The internet would like to inform you that the thing you thought was good is actually bad—and you might be bad for liking it. I’m referring, of course, to Beyonce. Or maybe I’m talking about dogs. Or Bernie Sanders. Probably Adele. Definitely spooning.
These are all hot takes—an internet phenomenon that Salon’s Simon Maloy defines as “deliberately provocative commentary that is based almost entirely on shallow moralizing.” On its own, a single hot take might not seem all that bad. As with any other kind of junk food, the problem is in aggregate. Hot takes are cheap to produce, easy to find, addictive, and bad for us. They dampen our taste for more nourishing fare—make the texture and flavor of, say, a solid piece of investigative reporting feel mealy and bland by comparison.
But that’s not the only problem with hot takes. Forced to craft our online identities with limited tools, we communicate not only our beliefs but our identities by sharing our stance on Macklemore’s whitesplaining or Rihanna’s feminism. (I don’t know what to think!) The risk is that the hot take can wreak real havoc—both by facilitating an increasingly toxic online culture, and by redirecting our limited resources away from the issues that any of us actually care about.
There are, alas, only so many hours in the day we can dedicate to consuming media. Our attention is limited, and so are publications’ resources. So hot takes compete for space in our collective consciousness with articles about, say, the water supply in Flint.
The New York Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, has gone so far as to suggest that the Flint crisis can be blamed in part on journalism’s misguided priorities. She writes:
After all, enough Times firepower somehow has been found to document Hillary Clinton’s every sneeze, Donald Trump’s latest bombast, and Marco Rubio’s shiny boots. There seem to be plenty of Times resources for such hit-seeking missives as “breadfacing,” or for the Magazine’s thorough exploration of buffalo plaid and “lumbersexuals.” And staff was available to produce this week’s dare-you-not-to-click video on the rising social movement known as “Free the Nipple.”
There is another, better world in which early, aggressive media attention to Flint might have caught public attention and thus political attention, mitigating the damage to Flint residents. It’s easy to argue that the media was just catering to our collective appetite for debates about nipples and plaid. After all, we’re the ones who click! But it’s also possible that the public would have different priorities if the media pushed us to.
Saying the internet is awful because people are awful is a lot like saying guns don’t kill people; people kill people. It’s superficially true and completely misses the point. The fact is that Americans kill people—including themselves—at staggering rates because we’ve made it easy to get guns. Similarly, the internet can feel like an awful place not simply because we’re awful people, but because we have also designed the internet to be a garbage fire.
Beyond the issue of simple demand, what encourages publishers to produce so many hot takes? Part of this issue is that publishers’ business models give them a perverse incentive toward shallow writing. As I’ve written before:
Publishing companies have two ways to measure the value of a piece. They look at how much money it cost to produce, and at how much monetizable attention—in the form of display advertising—it captures. An underpaid freelancer might take one hour to produce a zany listicle on confused cats and one hour to create a slideshow about the history of mac-and-cheese pizza. If each one captures readers’ attention long enough to shove an advertisement down their eye-gullets, then — congratulations! — you have produced essentially interchangeable pieces of #content.
Once you start seeing the web this way, it’s hard to turn ad-vision off. Suddenly, long, well-sourced, well-researched pieces look like inefficient ways to capture 30 minutes of a user’s attention.
Publishers can produce a hot take on the outrage du jour—which generally comes with zero reporting—just as easily as they can produce a piece on 21 times that Harry Potter made us hangry. Plus, if the take is hot enough, which is to say counterintuitive enough, shallow enough, moralizing enough, it can yield far greater dividends (read: pageviews) than your average listicle.
Pretty soon, publishers are churning out takes on others’ takes. Does Fusion have a take about Salon’s thinkpiece about the Slatepitch from The New Republic? Probably. Online, there can never be one take to rule them all. Your imagination is the only limit. If you’re out of ideas, try mashing two together! What does Donald Trump’s racism have in common with Adele’s hit single “Hello?” What, indeed.
