Yesterday’s urbanism tantrum has folks writing to id selves as “market urbanists”. Satisfying. Guess that’s what trolling feels like?
— Ryan Avent (@ryanavent) November 20, 2012
Reminds me that I was only sort of kidding about this:
it’s getting so I can’t remember when journalism was anything *except* trolling slate.com/articles/arts/…
— Tom Lee (@tjl) November 15, 2012
An exaggeration, sure. And I should acknowledge that the article that prompted Ryan’s tweet is a poor example of the form I’m about to discuss. But I do think that journalistic trolling is ascendant. And I think there are three trends that have led to this:
- First, there’s an obvious glut of written material on the web thanks to technologically-lowered barriers to entry, an expanding tail of digitally-accessible archival content, and the continued desirability of writing as an occupation (whether professional or not, largely thanks to non-financial considerations).
- Second, as Yglesias has repeatedly noted, there are a bunch of new forms of leisure (videogames, social media) that are competing for a pool of consumer time that’s only growing slowly (and which will ultimately hit physical and/or biological limits).
- These first two trends lead to fierce competition, and combine with a third phenomenon: A/B testing and other forms of analytic instrumentation that make it easy to quantify which kinds of content are most profitable to produce.
Pornography, cat pictures and aggregation are all known to fit the bill, but I think that direct, strategic assaults on readers’ self-conception have only recently become a deliberate technique. To me, Slate’s “You’re Doing It Wrong” cooking columns are the epitome of the trend (“you make pumpkin pie with condensed milk? you’re an asshole”), and represent a more dramatic divergence than one might first think from the counterintuitivism the brand is known (and gently teased) for. But examples are everywhere.
The opposite dynamic seems to work nearly as well: people love to be told that they’re great just the way they are. I think this is the lens through which one should view much of Gawker Media’s output, from their shaming of racist teens on Twitter to their outing of Violentacrez the Reddit troll. The moral judgments underlying these articles aren’t wrong, which makes them very hard to argue against. But the public performance of those values is clearly about flattering the sensibilities of the audience — “gawker” is exactly the right word for it. When the formula works, there’s an element of triumphalist mob mentality to the proceedings. To me, at least, this often seems more odious than the pathetic and easily-dismissed troll’s gambit.
In some cases, a single article can benefit from both strategies, simultaneously trolling and flattering. Usually this involves an attack on a cliched straw-man — the NYT’s recent piece on hipsterism fits the bill, as does this Philippic by Jill, er, Fillipovic. You can count on some portion of the audience to angrily recognize themselves as the ones being caricatured, and another portion of the audience to pat themselves on the back for participating in the shaming of that imagined subclass. Everybody wins, except for the part where they’ve just demonstrated themselves to be petty, provincial rubes.
Not *everything* will descend to these forms. We will continue to see various kinds of content, even from outlets that embrace these strategies, thanks to editors’ nostalgia, imperfect rationality, deliberate cross-subsidization strategies, and responsiveness to prestige-related incentives that allow them to deploy their position in a principal-agent dynamic for personal gain.
But I do think that this gaming of human psychology is likely to remain ascendant, and to find new forms — online journalism is, if nothing else, a rapidly evolving system. Still, as an audience member, I really dislike feeling like I’m being manipulated. I suppose all one can do is try to develop mental defenses to this kind of conceptual lure, and quietly pine for the simpler, more dignified days of nip-slip galleries.