Not the backlog!

Fuefuki Okina. Japan, 1795. [or 1796] Photograph.

First, a working definition of what a backlog is: a mental (or in some cases, physical) list containing things people wish to consume. It most often comes up in the content of media, and especially so in the case of games. It is often endlessly expanding, with the pace of additions far exceeding the ability of anyone to reasonably complete them. 

Like many things in theory, backlogs are a fine idea. Our time is finite and so having some structure and intentionality around what we intend to do is a reasonable proposition, albeit one that falls apart quickly when it meets the lived world. 

I have gone on a journey with backlogs. I, too, used to have a backlog, which I diligently tried to ‘clear’ (acting as if there was inherent value in such an effort). When I failed at the impossible task, I felt a sense of failure and burnout. I moved to stage two: joking about the backlog and what an impossible, all-consuming thing it was. Oh, how I joined in on the endless memes. Eventually that too left a sour taste because implicit in the jokes is a degree of validation of the concept. Rather than the backlog being the subject of the joke, me and everyone else who ‘failed’ the backlog were really the subjects of the joke. I am now at stage three: rejection of the concept. I think backlogs are harmful and encourage unhelpful habits. Whether or not there is a stage four (acceptance? synthesis?) I do not know, but in the meantime, let’s explore the why backlogs are bad ideas. 

We should resist the way capitalism makes us inclined to treat our leisure and rest time as something to be made efficient and optimised through the lens of productivity. What we do for fun shouldn’t be work. Backlogs, in their essence, are to do lists intended to optimise the time you are meant to be relaxing and enjoying life. Which can be fine, but caution must be given to the idea that the tool should serve the user, and not the other way round. Yet rarely does it work out this way. Bit by bit, the backlog usurps its role. Or put another way, the more our free time resembles our productive time, the less actual rest we get. 

Backlogs seek to impose the judgement and preferences of yesterday’s you on the you you are right now. We are constantly changing (indeed, constantly unconsciously changing), and so what we want to explore will be different from one moment to the next. A backlog merely captures our preferences and desires of a specific moment in the past, which is perhaps a neat time capsule, but not something that serves us to live in the moment. Relying on backlogs implies that the decisions we made in the past are somehow more important than the decisions we are making right now in the moment. Instead what is more meaningful is to ask yourself the question “what do I want to do now” and be both curious and open to the answer. 

Backlogs encourage unhelpful consumption habits such as a focus on quantity over quality. You see this happen all the time: people become more focussed on completion and moving on to the next thing all with the underlying motivation of attempting to complete the backlog (never mind it that these things are, by their nature, almost infinitely expanding). Such compulsive behaviour lends itself to naturally superficial levels of engagement with media – sort of like those bores who say something like “oh, yes, I’ve done Rome,” as if on their permanent record there is a box to be ticked. Not every piece of media needs (or even warrants) thoughtful consumption, but I suggest one has gone astray when nothing gets any reflection or contemplation. 

Backlogs are undeniably a symptom and indeed a perpetuator of FOMO culture. There is a presumption that one has to experience the various cultural products otherwise one is left out of the discourse and is therefore a sort of modern pariah. This obviously isn’t true, yet gains credence simply because some people seem to engage with media this way. Rather than following the zeitgeist, as I grow older I find increasing satisfaction in coming to media organically. That is, when it feels right for me, as opposed to simply jumping on today’s hot thing. 

As an aside, I wonder if backlogs can become a game in their own right for people: that is, completing items on the list becomes, paradoxically, the main objective with completion of the games (or books or movies etc.) merely the proxy measure for how one triggers the serotonin hit.  

Finally, backlogs are crass in their consumerism – it encourages a relationship where people buy things, complain about having too much to consume, only to buy more, with the backlog the crutch in that it provides an excuse that surely one will actually consume all of these things in due course so therefore it’s okay to keep buying. It is like the backlog as entertainment in the aside above, wherein instead of consuming and enjoying media, the enjoyment switches to merely expanding the collection, which is, I think, a hollow and empty sort of enjoyment. Most of us in the west do not need more things: we have excess in virtually all areas of our life. What I think we need more of is enjoyment of and reflection on what we have already. 

Ultimately, backlogs are sources of stress and bad vibes. They push us to be productive when we should be resting, they reflect the past and not the present, they encourage us to spend more and more, and leave one inclined towards superficial modes of engagement. 

I ask you to consider if your backlog is serving you, or perhaps are you serving your backlog?

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