Here’s how to make journalists stop doing things like “publishing a vaguely offensive thing that a local hero said on Twitter when he was sixteen.” It’s so simple you wouldn’t believe it.
Never, ever click on stories about that kind of thing.
They’re measuring the amount of time you spend looking at stories like that. The amount of time your eyeballs spend on the article or articles about the article is all they care about. By “they” I mean advertisers, and it doesn’t matter if you’re pleased or enraged. If something gets your attention, they’ll show you more of it. They’ll show you more, in particular, of the thing that most enrages you. By reading that story—and—this is key—stories about that story, you’re telling advertisers how to get your attention, and it doesn’t matter if the attention is good or bad. It’s good for them.
I agree. But I’m afraid that this is all a good idea in the same way that veganism is a good idea, and I don’t think the media equivalent of a vegan diet is ever going to catch on any more than the literal one has. The best we can probably hope for is to convince people to invest a bit more of their time, and maybe subscription money, in supporting free-range articles which have been allowed to stretch their argumentative muscles and spread their rhetorical wings, rather than gobbling buckets of deep-fried news nuggets which have spent their short lives on clickbait factory farms, crammed into tiny cages, being pumped full of outrage steroids.
As John McWhorter and Glenn Loury discuss in their most recent conversation, it’s hard to be an individual. It’s not pleasant to constantly set yourself at odds with your peers. People are hardwired to prefer the “warmth of the crowd,” the consoling “group hug” of shared identity. And few people are willing to voluntarily isolate themselves through a principled refusal to participate. “I don’t eat that kind of food. I don’t read those sorts of articles. I don’t enjoy that type of entertainment. I’m not interested in gossip.” Do that enough times, and you might start to feel lonely. And one way that people compensate for that feeling of loneliness is by developing a sense of smug superiority, which isolates them even more.
I’m a fairly taciturn, solitary person. Always have been. I’ve never had a Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/etc. account. For me, the Web 2.0 train stopped at Blogspot station, and I’ve never felt the need to get back on. And yet even I find myself aware of far more cultural effluvia than I care to admit. Why? Because even I, fairly disciplined as well as solitary, can’t devote my free time with monastic rigor to reading cerebral books and thinking elevated thoughts. I love the amateur writing I do here; I love building with words the way other hobbyists like to build with power tools or craft materials. But I’m also an ordinary, boring fellow, and I don’t have enough depth of inner resources to draw on in order to write original, interesting material. So I depend on the conversational prompt of other websites to stimulate my own thoughts. Thus am I compromised. You dance with them what brung you. There’s also the fact that my curiosity is somewhat Whitmanesque — I’m easily interested in subjects both high and low, refined and vulgar; I feel ambidextrous enough to approach topics either critically or reverentially, to attempt either commonsense philosophy or cheap puns.“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” If that occasionally leads me to flirt with popular culture and sample the low-hanging fruits of social-justice stupidity, I console myself with the thought that at least I avoid whoring around with syphilitic Buzzfeed listicles and “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS liberal snowflake!!!” videos on YouTube. I might even balance it out by occasionally, accidentally, writing something moderately profound.
“If there is hope, it lies in the proles,” said Winston Smith. For me, hope lies in the podcasts. If there is a dependable audience for calm, in-depth, three-hour discussions of weighty issues, maybe there’s a quiet revolution taking place underneath all the cacophony of social media and network news.