Thought Catalog: A Critique


I have articles published on TC, I’m a frequent commenter on TC and I also share TC’s articles on Facebook and talk about them with friends: it’s a little awkward, but I have to admit that I contribute in a number of ways to the very thing I’m about to critique.

To start, I don’t want to do anything more than pay lip service to some of the boring criticisms of TC I’ve seen. Like that articles published never have perfect spelling or grammar. Until the articles become unintelligible, I’m okay with this because I see it as a combined reflection of the author’s imperfection and TC’s acceptance of that. There are much more interesting points to be made.

TC – and sites like it – is becoming an increasingly larger part of the culture it’s cataloguing. If the predomination of articles they publish are superficial and unreflective listicles, then TC is directly adding to and promoting a culture that craves instant gratification more and more.

Unfortunately, this is reinforced by their ideal that “all thinking is relevant”, even if they follow that statement with the caveat:

“…this doesn’t imply “all thinking is ‘good’ or ‘high-quality’. It only means that all thinking has a strand of resonance, and therefore every act of expression serves a purpose… On Thought Catalog, relevance is social and determined by the contributors and audience, not some cultural gatekeeper or moral arbiter.”

This accelerates the downward spiral of superficial thinking as it functions to justify publishing whatever makes the site money. Yes, TC is a business, but this almost makes it look like they’re trying to hide that fact by taking a moral high ground. In the very least, it seems a little disingenuous, and I believe this is reflected in the articles that get published.

So here is the point I want to make most strongly: with some notable exceptions, the vast majority of articles published are internally-referenced advice. That is; people typically write only about themselves, even when they’re writing about other things.

If the article’s on dating, it’s advice based only on personal experience, but written as if that should make it applicable to others. If it’s on feminism, it’s opinion and personal experience written as a truth that should change others’ ways of thinking.

You might say that this is all we can do – to write from our own perspective and experience – and of course that’s true. The key part, however, is that the (vast majority of) articles aren’t self-explorations or fictional representation of the author’s experience. It’s worth contemplating here what would happen in our society if we only wanted to talk about ourselves – this is what TC is promoting.

I’m sure the defence from TC is that they have no obligation to publish any type of article, or do anything for society. The consequence of this thinking is experienced by TC’s readers. Even though we might feel some momentary hope from finding out that someone else out there struggles or hates or loves the same as them, the main thing self-referencing articles accomplish is to distract us from the possibility there’s more to life.

Another option is for authors to connect to their deeper vulnerabilities and instead of trying to overcome them or rationalise them or preach about them, share them. Perhaps it’s the case that TC only receives a tiny number of articles of this timbre. But even if that’s the case, simply continuing to publish the superficial work of the majority prolongs and promotes this style.

To publish reflections about the surface of our experience is not to maintain a genuine reflection of human experience: it’s the Facebook version of our true selves. In other words, TC is becoming instrumental in developing and promoting the culture that distracts us from ourselves, not that actually reflects us.

TC suggests that “contributors should strive to make their writing fun, smart, and creative, i.e., entertaining, journalistic, and literary”. To me, this reveals a motive that goes beyond the one they claim, to just catalogue and provide a platform for expression: to inspire and connect people. Is that what listicles do in any way other than the most superficial? Are people learning from these articles? Are they developing? Are they engaged in anything new, creative, smart or journalistic or literary when reading these pieces? Is it even entertaining?

Possibly. But only in that those articles distract readers from the things that are harder to access, harder to reflect on. If TC is to develop and grow it will need to actively choose to publish the less self-indulgent spectrum of the fun, smart, entertaining, journalistic and literary work they request from their contributors.

So to provide future contributors and editors with a way forward, I want to draw a comparison to Ernest Hemingway. Sure, Hemmingway is a literary icon, but I think he provides a great example. The example he provides is of an author who writes from a personal place, without self-referencing.

The main difference is that TC contributors tell us about themselves through the world, where he tells us about the world through himself:

“Do not think about sin, he thought. There are enough problems now without sin. Also I have no understanding of it.”

“His choice had been to stay in the deep dark water far out beyond all snares and traps and treacheries. My choice was to go there to find him beyond all people. Beyond all people in the world. Now we are joined together and have been since noon. And no one to help either one of us.”

This keeps us engaged because we’re learning and experiencing as he does – as an equal – there’s learning, but no teaching.

The difficulty we face in writing like this is that it’s a vulnerable way of being. It’s not standing behind the safety of a lectern, it’s not hiding behind linguistic wankery; it’s being open and letting the reader choose to come to you – if they choose to at all. The more articles TC publishes that show us the essence of humanity, the better they will catalogue the psyche of our time and inspire people to express their genuine selves.