Internet Journalism in a Post-2013 Era: Writing Articles that Go Viral

If the goal of writing is to be read, the success of writing can be measured by how many people read it. Yes, the success of writing can also be measured by subjective and aesthetic elements such as prose and pacing, but this is not of foremost importance. Getting people to read it, and hopefully respond and share it, is. Guides, articles, and books about writing are nearly useless. The professionals use their own successes as a blueprint for others, but the problem is each blueprint is unique for each writer, making it impossible to generalize.

Based on my own observations, in our post-pundit era, excitability, partisanship, and emotion is ‘out’; tact and nuance is ‘in’. Partisan pundits lead many of aspiring journalists astray, as their methods don’t generalize well. The 1,000-word polemic about ‘how liberals/conservatives are screwing up America’, is in its death throes. Did you hear of John Fund’s latest National Review Online article? Me neither. Same for Thomas Sowell, whose most popular article is the one where he announced his retirement. But we all know about Slate Star Codex, Less Wrong, and Wait But Why (and I’m not just talking about rationalists and reactionaries). You can go on any major sub-Reddit, such as /r/futurology, /r/news, or /r/economics, and nearly everyone is familiar with those websites. It’s not that Sowell and Fund are inept writers, but rather their ideas are no longer new or interesting, so they are seldom shared or read outside of their increasingly dwindling targeted audiences.

In the 80′s and 90′s, supply-side economics and ‘culture war‘ issues were a much bigger deal than they are now, but now people are more interested in esoteric concepts such as post-scarcity, basic income, the Fermi paradox, cryonics, or how automation will affect the economy. But they are also interested in ‘shared narratives’ topics such as social alienation and anxiety, which are problems that affect individuals of all political orientations. Wait But Why’s article How to Not Be Insufferable on Facebook, which was shared over a million times, is one such example. Nearly everyone uses Facebook, and in our era of heightened self-consciousness and self-awareness, the image one projects onto others is important.

Here’s what the media assumes people only care about:

-culture wars
-politics
-generic fitness and health advice
-sports
-celebrity gossip
-opinion pieces that have simple arguments that agree with simple, reductionist narratives, and written in a simple writing style
-the latest movies and TV shows

Although people still care about the aforementioned topics, the media is stuck in bubble where reader tastes haven’t evolved beyond that. But for millennials, in particular, it’s much different–much more complicated and esoteric, as the huge recent successes of sites such as Wait But Why, Medium.com, and Hacker News, that appeal to an educated, high-IQ demographic, show.

Here’s what people, especially millennials, care about:

-self-improvement, but from a ‘red pill’ perspective (more and more people, including even those who may identity as the ‘left’, are taking the red pill as they realize they have been lied to all their lives to believe things that are logically inconsistent with reality)
-personal finance, minimalism, stock market investing, quantitative finance
-philosophical inquiry, epistemology, existentialism, etc.
-difficult, circuitous articles about difficult subjects, where there is no obvious ‘right’ or ‘wrong’
-introspection
-esoteric, non-mainstream ideologies and movements such as the alt-right and rationalism
-economics topics such as wealth inequality, student loan debt, efficient markets, technological unemployment, automation, etc.
-shared narratives topics
-coding, physics, advanced math, and other STEM subjects (books on Amazon about advanced math and physics concepts sell a surprisingly lot of copies)
-futurism concepts such as ‘the singularity’, AI, transhumanism, the ‘simulation hypothesis’

But aren’t these topics too narrow to appeal to enough readers to be worthwhile? No, because even if only 15% of the total population have a sufficiently high IQ to understand such topics, 15% of billion people is still a lot. Also, influencers, who have large social networks, tend to be of the cognitive elite, so appealing to them is often necessary to get further exposure.

The second part of this article discuses the type of writing style one must emulate for viral success in online writing. For demonstrative purposes, consider the article Why 2016 Seemed Like the Worst Year Ever, by Vice Media.

Note the rambling historical preamble about Freud…it wasn’t put there by accident, but rather it serves a specific function. Although most readers will skim it, is signals above-average intelligence and worldliness of the author by being well-versed in history, rather than being just being another naive dinette, so readers are more compelled to read the rest of the article even if they ignore the introduction, because the author appears educated and is thus credible and someone worthy of the reader’s valuable time. How many writing guides suggest using a historical antecedent to convey authority, even for a non-academic article? I think it’s zero. But it’s the little that details that sometimes matter most. Signaling is extremely important, if not the most important part, even more so than the content or the writing style itself. That’s why Terrance Tao’s political articles go vial, because being a math genius conveys intellect and thus credibility, even for non-math subjects. Same for Scott Aaronson, a theoretical computer scientist, whose articles about societal and political observations go viral, too.

