Personal and Professional Advice Articles Are The Worst Kind Of Clickbait

Ed Zitron 5 min read

The most loathsome column of the week award goes to Kate Murphy’s “How To Rearrange Your Post-Pandemic ‘Friendscape,’” a piece that is currently being pummeled for suggesting that you’re more likely to be obese if you hang around obese people, and more likely to be depressed if you hang around depressed people. Crucially, it also promotes the kind of sociopathic evaluation of your friend groups that I reserve for Motivational Instagram Meme accounts - that you should organize your friends into foreground and background groups, and that you should actively seek to be around “more studious, kind and enterprising” people.

It is the kind of dogmatic pop-psychology that has grown in popularity as we culturally are pressured to optimize and add efficiency to every aspect of our lives. It’s frustrating and offensive to many because it wants us to bring a clinical approach to situations that are emotional, without the necessary empathy to show you where these things may or may not already happen. With that dogma also follows a great deal of guilt-tripping - that you are wrong and stupid for having the friends you have, and your bad decisions have the potential to make you obese or depressed.

It’s also, like the last piece the reporter wrote, intentionally framed to either be shared and hated by people who have emotions, or shared by those who want to be reassured that, to quote Adam Johnson, it’s okay for you to be a selfish asshole. These pieces are seemingly built to promote introspection, but really just exist to either reaffirm an increasingly common belief that people and friendships are just things you pick up and use, or upset (and thus spread the article) those who do not see people as objects.

To take it a step further, these pieces really do not exist to do much other than let people project themselves onto them, filled with approachable nuggets for people to say “I feel seen!” at, or post with abject disgust. The ultimate point of this article (and the writer’s previous one) isn’t necessarily wrong - that we should evaluate what friends we have, and that we may both have friends that are bad for us and be the friend that is bad for someone else - but framed in a way that’s intentionally divisive and cruel, to make sure that there’s enough energy to fuel its spread across social media. This piece will likely get discussed all day, and result in some guy doing a thread about how people are too sensitive, and that we could also “evaluate our friendships in this manner” and be better people.

They’re basically emotional propaganda - an article that exists to be shared to show that you are a certain kind of person, and have a certain emotional depth or approach to the world. Nobody is actually changing their lives because of these pieces - they’re an identifier, a thing to either get mad at or laud because it backs up your perspective on the world. Articles that center around how “everybody is feeling X Y Z” or “you should feel X Y Z” are the opposite of introspection - they are quite literally telling you how to think based on your reaction to the article. They are written in a vague way so that they can apply to the largest amount of people possible - the “pandemic wall” articles come to mind - specifically to drive clicks. While we usually accuse articles of being clickbait due to their misleading titles, these articles are clickbait simply because they exist entirely to be shared.

The reason they’re so successful is that we are being increasingly encouraged to evaluate, categorize and organize our lives into neat little boxes. The ability for literally anyone to post online means that we have an endless flow of analyses (including analyses of analyses like this one!), meaning that there is almost certainly a term that applies to the specific way you feel. Our emotions (and mental health) are being turned into elements of our identity, taking something positive (mental health issues are less stigmatized and widely accepted as things that exist and aren’t things to be ashamed of) and making it negative by using their discussion as a means of broad diagnosis. These articles exist to take your openness around the discussion of your emotional and mental health and weaponize it to get shares. In the case of this friendship evaluator, while thickly-written and sourced with smart people, there is very little actual substance - it doesn’t really tell you what to do other than potentially have certain people in or out of your life. Big fuckin’ deal. And if you’re sad, well, that’s because you didn’t change your life in the right way, like the lady said to.

These diagnostic advice pieces are facades - they pretend to be an analysis of the world when they’re simply traps to get people to share links. They don’t want to help you, they either want to confirm your biases, piss you off or make you feel special. The “pandemic wall” discourse specifically existed to either make people feel like they had something special based on the large condition of “the world is bad now,” or piss off people who for some reason get mad when other people decide to feel emotions.

The professional version of these are the numerous articles about the “best advice that successful people have,” and operate in a similar realm of guilt and association. Articles about the habits of successful people are big business, usually either through generic platitudes (“Two Quora users cited meditation as a primary habit of successful people”) or through direct association with specific successful people, such as "saying that many of the world's most successful people, including Bill Gates, are avid readers.” These exist to be shared in the same way that Hustle Culture memes and videos are shared to associate the person sharing them with success - after all, they know the secrets of being successful, they clearly must be successful themselves.

These articles, again, are really not advice. Being told that Barack Obama talks to himself, or that Bill Gates reads books, or that “you need a positive daily routine” should not measurably change your world. They are the emptiest of meme calories, providing no actual value beyond extremely vague advice that will rarely if ever improve your life, and on some level exist as a part of your identity and a means to make others feel guilty. They are more aggressive in that they offer a panacea - you too can be successful, if you follow the advice of people who are successful - to a problem (being successful) that is most of the time more of a case of luck and perseverance.

Gary Vaynerchuk, a ghoul of a person, throws out generic pieces of advice constantly, which people then share and say “oh that’s good” because most of them are incredibly generic and apply to just about anything. And just like most of these diagnostic, prescriptive articles, Gary ultimately says that the reason you’re not thriving is because of your own lack of ambition. In “Get Off Your Lazy “But,” Vaynerchuk says that the reason you’re not doing stuff is because you say “but” as a way of choosing not to do something, but he doesn’t do it, of course, because he “loves the process and the climb.” This kind of dogma is truly loathsome, written from a position of privilege and existing success that renders every word around it useless. And yet he’s one of the most popular professional advice goons out there, with hundreds of articles spouting his generic things like “do stuff you like” and “get into something that’s big before it’s big.”

In both personal and professional cases, these articles exist because they fulfill an unreasonable human desire - that one article can solve your problems. They frame improving your personal or professional lives as puzzles to be solved, and we largely accept them because we kind of want it to be true that one article could change our lives. We want there to be a reason we’re failing, or that we feel bad, and if we feel bad we either want a solution or a diagnosis so that we can know what’s wrong with us, even if we lack a solution. If we feel like we’re not doing well at work, we want some things that we can do to make ourselves feel like we’re getting somewhere, even if none of the advice actually helps. And we all, of course, love to share stuff to make ourselves look better to the outside world.

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