Keeping the Content Machine Whirring

While the internet’s main function may be the display of cats, beheadings, and pornography, a sizable portion of the remainder consists of opinion, both political and cultural. Every day, hundreds of brief thinkpieces are churned out, each containing a packaged nugget of argument about something in the news. Readers get to post these on Facebook, in order to both signal their affiliations to friends and feel good about having contributed to the public debate.

As someone who enjoys writing, over the past year I’ve been experimenting a bit with the manufacture of hot takes. They’re enjoyable enough to produce (you just have to get angry for about 700 words and then throw in some links), and often they pay (though not well). So when a Harvard professor threatened to sue a Chinese restaurant over a $4 tip, I said he was completely right to do so. And last summer I insightfully called Ted Cruz an idiot.

But while writing these things is both easy and fun, more than one person has observed that the displacement of actual cultural and political analysis by short slices of superficial clickbait is one of the most unfortunate consequences of digital media. My own adventures in thinkpiece-land have confirmed what others have observed; there turns out to be a huge market for thoughtless inflammatory contrarianism, and much less of one for anything reflective or nuanced.

The worst part of this, to me, is not that writing is becoming shorter or more partisan. I’m not a member of the Strunk and White brevity-police, but I do believe in being economical. Like many others, I gasped when the new editor of the New Republic announced that he was bored by anything over 600 words. But I have also long believed that most published writing is too long, and I think many useful points can be made quickly.

Nor is it inherently damaging that writing is increasingly opinionated. I like strong views, I like polemic. I’d rather read something that takes a stand than a bunch of dreary “on-the-one-hand” waffle. The problem is far more that so much of this writing is boring and predictable. With any piece of news, we know exactly what the commentary will consist of. And then we know what the commentary commenting on the commentary will consist of.

I recently tried a small experiment in writing. I wanted to try to get some things published, and see what would make it and what wouldn’t. (Okay, I call it an experiment, but that’s probably misstating my intentionality a bit. I was curious about what would get published, but my main motivation was that I was in need of money and desperate to write something that would pay.)

Over the weekend, I wrote two articles. One was a carefully-reasoned argument on immigration, critiquing progressives for advocating the deportation of criminals. (A more thought-out version of what I covered in this blog post.) And the other was basically my attempt to write the most clickbaity thing I could think of; i.e. taking some item in pop culture and calling it racist. For that, I went to see the film Trainwreck and then just mindlessly wrote a screed about it. I looked and saw that nobody had called it racist yet, and I figured that as long as I was the first person to call Trainwreck racist, it would be easy enough to get such a thing published. People have said that the star, Amy Schumer, is a racist plenty of times before. But nobody had yet called this particular film of hers racist! I thought it would be a sure fit for Salon, since it was basically exactly the article I think of when I think about the site.

So which of my articles made it through: deportation or Amy Schumer-is-a-racist?

Ladies and gentlemen, I present:

“Trainwreck’s Race Problem.”

(That’s not the actual headline, rather it’s a teaser they used to link to the article. The actual headline is so convoluted that I have no idea what it means.)

As for the deportation article, the only page it’s been published is in my email outbox.

Now, let me say that I don’t not think Amy Schumer is, to use the currently fashionable terminology, “problematic.” Frankly, I don’t really know her work very well; the only thing I’ve seen of hers, outside of the film, is her extended 12 Angry Men parody, which I enjoyed. I have almost zero Amy Schumer expertise, it just seemed as if people really liked reading other people’s opinions about her, hence she seemed a good subject.

I believe all of the things I wrote are true, although the real story about Trainwreck is not its race-issues but the fact that it’s confusing and poorly-assembled. The race stuff was inadroitly handled. In fact, I trivialize it too much when I say I just “called something racist.” It was.* The problem is not that the observations were wrong, it’s that who cares? 

Actually, a lot of people apparently do. The article received scores of comments and was reposted hundreds of times. People violently disagreed with me and called me names, but they read the thing. (The funny thing about the thinkpiece-economy is that the people who hate them the most are some of the strongest drivers of traffic, by incessantly commenting and reposting and keeping the debate going.) There’s a Trump Syndrome phenomenon going on here, whereby everybody spends large amounts of their day loudly insisting they don’t care about something, and writing huge bodies of text listing all the reasons why they don’t care and the thing is overhyped and not worth discussing.

And this dynamic repeats itself every day in the exact same way. Pop Culture Thing X or Current Event X will occur, and then some writer looking to earn a hundred bucks will fire a shot, and then a huge firefight will ensue for about a day, and then night will come and the dust will settle until the next day and the onset of Thing Y and the beginning of the cycle anew. My sociologist friend Zach Wehrwein is starting to produce some research on “twitter outrages” and their predictable dynamics. He’s produced charts showing all the angry tweets on any topic. You watch the thing occur, the tweets roll in, and then the tweets subside. Then you find another thing, and watch the conversation on that.

