To take a trip down memory lane, as early as 2000 and all the way until 2010 so, you could get articles viral by provoking emotional triggers. Although emotional triggers still work, people have become much less impressionable, especially as of 2013, and now you need data visualizations, graphs, code excerpts, cartoons, and other accouterments in order to demonstrate competence (in post-2013 internet journalism, conveying competence is more important than partisanship or political tribal loyalty), which is necessary to get people to share it. But it works, and these data-laden articles (as in the case of WaitButWhy and Vox.com) often go viral. It’s not just enough to say something provocative; you now need to back it up with tons of data to make it seem really smart and substantive. But also, in agreement with the post-2013 importance of authenticity, you need a very personal angle to it. You can’t just type an emotive rant unless you make it personal, introspective, smart, and appeals to a ‘shared narrative’.
Between 2001-2007, the economy was stagnant, interest rates were too high, and most internet journalism consisted of terse listicles, shrill opinion pieces that were short on data and long on emotion, bland AP write-ups, and transcribed articles from print sources. There were none of those huge banner images that you see on the top of every article nowadays. Only the listicles and the shrill rants went viral, and what little intelligent stuff that was produced (often posted on WordPress, blogger, and typepad blogs) was mostly ignored. Then, as mentioned before, 2013 came along, and we saw the equivalent of the ‘Cambrian Explosion’ for intellectual journalism (a subset of ‘intellectualism culture’ explosion), that continues to this day.
My theory for the trigger, is that the strong economy and stock market that began in 2013 (the S&P 500 gained 30% in 2013 alone, on top of 12% gains in 2012, and then followed by 11% gains in 2014) subconsciously raised the standards of discourse, both online (in journalism) and in greater pop culture (post-2013 rise of nerd culture for example). When it became increasingly apparent by late 2012 or so that the US economy was not going to collapse, and in fact was recovering well from the 2008 crisis, the ‘Zeitgeist’ switched from ‘survival mode’, despair, and abandonment, to ‘intellectual mode’.
Other examples of ‘intellectualism culture’ include introspection and naval gazing on Tumblr and other social media, intellectualism signaling, rationalism, debunking and fact-checking, contrarianismlow information‘, the rise of centrism in response to emotive, sanctimoniousness SJW-liberalism, and the rise of the ‘alt-right’ (in rejection of the histrionic, unintelligent mainstream conservative media). Both left-wing and right-wing communities (rationalists and reactionaries) converge in rejecting ‘low-information’, generalizations, and sensationalism, instead preferring nuance, erudition, and evolved discourse.
Especially as of 2013, articles that are contrarian – especially articles that challenge commonly held assumptions by older generations – seem to do very well, almost always going viral. Articles such as why IQ is important, why parenting doesn’t matter, why the Revolutionary War was a mistake, why democracy doesn’t work, why going to college is a bad idea unless you major in STEM, why the economy doesn’t care about you (only results matter, not being nice), or why it’s bad advice to follow your passion. In contrast to 70’s, 80’s and 90’s self-improvement, which was anodyne and full of schmaltz, post-2008 advice is more biting, more about the individual being held accountable for his or her failure, not society (again, going back to individualism). It’s easy to blame the collective; much harder to blame the individual, but given that these articles often go viral, a lot of people are becoming receptive to this message, and that’s a sign of progress. The competitive post-2008 economy is forcing people to embrace individualism and personal responsibility, like it or not
As part of the post-2013 backlash by fact-checkers against lazy, ‘low-information’ reporting, a Medium article excoriating the Washington Post for making disingenuous inferences from Google trends data to make ‘exit’ supporters seem uneducated and uninformed, went hugely viral and got over 700 ‘favorites’ on Medium.com and was shared thousands of times on Reddit and elsewhere:
They note that searches about the EU tripled. But how many people is that? Are they voters? Are they eligible to vote? Were they Leave or Remain? Trends doesn’t tell us, all it does is give us a nice graph with a huge peak. More likely, it’s a very small number of people, based on this graph that puts it in context with other searches in the region:
Again and again, people are tired of the mainstream media’s distortions, seeking more evolved discourse from sites like Medium. Even ‘remain’ supporters are tired of the lies against ‘leave’, similar to how many smart liberals (who don’t even support Trump) are tired of how the ‘low information’ media spreads lies about Trump, whereas as recently as five years ago neither side of the political aisle would cry foul if a major media platform spread distortions about the opposing side. Now, we’re all kinda playing ‘devil’s advocate’, fact-checking our own ideological ‘team’ as intensely, if not more, as the opposition. If you’re going to use ‘low information’ tactics to try to drum up support, don’t be surprised if even members of your own ‘tribe’ call you out on it. As shown above in the example of the Washington post, if you use ‘low-information’ tactics to advance an agenda, it will backfire.