it’s trolls all the way down


Reminds me that I was only sort of kidding about this:

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.

2 Responses to “it’s trolls all the way down”

  1. Corey Mull

    In a perverse way the Slate ethos is the same as the Gawker one: it is flattering to know that there is some platonic ideal of ________ (pumpkin pie techniques, urban planning approaches, ways to consider the oeuvre of Creed); that you, as well as your NYC cultural betters can have access to these platonic ideals, and that you will be able to deploy these in bon mot form to impress people in meetings and at dinner parties.

    Slate’s primary product isn’t journalism, it’s smarmy remarks in gatherings.

    My own media consumption is much better for beginning to listen at what is silently whispered to viewers/readers along with the editorial content, which usually amounts to “you are better than those around you, for this reason: ” where the reason is “they are godless liberals coming to destroy your way of life” (Fox), “you are a thoughtful person that carefully considers all sides of argument (CNN, most other mainstream TV), “you are a global citizen and much more cultured than those around you” (NPR, PBS).

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