Then the introduction transitions seamlessly to a metaphor for the present:

The good doctor might have been wrong about the value of the vaginal orgasm, but he was right about the crippling, self-destructive anxiety undergirding modern life and how poorly our species seems equipped to handle it. This was prescient when Freud first published it in 1930, and like too many other things out of that decade, it feels fresh again at the end of 2016.

And then this passage:

It’s common to lament 2016 as a kind of spectacularly miserable year, a singularly awful global catastrophe where all the good celebrities died and all the bad ones became president. But 2016 is not sentient, and it’s not deliberately tormenting you (no matter how much it sometimes feels that way). It’s really just the year a number of cultural, technological, political, and ecological trends all collided into one another in the worst possible way.

This is how professional-quality writing reads. It doesn’t matter if you’re a reactionary or a liberal; this is how you have to write in order to be read. Note the use of lists ‘cultural, technological, political, and ecological trends’, or as some call ‘the rule of three’ (which has been extended to four for added effect). And also powerful words like ‘collided’ that invoke mental images of collisions, such as that of a meteorite impact or a car crash, of all these trends being mashed together in the worst possible way.

…powered by personal information extracted from users—is as profoundly, maddeningly disempowering as it is a vehicle for personal enlightenment, community engagement, and social organization.

Again, more lists, and more adverbs. It’s not just disempowering, but maddeningly so, and also profound.

Take this year’s absolute meltdowns about “fake news” and “post-truth.” “Fake news” morphed from a descriptive term for deliberately false stories circulated on social media for advertising revenue to “deliberate misinformation from agents of [the Russian state/international Jewish financiers]” to “anything dissenting from the [liberal political establishment/Alt-Right hivemind]” to “anything I don’t like.” These are not the conditions of “post-truth”—because political discourse has always exceeded (and often contradicted) empirical reality—but rather what Alex Tesar has dubbed “meta-truth.”

This is called the ‘wall of links’ method, used by Scott Alexander and others, and even though few readers will actually click and read all of the links, it’s very effective for conveying credibility. As I explain in greater detail in The Universal Solvent, emotive partisanship has become less effective for persuasion, as readers – particularity tech-savvy millennials, who grew up in an era where everything can be fact-checked with Google (I fact-checked Nassim Taleb on the Swiss vote he cited, by Googling it, and determined he flagrantly misrepresented the results) – in recent years have become more skeptical of blanket statements and assumptions. The onus is on author to show, not tell (such as the ‘wall of links’ method and data visualizations), in order to effectively convey his or her argument to an increasingly incredulous readership.

Also, the topic itself is a shard narrative. Many people can relate to 2016 being a bad year, and how both conservative and liberal millennials are struggling due to the perpetually weak labor market and unending, crushing student loan debt. The whole article has Lovecraftian tenor, admixed with the sardonic cynicism reminiscent of Hunter S. Thomson, with themes of hopelessness and despair of the unknown, which is a very popular online writing style nowadays, that taps into the shared public anxiety over the trajectory of the economy and society.

And as 2017 looms, epistemic anarchy reigns. The incoming president of the United States believes climate change is a hoax and has appointed a former Exxon executive as secretary of state. If the long arc of history does indeed bend toward justice, the devil and his angels are making sure they grab everything that isn’t nailed down before the final trumpets sound.

Ignoring the author’s anti-Trump bias, it’s a well-written paragraph. ‘Epistemic anarchy reigns’ – almost strait from Nick Land. This is how articles go viral…you have to make it complicated in order to signal intellect and to convey authority. All those guides that say to ‘dumb it down’ and to write ‘as simply as possible’ are rubbish in our post-2013 hyper-intellectualized era of internet journalism. This is another example of how the world is becoming like elite institutions such as Harvard, that pioneered the use of verbose ‘academic prose’, not the elite resembling the rest of the world. Academic prose doesn’t just work on academics; it works on everyone. It seems counterintuitive how it works that way–but it just does. Or you can write ‘fake news’, which is antithetical to intellectualism, and also be successful…note how both extremes work. Either make it really smart or really dumb. There are two major exception to this style: first, if you’re writing how-to guides or lists, in which case simplicity is often best for quickly conveying the most pertinent points to the reader, without the extra fluff; second, if you can signal intellect by virtue of your profession and or major accomplishments (such as being in STEM), in which case flowery writing is unnecessary.

