Online Journalism: Themes of Viral Articles

It has been a while since I wrote about online journalism. In this post I identify characteristics of authors and articles that go viral. There is a tendency to dismiss journalism as not a ‘hard’ or substantive subject, compared to more intellectually rigorous and less ideologically-motivated subjects such has math or computer science (STEM subjects). Stories of writers being laid off from left-wing online publications such as Huffington Post, AOL, and Vox are commonplace, and there is a sort of pleasure in seeing misfortune befall your ideological opponents. But journalism and writing is not just about pushing an ideological agenda, but about communicating effectively. An effective writer is able to persuade by writing for the most skeptical reader in mind, who does not know him and has no reason to otherwise believe him, opposed to a pundit who writes for an already preselected and convinced audience.

Being a woke (as in aware and cognizant of trends, not a SJW) socially moderate, educated left-winger seems like the perfect niche. You acknowledge and respect the right’s concerns about demographic change and other societal problems are not unfounded, but your implementation is more consistent with classical/moderate liberalism. I feel like everyone is trying to grab as big of a chunk of the middle as possible while still keeping one foot in their respective camps/tribes. However, it gets repetitive after awhile, because everyone is trying to capture this massive center-middle audience, so the same themes and observations tend to be repeated. Hearing about the “intolerant left” was an interesting observation first few times around, but keeps being repackaged as being a new or novel observation for quick approbation, when it’s not. Yeah, we get it, the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ have reversed positions regarding free speech. I dunno who actually originated this observation, but he or she owed some major royalty checks given how often it has been cited.

If you are part of the smart-left and criticize the far-left, you still retain much of the left, but also capture a good chunk of the center, the center-right, and also the smart-right. That is a lot of people. If you move too far to the right, you lose more people than you gain. The popularity of the IDW, which is mostly composed of center-left/right pundits (with the lone exception of Ben Shapiro, who is notably further to the right than others by IDW standards), is evidence of the success of strategy of capturing the middle.

Another strategy is drawing parallel between the past and present. This is effective for generating content because although there only a limited number of topical stories in a given news cycle, by compassion there is no scarcity of historical events to draw connections from. Comparisons of America to the Roman Empire are commonplace, as evidence of purported America’s decline, but I have never found such comparisons convincing, because although there is some similarity, there are also so many differences as to make such analogies useless as far as predicting the future is concerned. It does help convey that invaluable intellectual credibly and authority that is needed for help articles go viral, but, imho, not that helpful in terms of developing useful models for understanding current society.

Book reviews: these tend to do really well and are much better received than anything you could likely write on your own.

State the obvious: recitations of easily and commonly understood concepts such as status and hierarchy, and how human hierarchies are analogous to and can be modeled by animal hierarchies, do well. It’s sorta like social Darwinism, but it’s more descriptive than prescriptive and little to no mention of IQ or race, which are too controversial. David Brooks built a career largely doing this.

Shared narratives are important and require much less justification than declarative value or normative statements. The observation that “politics is more divided than ever,” is less likely to generate rebuke than trying to argue that the world is more/less peaceful than ever, as Steven Pinker saw given the huge backlash and criticism to the optimistic message in his books regarding human progress, the Enlightenment, and purported decline of human violence. Defending modernity, as Pinker does, will generate substantial rebuke from both sides. There is a shared dissatisfaction of the ‘status quo’ and mutual dislike of liberalism, which is perceived as out of touch.

From On Having Good Opinions (deconstructing Joe Rogan’s success)

Employ shared narratives and themes. Although they are opinions, by definition, many people agree with them and require less justification. A banal but true statement such as “the social media and political landscape is crazy” or “Americans are increasingly distrustful of each other and society seems like it is falling apart” is less likely to elicit rebuke than declarative statements such as “liberals/conservatives are making things worse” or “society is better/worse than it has ever been.” Look at all the controversy and backlash Pinker has attracted just for saying things are getting better. Andrew Sullivan and Ross Douthat, rather than pound the table about how one side is wrong and the other is right, first consider what motivates both sides to believe what they do, and then try to find a unifying theme, that being the shared narrative. A common theme of their work is not that one side is to blame but rather the fabric of society itself is torn and that Trump and his voters are the symptom, not the problem.

Rather than puritanical moralizing or dripping sentimentalization, is emphasis is an trying to understand motives, such as sociological or economic, for why and how people act and behave the way they do, like why is cheating so rampant in college, and what this says about society, not that cheaters are ‘morally defective people who need to be punished.’

There is a sort of cognitive dissonance of supporting modernity in the context of technological improvements and rising standards of living, but also being critical of democracy, ‘helicopter parenting,’ credentialism, careerism, ‘too much screen time for kids,’ social media anxiety and envy, ‘kids being coddled,’ and other ills of modernity. Articles that address such topics go viral, with commentators on either side of the aisle giving anecdotal evidence and data about the ‘benefits of going outside,’ ‘too much smartphone usage,’ or how ‘society has become too competitive.’