These frenzies—what John Herrman called “Take Time”—inevitably lead to meta-takes (not dissimilar to what you’re reading now) about the efficacy and morality of hot takes. And, so, the takes fold in on themselves—a black hole from which no attention can escape.
Although publishers are flooding the market with cheap takes, it’s also true that we have an insatiable demand for them.
That’s because, when we’re online, we have to perform who we are. Online interactions can mask a host of identity cues—gender and age for starters, but also our emotional state, aesthetic choices, political leanings, educational backgrounds, and interests.
Offline, we can show others what kind of a person we are. On the web, we have to wave our arms and shout. The currency of the social media is what we “like,” share, and talk about. Naturally we are drawn to pieces that can serve as shorthand. Maybe it’s that piece about Adele and Trump—you’ve got more class than those rubes who listen to top 40! Maybe it’s the one on Macklemore and white privilege—nothing says I’m super woke like hating Macklemore. We do share content partly because we have a genuine desire to share information and connect with and influence our peers. But we also post articles to tell other people who we are and what we care about.
As blogging platforms like LiveJournal and Blogger erode and microblogging platforms like Tumblr fill the void, as small screens eat big ones and small ideas cannibalize the corpses of long-form writing, we lose even more of our ability to share complex identity markers. So we grasp for the most ready ways to present our identities noisily—unambiguously, in stark black-and-white.
Fifty years ago, “problematic” was modest, mousy and rare, maybe akin to “thole” or “vellicate”—nice for a dinner party, but far from a buzzword. Today, you can’t go online without bumping into a “problematic” or two: “Hip-hop videos featuring bling and babes” are “problematic”; “The Promising…Future of Ultra-Fast Internet” is problematic; “psychological process—which underpins racism, extreme nationalism, and prejudice of all sorts” is problematic; “resolutions, as Oscar Wilde knew,” are problematic; “videogames” are problematic; Miley, Katy, and Iggy (not Pop) are problematic.
Yes, problematic has become the epithet of choice for preferences or statements (or even celebrities) that don’t match a given moral or political norm.
Generally, these norms are tethered to a rationale. For example, the outcry after Victoria’s Secret dressed Karlie Kloss in a war bonnet for a fashion show makes sense. Simon Moya-Smith, a journalist of the Oglala Lakota nation, says Victoria’s Secret’s dress-up act was “analogous to casually wearing a Purple Heart or Medal of Honor that was not earned.” This blasé disrespect for already-marginalized groups is a problem—you might even say it’s problematic; it trivializes the appropriated culture. As Jenni Avins writes for Quartz, “someone else’s sacred object shouldn’t be a casual accessory.”
Such norms do valuable work. But when they become untethered from their rationale, they become little more than fuel for white-hot takes. Take the great debate over Rihanna and feminism. It is good for the media to encourage readers to be critical consumers of popular culture. And we ought to intersectionally interrogate our cultural representations. But breathless thinkpieces too often flatten thorny, complex issues into a single, simple question (“Is Rihanna a good feminist?”) and then supply a simple answer (“No”).
How did we get into this mess? I spoke with writer and critic Gita Jackson about the unhealthy behaviors that dominate today’s online discourse. She contends they got their start at the Something Awful forums and in LiveJournal fandoms—platforms that carried outsize influence on the early web. The same people who started there “grew up and became the people that built new websites and communities on the web,” she tells Quartz.
Sometimes the trail is easy to spot, as in the exodus of personalities and mores from Something Awful to Twitter. Sometimes it’s a little harder to trace, but it’s easy to follow the behavior.
Jackson told me about her time in the LiveJournal Harry Potter fandom, where “you would often have large groups of people forming into two different camps. You would have people—the Harry/Ginny shippers and the Harry/Hermione shippers—circling up at different forums and talking about how dumb the other one is, just like high-school cliques.” Ugly personal spats became ugly political spats as the same dynamics started playing out in spheres outside of Harry Potter fandom.
