All you need to know about the worst online cliché

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On June 9, the data-journalism website FiveThirtyEight.com published its lead story previewing the World Cup. Its first two sentences read: "All you really need to know is this: The World Cup gets underway Thursday in São Paulo, and it's really hard to beat Brazil in Brazil."

Could "all you need to know" be the most insidious, reductive and lame story formula currently conquering our reading life? Everywhere you turn there's another purported ne plus ultra explainer purporting to tell us "absolutely everything we could possibly need to know" about some current event, some curiosity of history, some deep mystery of life on Earth. It's in the Wall Street Journal ("all you need to know about the Crimea referendum vote"), Vox (often, for instance "Everything you need to know about Israel-Palestine"), Time ("all you need to know about sequestration"), CNN ("all you need to know about the Jerry Sandusky trial"), ABC ("everything you need to know about the Syrian civil war"), the Huffington Post ("all you need to know about GMOs"), the LA Times ("everything you need to know about kohlrabi"), Yahoo News ("all you need to know about the Thai coup"), and, of course, BuzzFeed, which offers both world-historical contributions such as "everything you need to know about the schoolgirl kidnapping in Nigeria" and philosophic ones: "These 13 Questions Will Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Yourself." (Subhed: "This is as accurate as it gets, people." The questions directed me to visualize different aspects of a cube, and I learned that I'm guarded, bitter and hate most people but simultaneously wish to raise 1,000 children. Time to accept my previously unrealized destiny as the head of a cult.)

Journalistic hubris

The Washington Post has been guilty of this, too.

"Explainers" and hubris have both been a part of journalism for a long time. "It isn't journalism unless it comes packaged with a bunch of bragging," Jack Shafer, the longtime media critic now at Reuters, told me, pointing me to the Chicago Tribune's long-running billing of itself as "The World's Greatest Newspaper." (And, of course, there's The New York Times's "All the News That's Fit to Print," now repackaged for the Web as "All the News That's Fit to Click.") But here's why this journalism trend is worse: It combines both those things, and, stirred, together, they make something way worse than either one alone, like Cool Whip and dog poo, or a bunch of cocky North Face-outfitted millionaires and a storm on Everest. It creates a kind of nuclear bomb of simplification, leveling nuance, ambiguity, point of view and open-endedness — all things we stopped watching cartoons and began reading to get.

The form is prima facie ridiculous. Could a page of bullet points really be "all we need to know" about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or ISIS? Defenders of the form have two explanations for its value: 1) marketing, and 2) the idea that most people actually have no capacity to comprehend the information they encounter online. The first, I get. Like "All the News That's Fit to Print," "all you need to know" exhorts you: click on my story! And, claiming one's content is eternal helps it live a little bit longer in a brutally competitive online news environment. "Good backgrounders can deliver again and again," James Ball, the head of special projects for The Guardian US, told me. (Since around 2007, his paper has been delivering us "everything we need to know" about oysters, belly dancing, divorce, Yemen, climate change, and other topics, including Muppets.) "Having a good long tail and evergreen content," he explained, "really helps the numbers."

Fair criticism

History and current events are so lush and textured and deep and ambiguous; we can't reject their marvelous complexity because we're frustrated with the number of hits we get when we Google something.

Conservative writers have criticized the second defense — that people need "all you need to know" explainers because otherwise they can't navigate the confusing sources of information available in Internet age — as condescending. "The hazard of appealing to readers who feel stupid is that intelligent readers will get the feeling that you think they are stupid," the American Spectator wrote of Vox. Although Vox also publishes terrific pieces complicating popular orthodoxies, like this fantastic evisceration of the Myers-Briggs test, unfortunately, when it comes to its "all you need to know" formula, the criticism is fair. Yes, the Internet is confusing. But the corollary doesn't follow that the journalistic ideal in the digital age should be a kind of brutal boiled-down simplicity, the literary equivalent of an iron helmet against the hail of information now raining relentlessly into everybody's life.

This approach is a willful darkening; it creates more problems than it seeks to avoid. Ostensibly intending to empower us, like armor itself, the journalism helmet paradoxically emphasizes our sense of vulnerability and weakness by implying we cannot, even if we really tried, assemble valuable ideas on something like the Thai coup on our own. Vicki Mayer, a media-studies scholar at Tulane, e-mailed me that the "all you need to know" media format helps people who feel "we …can barely keep track of our own lives."

One of the Guardian's "all you need to know" online series is called "infomania," but this is an oxymoron. It's actually anti-information; it draws a boundary for us around the information we need and that we don't, the information that is and isn't worthy. Shafer, the Reuters media critic, called the format a "catechism," and the religious comparison is apt, because "all you need to know" seeks to establish catch-all doctrines around what we should understand and believe about everything in the world.

But the world resists doctrine, as millennia of frustrated utopists will tell you. History and current events are so lush and textured and deep and ambiguous; we can't reject their marvelous complexity because we're frustrated with the number of hits we get when we Google something. Instead of striving to present "all you need to know," isn't it more wonderful to acknowledge the tininess of our window on the world, a pinhole which, if positioned right, might allow our readers to glimpse something really distinct and particular and beautiful?

Here's a different catechism: the smaller and more deeply-investigated an idea is, the truer it is likely to be.