Related to above, avoid imposing one’s values about how society ‘ought to be,’ as values are hard to defend and open oneself to attack. The problem when trying to convey a value statement is, it’s hard to know how your opponent will counter. A good argument attempts to anticipate such disagreement, but it’s impossible to anticipate every possible disagreement, no matter how much research you have done. Instead, focus more on the descriptive instead of the prescriptive/normative, so rather than explicitly delineating one’s values, which opens one to attack, they are implied, which is more stealthy. So in regard to to over-parenting, such articles may give anecdotal evidence and studies such as firsthand stories of parents lobbying professors and teachers to amend a low grade, and studies showing how parents are taking a more active role in their children’s education today, than in the past. Statements that outwardly convey judgement, such as ‘parents spend too much time with their kids,’ are avoided.

Split the difference. This is what Ross Douthat does. Begin with the shared narrative, that both the high-IQ left and high-IQ right will agree on is unlikely to elicit much rebuke, such as the prosaic observation that “America’s political climate is increasingly divided.” Then hold both sides accountable, showing how conservatives and liberals alive are making the problem worse. It is inferred that the solution is somewhere in the middle, between both partisan extremes, or that both sides need to do more listening and less talking. A common theme of Mr. Douthat’s writings is being critical modernity, which makes him ostensibly a “conservative,” but many on the left are also critical of modernity, and is why his columns tend to be well-received.

Celebration of the mundane. In a news cycle dominated by high-stakes issues such as Trump and China, stories about seemingly mundane, non-topical stories such as the viral Atlantic article Why Do American Houses Have So Many Bathrooms?, frequently go viral on ‘smart’ communities that constitute the intellectual-web. The intellectual-web, although by virtue of IQ is composed of far fewer members than the ‘normie web’, intellectual-web members tend to have much bigger social networks. A typical normie Twitter or Facebook account may have a few dozen followers, but members of intellectual-web often have hundreds or even thousands of followers (such as personal Facebook accounts that get a lot of comments and votes on submitted stories) so stories shared by the intellectual-web may go viral even if ignored by the normie-web and mainstream media. The intellectual-web plays an important role in the propagation of memes and news, and in its own right can make stories go viral before the mainstream media can respond. The aforementioned article is also an attack on modernity, that being the tendency of Americans to build large homes and waste water, which also helped the article go viral, being that it is a shared narrative too. Even conservatives be like “Americans waste too much waster and have too many bathrooms.” [As an aside, my own personal take is, unlike washing a car or watering a lawn, when it comes to the disposal of human waste, in which there is not only a disgust factor but also a risk of transmitting disease, it's better to err on the side of more water, not less. It's not that having more bathrooms is wasteful provided the water is not running, but it is a matter of convenience in not having to wait.]

This why the subject of rent control comes up so often in intellectual-web communities, because it combines economics and sociology, and there is no obvious solution. Is Is the answer less regulation or more. What is the perspective of the renters, versus landowners? Is the answer as obvious and straightforward as building more, and if so, what are the regulatory obstacles to increasing housing supply?

The major theme in tying all these otherwise unrelated articles together–such as rent control, the rise of online ‘extremism’, automation, college tuition and bubble, and parenting–is the transformative effect, for better or worse, of modernity and technology on society, particularity over the past 10 or so years. The intellectual-web, as opposed to the normie-web, cares greatly about debating these problems, and is why such articles frequently go viral. As discussed above, much of the debate is trying to reconcile the contradictions of modernity and how society seems to be simultaneously getting better and worse, such as how modernity improves standards of living (such as cheap entertainment on Netflix, lower infant mortality, medical cures, etc.) yet also makes life worse (such as kids not going outside anymore, too much coddling by parents, rent too high, low rates of home ownership, delayed family formation, elevated male suicide rates, male loneliness epidemic, low birth rates in developed countries, ‘crisis of masculinity,’ etc.).

The most effective communicators in the world can construct augments that are persuasive, well-received by a large and ideologically diverse audience, and nearly impervious to attack. They employ shared narratives yet still are opinionated, but the use of such narratives makes the prescriptive and opinionated content easier to digest and helps diffuse disagreement. An example of this is Dr. Jordan Peterson. First address the crisis of masculinity: there are a lot of disaffected young men who lack guidance and direction and who feel like they are being ignored by society, and this is made worse by to politics, political correctness, rapid societal and technological change, and other factors. The sensationalist, partisan media is making this worse. This shared narrative, which unlikely to be met with rebuke by the readership and is disarming, segues to the prescriptive and more opinionated stuff, such as blaming feminism or the rise of dual-income households, and is more likely to be met with resistance.

Like in the first part, appealing to the ‘middle’ by avoiding sounding too extreme, opinionated, or heterodox, leads to conformity and the same topics and rhetorical style used over and over. Because, memetically, if some pattern of behavior or use of language confers an advantage, it will be propagated even unintentionally. Excessive use of hedging language and equivocation to diffuse potential criticism, is such an example.