“So what? That’s how news works. It’s not news forever, we talk about it and then there’s more news,” says a hypothetical interlocutor. Yes, true enough, all things must pass and whatnot. But the real problem is that these blossomings of controversy are (1) manufactured for consumption and (2) totally disconnected from any kind of meaningful action in the real world. As to point (1), it’s odd that I can get paid to think of ways to poke the internet hornets’ nest, because if I can get a bunch of people to shout about a thing, a company makes money. As to (2), it’s very odd that the public conversation about something so serious as racism can be reduced to gabbing online about a Judd Apatow comedy.

“But that’s not the whole conversation. There are other, more serious things being discussed.” Yes, but it really is shocking how much is vacuous. And it’s true that even when good points are being made well, the ultimate function of so much online media consumption is signaling (for the consumer) and profit-seeking (for the media entity). Perhaps there is an attenuated connection between online media and the real world (if my article goes far enough, Amy Schumer might here about it and get mad and/or sad for a few minutes!) But that’s certainly incidental to its function.

An unfortunate consequence of the fact that this really is a writing economy is that writers themselves are stuck in a bind. Online media is so ruthlessly click-driven that it’s almost impossible to break free of the existing forms. After all, they do precisely what they’re supposed to do. Clickbait gets clicks. I click on it. I mean, I would have read my own article, even if I would have been bored by it and then fumed about how petty and humorless the author was.

It’s not that editors are bad gatekeepers, then. In fact, I’m astonished by how perceptive they are. They know exactly what succeeds. I’ve had things turned down because they came literally 24 hours after the window for their newsworthiness closed. But if you watch the graphs of the tweets, you know that an editor is right when they say a public conversation died yesterday afternoon, and that everybody has moved on and won’t be interested.

But a writer therefore has to produce the material that fits perfectly into the media moment. Can’t wait a moment longer; if you’re not the first to bring up racism in Trainwreck, nobody’s going to want to hear it. Instead, then you’ll have to write the “In Defense of Trainwreck” article. Or the “Why People Defending Trainwreck Just Don’t Get It” article, with steadily diminishing reader interest for each iteration, with the Next Controversial Thing hopefully having arrived before we get to “People Keep Writing Articles About Trainwreck–And That’s a Problem.”

(Actually, the same is true in a different form in more “serious” news. Look at the disproportionate amount of attention Greece received, just because it made for an interesting drama. Not that I think the Greek crisis was unimportant, but during that period it was much harder to get anybody to listen to you about any other  country, because that’s not where the action was. My friend Oren Nimni spends seemingly half his waking hours in a state of exasperation over the fact that the ongoing multi-month Saudi bombing of Yemen gets hardly any media attention. And in fact, at a certain level this is a problem of news generally. I continue to think there’s something brain-deadening about “current” affairs, because remaining current precludes getting in-depth background knowledge. It’s always funny to me that the more time you spend trying to “stay informed,” the less informed you actually become compared with someone who doesn’t stay informed but goes and learns things.)

It’s hard to know how the cycle can be escaped. Nobody can resist clicking on the bait, and there’s a lot of money being made. Writers learn quickly that the more contrarian they can be than the next guy, the more interest they’ll pique (even though so many true and necessary things are not contrary to received wisdom; in fact, they’re exactly what you’d expect.) Although I have to say, it’s hard to eke out a living, no matter how fast you can churn out Content. The demand is high, but so is the supply, hence the relentless competitive pressure.

I have to say, though, after producing some stuff just because I knew it would get published, it really doesn’t feel worth it. That Amy Schumer thing is the first piece of writing I’ve ever produced that has felt shameful, because it was created from an ulterior motive. It was calculated. And the feeling of producing things that aren’t your best, just because you know they’ll sell, isn’t worth the paltry cash they give you.

You can’t really tell that to someone trying to make a living writing. I’m fortunate in that I do something else. But I’ve always thought if I could quit the something else, and subsist solely by writing, I’d do it instantly. I realize, though, that that’s not true. I’d much rather only write things that feel like my own, yet be unable to live by it, than constantly be thinking about what will get commented on or shared.

Because it does eat your brain. You can insist that you maintain a strict division between your two sides: your personal side, with the integrity, and your professional side, which is shameless in selling itself. But every piece of writing is also writing practice, and it’s impossible not to be affected. For one publication, I had written something successful without thinking about the kind of response it would get. Then the editor told me it received a large amount of traffic. And when I went to write something else, I couldn’t help but think about whether the next piece of writing would replicate the success of the first, and that thought inevitably affected the end result.

I think, therefore, that to have any chance of being a good writer depends on having a stubborn commitment to resisting incentives. The media landscape is so bleak that anyone who consciously tries to succeed in it, and writes accordingly, will end up producing work that they are not proud of.

That’s not to say that I think good writing will never be noticed or become popular. I think it will, and sometimes does, but to get quality and popularity to coincide depends on being driven by an ambition toward the quality rather than the popularity. That’s a completely unoriginal thought, and applies across so many spheres. But I’ve learned it especially through these recent forays into paid writing. Doing anything less than your best work will never be worth it, will always be embarrassing, and can only ensure that the hideous cycle of online writing culture keeps whirring until eternity.

*A subsidiary problem here is that my own view of racism is that it’s pervasive and systematic, and so the idea of going film by film to point it out is bizarre and suggests that if we could just adequately shame this or that particular celebrity for their behavior, we would somehow have gotten racism under control.

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