There are upwards of 600 million websites on the Internet, and none are as aptly named as Thought Catalog. The site, which shows up in Internet news every few months or so for running something singularly inane — I’ll get to that in a bit — feels like a big collective diary for people younger than 35. None of this is interesting in and of itself (Breaking: People Write Dumb Things on Internet). Rather, it’s interesting because Thought Catalog does really, really well; its Alexa ranking is 851 in the U.S., and its traffic has increased pretty steadily over the last two years. Time reported in 2012 that the site was getting 2.5 million unique readers per month. That number is probably much higher now.
This raises some interesting questions: First, why on earth is this website so popular? And second, should we be horrified?
Before answering the first question, I have to make a big caveat. The Internet is a dark, murky place that regularly brings out the worst in people and then gives them, free of charge, the tools to share that horridness in a split second with hundreds, thousands, or even millions of their fellow human beings. It should never be a surprise when anything — repugnant, bizarre, or incomprehensible — is popular on the Internet. The original Nyan Cat video has more than 100 million views. Its corresponding ten-hour version has a more-modest-but-still-impressive 29 million. The Internet doesn’t make sense.
That said, it’s still worth taking a look at Thought Catalog. The site is incredibly simple: It solicits, according to its “About” page, short pieces (500 words or fewer) that are “fun, smart, and creative, i.e., entertaining, journalistic, and literary.” There are a lot of words you could use to describe the average Thought Catalog piece. “Journalistic” and “literary” are not two of them. Content ranges from the bland (“The Things You Will Always Regret If You Don’t Do Them,” “If You Were Waiting For A Sign, This Is It”) to the salacious (“Here’s Every Gory Detail You’ve Ever Wanted To Know About Anal Sex,” “8 Signs You Are Good In Bed”) to perfect combinations of those two categories (“I Haven’t Had Sex In Forever”).
But Thought Catalog really shines when it runs pieces that are ultra-confessional. Anyone can be boring and anyone can be salacious, but the kind of confessional stuff this website publishes is what really distinguishes it from any number of other sites vying for the attention of bored youths. The classic example is the story of Rachael Sacks, the daughter of wealthy parents who wrote a Thought Catalog piece called “I’m Not Going To Pretend That I’m Poor To Be Accepted By You.” For this tell-all, she ended up on the cover of the New York Post. It’s worse than it sounds.
Sacks’s saga is sufficient evidence that Thought Catalog is indeed the nadir of 21st-century American letters, but it’s certainly not the only proof. The site overflows with confessional pieces that are equally self-indulgent and boring. There’s “6 Lessons In The 6 ‘Almost Lovers’ I’ve Had”: “I don’t think I ever loved him but I adored his hazel brown eyes that were tinted green — I had to memorize his eyes because he tested me once while squinting them shut.” What? I have so many questions! There’s “I’m 28, I Haven’t Accomplished Anything Yet, And Now I’m Just Going To Get Old And Die.” There’s “9 Profound Lessons You’ll Learn By Starting A Blog,” which tells readers that “[a] personal website contains all the wisdom you need to be a successful young adult.” There’s “We Broke Up After Eight Years And I Felt So Much Pain” (wonder what that article’s about) and “An Open Letter To The One I Believe I Still Love” and “The Work Poop Showdown.”
It all makes sense from the site’s “About” page, which says the following: “We believe all thinking is relevant and strive for a value-neutral editorial policy governed by openness.” (Emphasis in the original.) If you think all thinking is “relevant,” you’re going to end up publishing some pretty wacky stuff, like relevant discourses on pooping at work.
Another example of relevant thinking is this Thought Catalog masterpiece that, astonishingly, doesn’t seem to have provoked much of an e-uproar: “50 Great Quotes From The Wire, Applied To Being A 20-Something.” This listicle reaches its zenith at item 32, which pairs this quote — “You know something, Lester? I do believe there aren’t five swinging dicks in the entire [Baltimore Police] department who can do what we do.” — with this applicable lesson, sic: “A reminder to be fiercely proud of what you do. Even if its being listlessly unemployed on the couch. You own that shit.”
And that’s the idea at the crux of Thought Catalog that makes it so insanely annoying: that if something happens to you, even if it’s that you laid on a couch for a long time, it’s interesting and important and worthy of pride. Adults should not need to be told that this is absurd. But apparently they do. It’s a sentiment Ryan O’Connell, one of the site’s editors and writers, expressed in the Time piece I mentioned earlier. “I respect a lot of the writers and readers who bashed me, and you obviously want to get validated by your peers,” he said. “But then I had a moment of realization — that I can’t let those voices get into my head. I have to do me.”
In other words, this is a person who appears to have taken other people seriously until he realized they didn’t think he was a very good writer. This also appears to be a person who keeps the voices of other people out of his head so he can focus on doing himself. The implication here is that one ought avoid critics, lest they challenge one’s fragile sense of self.
I don’t know Ryan O’Connell. I’m sure he’s lovely. But the ideas he presented to Time – which are echoed in Thought Catalog’s content — are problematic. Thought Catalog’s project is fundamentally masturbatory. That’s not to say that everything on the site is terrible — a stopped clock, etc. — but the site’s organizing principle is that the things most worth writing about are the things happening to you. It’s textbook solipsism.
Graybeards will say this is a vice peculiar to Millennials. They’re wrong. Human nature didn’t change in 1984, or whenever we now figure the first Millennial was born. But, as you may have noticed, technology did. And that gives kids these days a host of new platforms for talking about themselves and looking at themselves and comparing others with themselves and making sure the maximum number of people know what’s going on with themselves. Outlets such as Thought Catalog feed this, and they get a lot of traffic for doing it.
It’s not quite horrifying. But it’s not pretty, either.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.