On August 21 of 1858, in the midwestern town of Ottawa, twelve thousand people waited in the sweltering Illinois heat to hear two Senatorial candidates debate each other. They stood on their feet for three hours and paid close attention as Abraham Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas about the sovereignty of political entities at different levels and their right to self-governance.
The scene was not an anomaly; the same scene repeated itself all across Illinois as the two debated over the ensuing months. Newspapers reported 16-18,000 people in Galesburg, 15,000 in Freeport, 12,000 in Quincy, and 5-10,000 in Alton.
Try to imagine such an event happening today. Such an event would never take place. The average person's attention span has shortened dramatically. TED talks are a maximum of eighteen minutes long because that's the longest focus you can hope for from a crowd these days. Three hours of oral debate about the legal reach of the high courts? Good luck trying to get people to watch that.
What changed? Were people in 1858 just born smarter than we are today? Or with better focus?
It's unlikely. But you've surely noticed that something has changed. Ever notice how thick and information-dense books from fifty years ago are? Have you noticed that books today have gotten prettier, skinnier — and abridged?
Many blame modern technology, and they're probably right. How many times have you realized you just burned hours of time on things you're embarrassed to admit - jealously looking at others' vacation photos on Facebook, distractedly swiping through Tik Tok videos? How many times a day do you find yourself browsing through Twitter yet again, hoping to read the perfectly snarky tweet that will give you that brief jolt of dopamine that will replace your apathy for an instant or two?
Today's media is brain candy: it appeals as hard as it can to the unhealthy parts of you. Companies and newspapers have discovered that making you react emotionally with anger, worry, and fear keeps you clicking. In his seminal 2011 work Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prizewinner Daniel Kahneman describes the two systems running in your brain. System 1 thinking is fast, automatic, frequent, and unconscious. System 2 thinking is slow, effortful, logical, and conscious. Media today targets your system 1 thinking: like sugary snacks, you crave it due to environmental factors beyond your control, and you consume it while knowing the whole time you shouldn't. And then you feel crummy afterwards.
Emotionally-baiting media makes you react in knee-jerk ways you regret later. How many times has it happened that you joined a righteous internet mob, only to realize later that you didn't know the other half of the story? Only for you to look back later and think, "What in the world were we so worked up about?" In 2015 angry reddit users internet-lynched CEO Ellen Pao, resulting in her firing a few days later by the reddit board. A former reddit executive later admitted that she had been framed. How many times have you looked back at a situation and realized your opinion had been completely manipulated by the media you read?
At best, today's media is designed to make you complacent and keep watching. In 2017, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings declared that Netflix's biggest competitor is sleep. "And we're winning," he said.
Those who remember the old internet will remember a different place. The early internet was insightful and thought-provoking. Blogs proliferated, and had discussions with each other; wonderfully vigorous debates took place in the comment sections.
But around 2014-2016, the old internet died amidst the explosion of social media. As a result, on today's internet it's easy to find the clickbait content and difficult to find the thoughtful articles. When you google a term, you will never find a long, contemplative article on the topic; you'll find watered-down SEO-optimized sites that don't offer anything worth reading. You've got to know in advance where to find the good writing - it's spread across a thin web of hard-to-find blogs and little-known authors. Each is a hidden gem, waiting for you to unearth it.
Why is interesting content so hard to find? Unfortunately, both newspapers and search engines optimize for clickability. If an author wants to be widely read, she needs to expend a lot of effort on marketing, personal branding, and advertising. Unconsciously, she may start becoming a little less authentic, a little more filled with keywords to attract clicks and readers. You've surely seen this happen to authors you loved.
It is into this void that Read Something Interesting steps. We're a place where you can read meaningful blogs and good writing. Thoughtful means that you think about it when you read it; and then you think about the idea a few hours later, and then next week when you encounter it again. Our logo is a steaming hot drink because that's how you should read it - thoughtfully and slowly, on a cold rainy day. If clickbait content is candy, Read Something Interesting's content is a nutritious meal of meat stew and potatoes.
If the bane of today's media is misinformation, Read Something Interesting is on a mission of information. Information is calm, contemplative, and analytical. Information is honest, considered, and not designed to elicit a knee-jerk emotional reaction. Read Something Interesting features articles that are positive, optimistic, and designed to inspire.
Most of all, we want you to think. You may not agree with the perspective shown; you might see things differently. That's what the comment section is for! If we're successful, your reaction to an article here will be "Hm - I never thought of it that way before."
Read Something Interesting celebrates the great writing on the web. We'll introduce you to new authors, new topics, and new perspectives. You can read the perspective of a former astrologer, think about the argument that history is written by the losers, or consider how to increase the chance that you're right about things. We also want to introduce new authors to you: when you find blogs or authors you enjoy reading, we encourage you to go through the rest of their content on your own.
We present you with one article at a time so that you won't be paralyzed by information overload. When you've finished reading an article, read through the discussions that are linked at the top. Write your own thoughts, in the clearest and most non-hostile way you can. And when you're done with that, consider writing your own blog - there are many free platforms that make it easy to record your thoughts, from Blogger to WordPress.com. The internet will gain from hearing your voice. And then suggest your article so that we can feature it. :)
How can you further the cause?
Are you trying to solve this problem as well? Tell us about your initiative and we'll link to you on this page. We also love feedback; let us know how we can make Read Something Interesting better.
But the main way you can help is by engaging with your higher self: by reading, thinking, and being a better person and member of society as a result. When you're looking for a media fix, instead of letting your fingers bring you to Twitter, come to Read Something Interesting. Make a decision to put better ideas into your mind.