Again related to extremes, it’s just weird how in America, on one extreme, you have all these BLM protests and protesters running around amok, but then you also have this massive fortified intellectual nobility, too. Most countries don’t have such a great disparity. That’s why it’s kinda silly when you have people like Richard Spencer talking about making America a ‘white state’…look around, turn on the news…this is not Norway.

…Hillary Clinton campaigned on the absurd slogan that “America is great because America is good” and was so convinced of her own inevitable coronation as the khaleesi of corporate feminism that she didn’t even bother campaigning in Michigan. Half the electorate stayed home, and a few million useful idiots for a bargain-bin

Here again we see the ‘shared narrative’ regrading distrust of elites, and elements of ‘concern liberalism‘ in how the author, who is anti-Trump, harshly criticizes the Hillary campaign, with cynicism piled on neck-deep as part of a writing style that is popular these days (cynicism and skepticism is the new earnestness), that answers to a millennial yearning for authenticity and ‘truth’ in a culture dumbed-down by mass entertainment, reductionist narratives, media sensationalism, political correctness, and superficiality. People of all generations, not just millennials, can relate, which is why these type of articles often go viral. Ross Douthat is another example of a pundit who often employs shared narratives, such as shared distrust of elites and anxiety about the economy, to great effect, and that’s why his articles are read and shared by both conservatives and liberals, who can relate. Richard Fernandez of Pajama Media is another example, whose articles are often shared by reactionary Nick Land.

Fascism flourishes in conditions of meta-truth precisely because it is so malleable, so forcefully beguiling, so deliberately free of even pretending to care about the Liberal Establishment’s idea of “truth.” It recognizes, consciously or otherwise, that truth is a function of power. Donald Trump’s regular, pathological lying underscores that the real goal of fascist rhetoric is not to convince, but to awe and impress. This is why fact-checking the alt-right’s absurd claims are useless and arguably counterproductive—everything they do and say is intentionally performed in bad faith.

Keith Olbermann can scream and sob into a flag all he wants. It only makes Trump stronger. He may or may not ever build that border wall, but the central promise of his campaign remains true: He will do whatever he wants, and the rest of us will pay for it.

The first sentence “Fascism flourishes in conditions of meta-truth precisely because it is so malleable, so forcefully beguiling, so deliberately free of even pretending to care about the Liberal Establishment’s idea of ‘truth.’” is strait from Nick Land and an example of the post-modernist, paranoid writing style that is so popular these days. In all the op-ed pieces from Time Magazine, US News and World Report, Newsweek, and National Review, not once did I encounter such ostentatiousness, that almost borders on pretentiousness. The editors would have chopped it for brevity, and they still do, and that’s why articles from those websites and magazines seldom go viral, because they are stuck in the past, unable to evolve to changing reader tastes for more sophisticated-sounding, circumlocutory prose.

Also, note the dig at Keith Olbermann, who is also a liberal, and the attempt by the author to understand Trump supporters and the ‘Trump mindset’ (and also criticizing liberals who have their heads in the sand and whom cling to their ideology rather than trying to understand their ideological opponents) rather than flat out dismissing both, ties in again with concern liberalism, and is a welcome departure from the emotive, ‘identity’ brand of liberalism that was characteristic of the ‘Bush era’. This also ties in with the post-2013 SJW-backlash, which was another setback for identity liberalism.

Related: Alt-Right and Internet Journalism

Regarding online journalism, which is what blogging ultimately is, it seems like we’re spinning our wheels sometimes, writing articles that are of good quality and by competent writers, but are not read by enough people. I would love to see a right-wing version of Wait But Why–something that appeals to the same large millennial demographic as Wait But Why, that gets a lot of traffic and viralness, and can be used to nudge the Overton window. There’s a huge market for contrarian, subversive right-of-center thought marketed towards millennials, that challenges politically correct assumptions but without explicitly being right-wing. The success of Stefan Molyneux, who is a libertarian and has a large millennial fan base, as well as 4chan and Reddit, is evidence that this may be viable. The December 2012 Cracked.com article, 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person, which was their most popular article ever and had right-wing and libertarian undertones, is an example.

The posts 10 Harsh Truths Every Millennial Must Know and Advice to Ignore are articles targeted towards a broader audience, that have subtle right-wing themes embedded within them. The idea is you begin with a shared narrative, which are apolitical and bi-partisan (the frustrations of being a millennial in debt; student loan debt; self-improvement; social anxiety; distrust of elites; anxiety about the economy; anomie, etc.), and then you nudge the reader to your desired conclusion/resolution, dropping clues along the way, which is the opposite approach of, say, Ann Coulter, or most political pundits, who is more brazen but this limits the broad appeal and viralness of her articles. You’re not preaching to the choir, but rather to the skeptic and the undecided.

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