“As we moved to Tumblr,” Jackson says, “we were all more politicized. Call-outs included accusations that might be levied at activists in real world spaces—you’re problematic, you’re a bad feminist.” We joined our new political vocabulary with the internet’s cultural balkanization.
The result is that call-outs are no longer confined to smaller subcultures of the internet. Instead they grace the pages of most major publications. When done well, they are valuable and necessary. But they can also quickly result in a confusing digital pile-on, as with one recent article about how Amber Rose was wrong to call out Pink for calling out Kim Kardashian over her nude selfies.
“It makes people afraid to be intellectually curious or to have dissenting opinions or to speak at all,” Jackson said. “It makes people feel like they need to ask permission to enjoy the things that they enjoy. That is not a healthy, vibrant, thriving intellectual environment. That is stifling, and it puts everyone in a culture of fear.”
This isn’t a Chaitian argument about how awful PC culture is. Call-outs are a valuable way for marginalized voices to check dominant discourse. Rather, the issue lies with the hot take itself, which is a genre that by definition lacks nuance. Hot takes are often churned out in an hour or two, leaving writers with scant time if any to reflect, perform research, interview others, revise their articles, and complete the other tasks associated with thoughtful cultural criticism. And so we wind up with articles that use the language of important political and sociological discussions to disguise their fundamental superficiality. The word problematic does not in and of itself constitute an argument, and when we treat it as one, we miss out on the chance to engage critically with the world.
I’m too young to remember what it was like to be an adult taking in the news in the days before the internet. I can imagine, though, what it was when the value of what newspapers printed could be measured only in the way it affected people—in letters to the editor, in the civic movements sparked by an exposé. Now many publications depend on numbers to tell them how worthwhile a story is—10,000 clicks, or 2,000 shares. But the things that produce clicks are not the things that produce thought.
Yet our algorithms determine our internet, which in turn, determines the way we communicate. This is to say that in our hyper-textual, hyper-present world, the hot take is driven by a Darwinian desire to thrive and beat out the competition. The internet, it turns out, is just as red in tooth and claw as nature. In his Harper’s piece about the shape of the early 2000s, “The Naughts”, Roger D. Hodge writes presciently about the consequences of a sick media culture:
Short of withdrawing to an ashram in the Appalachian Mountains or to a bunker in West Texas, there is little the responsible American citizen can do to avoid contamination except turn off the television and the radio, cancel newspaper subscriptions, shun the movie theater, and meditate each day on the mantras of H. L. Mencken, Mark Twain, and Ambrose Bierce. But for those of us who must, whether out of perversity or an outmoded sense of civic duty, maintain close contact with the diseased organs of our society, there is another option. We can choose to embark on an immunization program, to strengthen ourselves with a literary vaccine to the never-ending cycle of obscene news and the pandemic of poorly expressed, ill-reasoned, well-publicized opinion.
The internet is notably absent from his list, even though today it drives our discourse in ways hitherto unimagined. But Hodge’s pronouncement—that we are trapped, all of us, in the bubbling churn of a fetid culture—rings all the truer when you consider the net.
“Connect with friends and the world around you,” Facebook demands, writing in the imperative. You must. In conversations with my less internet-inclined friends, I can hear the taut strand of resentment in their voices. They worry about missing out. Opting out of online culture is a radical act, and the costs—the loss of a shared cultural language, the skepticism of potential employers, the missed opportunities for networking and online connection—are real.
The universality of the net makes it all the more necessary that we find a remedy. To combat the hot take, we need personal experience and real reporting. We need to understand that our metrics are broken and our methods of tracking insufficient. And we need new networks designed to encourage empathy above anger and humanity over avatars.
The “literary vaccine” Hodge prescribes is already here. It comes with the bedside manner of an email newsletter, which provides a much more personal and less public (and therefore less performative) connection. It comes in the slow poultice of services like this.cm, which force us to slow down the rhythms of hot takes, arresting cycles before they begin. It comes in the panacea of empathetic investigative journalism, which presents nuance and depth as virtues rather than merely striving for the most strident take imaginable. We have the antidotes. We need only allow ourselves inoculation.