Have a seat or something, because I am about to blow your mind: The Internet is really, really big.
Ok, my apologies for the suspense-mongering. I’m sure you already know this. Exactly how big? No one really knows for sure, but you can get a sense of its enormity by checking out the ever-increasing counters at Internet Live Stats.
Anyway, because there’s just so much STUFF out there, I think sometimes we get lulled into a false sense of security about the validity of content on the Internet. We feel sure that the right answer is out there SOMEWHERE, even if we have to sift through a lot of stuff to find it. It’s sort of the same concept as the million monkeys typing on a million typewriters for a million years—sooner or later, statistically, one of them should re-create War and Peace.
But in my experience (with the Internet, not with monkey typists), quantity does not necessarily lead to quality in terms of content. To illustrate, I will share a personal experience.
Last year, I truly entered adulthood and purchased a Crock-Pot®. I had fond memories of the one my mom had when we were growing up, which was this super eighties, mauve-and-hunter-green-floral-patterned fire hazard. It had two settings, HIGH and LOW, which were exactly the same, but it made delicious, comforting meals with minimal work.
This appealed to me because 1) I love comfort food and 2) I am pretty lazy. So I got my own, sleek, modern Crock-Pot® from Costco. It even came with an adorable miniature companion for dips or gravies, which I call the Crock-Potter because it looks like it is designed for and by otters. (It is possible, upon reflection, that I have not fully entered adulthood after all.)
I get really excited when I first buy a new gadget so I immediately went to Pinterest and found a delicious-looking soup recipe. The original Pinterest post said this:
Crock pot soup: can of rotel, can of corn, can of black beans (drained & rinsed), 2 frozen chicken breasts, 8 oz cream cheese, 1 packet dry ranch dressing, 1 tablespoon cumin, 1 teaspoon onion powder, 1 teaspoon chili powder. Put all ingredients in crock pot and cook 6-8 hours. Shred chicken, and enjoy!
I enthusiastically dumped all the ingredients into the Crock-Pot®, but it was clear that there was NO way that mess of ingredients would become a soup. There was just no liquid to speak of. I thought the original link might have a more detailed recipe, but it took me, instead, to a (now defunct) blog post, which was not helpful at all:
Super easy super yummy crock pot soup: can of rotel, can of corn, can of black beans (drained & rinsed), 2 frozen chicken breasts, 8 oz cream cheese, 1 packet dry ranch dressing, 1 tablespoon cumin, 1 teaspoon onion powder, 1 teaspoon chili powder. Put all ingredients in crock pot and cook 6-8 hours. Shred chicken, and enjoy!
So except for a couple extra adjectives, it was the same text. No mention of broth or water or any kind of liquid. The blogger had not yet made the recipe. She did comment, however, “Saw this on Pinterest and I’m excited to make it!” Such innocence. Such naiveté.
I googled the recipe text, only to find pages and pages of the SAME BLURB as before, without any elaboration or helpful commentary. In the end, I just jumped a couple of cans of chicken broth into the Crock-Pot® and called it a day. The soup was a solid B+, but was tainted by my frustration with universally vague instructions and food blogs with insipid names.
This was my first experience with what I will call the “Infinite Regression of Pinterest.” Everyone who had shared this untrustworthy content did so with the INTENT to make the soup, but no one actually HAD made the soup. What I wanted was someone who had some practical knowledge based on real-life experience. What I got were dozens of identical, useless results. It was, to grossly exaggerate, Kafkaesque.
As content goes, soup recipes are (usually) pretty low stakes. But when grown-up problems like finances, security, health and relationships are on the line, you need to be able to access content from a trustworthy and grounded source. All the search results in the world are worthless without content that’s verified by someone with actual experience in the real world.
So think about that the next time you create, commission or consume content of any kind. Does the content have a traceable, reliable source? Is it unique and helpful? And does it seek to understand the user’s real-world needs? Or are you just writing/reading a slightly-reworded version of the same blurb that’s on hundreds of other generic websites out there?
Focus on creating content that will offer a practical, personal voice in a sea of Internet anonymity, and your audience will thank you for it.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m conducting market research for a deluxe model Crock Potter, and I’ve got an otter focus group to moderate.
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Sally Boman – Writer/Editor