I can tell something is going to be capital-B Bad—whether it be a documentary, a book, or (most commonly) an internet essay—before I even start it, I don’t entertain it. I adopted a personal No Garbage Policy over two years ago, when, as I was mid-yell over yet another bad take online, my friend told me she stopped reading such things because they never made her feel good. And it was true that I had noticed something similar: It turns out that sucking unfiltered internet flotsam into my brain was making me feel not only annoyance, but actual existential dread over my entire career and life trajectory. I haven’t looked back since.

If you’re wondering, Can I do this with any kind of bad thing? You sure can! This policy, I think, can reasonably extend to all “garbage” content: books that feel like punishment each time you open them, movies that can’t keep you from looking at your phone, even stupid tweets. Generally, these things make themselves known, but in case you can’t immediately tell if something sucks, check for the following signs: Is it based on the perspective of someone whose glaringly obvious lack of authority in the topic at hand—say, a startup guy declaring New York City to be "over"? Is it a clearly contrarian “take” (see: anything starting with the word “actually” or in defense of something stupid) that is, in actuality, breathless bigotry? Are your peers sharing it online with commentary like, “my god how did this get published,” or, “brb poking my eyes out?” If any of these things apply, head for the hills—there's no joy to be found in that thing.

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Since I enacted my policy, I haven’t read a single “advice column.” Last year, when a slew of folks signed their name to a stupid letter about "free speech" that I won’t link here, did I deign read it? Absolutely fucking not! That’s poison! More recently, when a website published an excerpt from a minor celebrity’s new book of essays and the first sentence made me want to move to a farm, I committed the kind and radical act of closing the tab and declining to read further. I don’t necessarily spend the time I gain doing something more productive, like reading something good or taking a walk. Instead, I just float around in my warm mental baby pool of blissful ignorance rather than taking part when my timelines devolve into predictable flimflam. 

I understand that this seems sort of a priori: If you know you're not going to like something, why would you then engage with it to begin with? As my colleague Katie Way previously explored in an article for VICE, there’s a psychological appeal to willfully consuming content we hate. “If you're looking at somebody, and you're like, I really hate this person, because this person brags about their wealth, or this person exposes themselves in a way I dislike, or this person is rude, that allows you to create self-definition,” Pam Rutledge, a psychologist who founded the Media Psychology Research Center, told Way. “You say, ‘I'm not like that.’”

That was the feeling I was once after in reading, say, the six-hundredth essay on “cancel culture,” or yet another advice column addressing a question that was either made up or specifically chosen so the writer could lay into the sort of person who writes into advice columns (read: a nice, probably good person): It was always to find things the writer did “wrong,” things I thought I would never do in my own work or wider life. In hate-reading, I was bending the rules in my own favor rather than engaging critically, or at least without a built-in sense of superiority. Doing this doesn't make you a bad person, but if it's making you feel bad, as it was in my case, it's harder to find any real use in it. 

Defining good work by the bad qualities it doesn’t possess can be a useful learning tactic, to a certain point. It was definitely something I did for a while—pointing out flaws in essays and arguments, as if the only way to make something satisfactory is to avoid a certain set of clichés and pitfalls. Since quitting my hate-reading (and, broadly, hate-consumption), though, I find that I get more from pointing out what I like and think is smart; not even necessarily to mimic it, but as a way to keep mixing up the work I aspire to. I get more juice out of reading something challenging or at least not pointedly shallow that was posted to generate vitriol.  

The world is an infinite cesspool of things to hate. There’s a modicum of utility in engaging with some of it—dunking is fun!—but you have to set limits if you don't want to spend all your time and energy doing only that, all the time. For me, the line is when my entire peer group has already declared something bad, and engaging with said thing is solely an exercise in participating in a fast-evaporating discourse online. A person only has so much attention and will, and hate-reading requires an inordinate amount of both, with little return (and especially if you're doing a lot of it).

Spending precious free moments in your life with content you know will be bad is a waste if the payoff is only getting to say, along with everyone else, Hey, yeah, haha, it sucks. Being able to point out something just to say, “That’s bad,” is a survival skill we learn in youth and does not require lifelong practice. You know what you like and how to seek it out in earnest. If you're having difficulty with that, try leaving behind all the rest—Hillary, famous people's vanity books, whoever "Bean Dad" is (my editor suggested I mention him here; I truly don't know), and the as-yet-unknown morass of garbage doubtlessly heading our way in what we can still hope will be a much better year than the last. 

Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.