Brad Warner reminds us how the social-media sausage gets made:
Yet I don’t look at those articles and think, “Now there is a passionate writer speaking truth to power!” Rather, I remember that offer I got seven or eight years ago and I assume I’m looking at the words of a writer a lot like me, struggling to pay the bills through the only kind of work they know how to do, trying desperately to get as many clicks and likes and shares as possible to make sure they get paid for this one.
This is why I can’t take most of what I read these days at face value. Because I know how the game of being a professional writer is played. I play it myself. I have to. I know that one of the most abused professions right now is that of being a writer. Few of us are in a position to speak out about it. We’re too busy just trying to stay afloat in the situation these new practices have placed us in.
Hitler sells. Horror sells. Sex sells. Put that together to create the image of real life as a horror movie starring a sex-crazed Adolf Hitler, and you’ve got an article that might to be shared enough times for you to afford to eat this month.
…I’m trying not to become similarly cynical about life itself. And the only way to do that, that I can come up with is to leave those problems the media wants me to freak out about aside and focus instead on what’s right in front of me. Being hyper-aware of problems I can do nothing to solve never brought me any joy, nor did it ever make the slightest difference in those problems.
While moving into this new site, I spent a week or so down in the HTML-basement fixing as much as I could of the linkrot and code-decay that had accumulated over a decade-plus of writing online and a few template changes. After reading all those old posts and looking at all those old links, I came away with the strong impression that in the early part of this decade, pre-Great Awokening, there seemed to be a lot more interesting variety to be found. Google used to have a “blogsearch” function that I would use each day to see where I could find some new, interesting site I’d never seen before. Social media hadn’t yet converged into the monolithic Mall of America that it’s become now, with a couple-dozen big-box content providers and the 24-hour reality show known as Twitter, where psychotic freaks compete to see who can grab fifteen seconds of viral fame before being hunted down by a roving outrage mob. There was a middle ground where independent blogs and unique voices flourished, and I drew a lot of my inspiration from there.
In the blog era, it was known as “nutpicking” — the practice of finding the most extreme, unhinged statement on the outgroup’s side of the web and holding it up for ridicule. And while some bloggers made a popular shtick out of it, it was also considered bad form to a certain extent, like hitting below the belt. Now, that’s almost all there is. Nonstop harvesting of nuts like squirrels preparing for winter. Even people I think of as mostly sane and judicious, like Cathy Young, spend far too much time magnifying and amplifying obnoxious trash from obnoxious people that should really be passed over in disgusted silence. But it’s no fun being disgusted by yourself, in silence, when you can perform your disgust for reward. And intellectual bacteria don’t care how they get passed from host to host, so long as they do. All of this creates the bedlam that we see now. At some point, people who truly want things to change are going to have to understand that there’s no fighting it from within. Urging people to only share worthwhile content is as futile as urging people to not feed the trolls. The structural format of social media is not going to be “hacked” in service to nuance and depth. As the doom-metal troubadour Scott Weinrich sang, “Look at those around you/ Find your better way.” Find it and stick to it. Refuse to feed the social-media Moloch with your energy. Be a better example for whoever is willing to pay attention.
It’s hard, though. I’ve been struggling uphill toward that goal for a few years now, and it doesn’t get easier. Inertia, laziness, the gravitational pull of my own limited talent, they all work against me. It’s so much easier to make a quick wisecrack about the fresh hell du jour than to quietly read hundreds of pages, waiting for the illuminating flash in that one line or passage that heralds a brainstorm. Not that I have anything against jokes, of course. Some things are just funny, and sometimes we just need to laugh at the absurdity of it all. It’s just that, as with anything that’s too easy, complacency is sure to follow. Sometimes I laugh at myself, turning my hobby, of all things, into yet another exertion requiring new reserves of discipline. But then I remember it could always be worse — I could be trying to make a living as a writer and find myself up against the same social and economic pressure that has already turned so many others into pathetic hacks chumming the waters with clickbait. Integrity is quiet and undemonstrative, but it’s always worth the isolation and hard work.