The Intellectual Situation
The New Reading Environment
Each this is not to say or in other words a dull sword wielded against willful misunderstanding
Have editors ever known so much about their readers? And known, in particular, how little and how badly they read? Today even the Weekly Standard and Democracy: A Journal of Ideas announce up front how long it takes to get through one of their online articles, like a warning, or a dare to cull the weak. Newspaper and magazine editors track page views, unique page views, time on-site, and, for the publishers willing to pay thousands a year, scroll depth — the exact point at which readers give up. Twitter, meanwhile, is a scrolling record of bad reading habits. Retweets of pieces one hasn’t finished; parts of pieces one wants to read but isn’t ready to endorse; fragments that cause one to click away in disgust. A reader argues with a stranger about whether they’ve actually read the piece, only to discover that the stranger is the author. The author, a reader herself, knows all about bad reading habits.
The intimacy between online writers and readers determines how we read and write. As late as the 1990s, despite the lurid fan pages and dank chat rooms of the early internet, there was presumed to be a gulf between these two constituencies. Even with Fox News ascendant and internet news ever more dominant, mass media institutions remained monolithic enough to manufacture consent. The first decade of the 21st century was a transitional one in terms of reader-writer relations, its habits now as foreign as those of Edward R. Murrow’s America. Gone are the happy days when we dialed up to submit a comment to Salon.com, only to be abused by Glenn Greenwald or destroyed — respectfully — by the academics at Crooked Timber. Back then, we could not have imagined feeling nostalgic for the blogosphere, a term we mocked for years until we found it charming and utopian. Blogs felt like gatherings of the like-minded, or at least the not completely random. Even those who stridently disagreed shared some basic premises and context — why else would they be spending time in the comments section of a blog that looked like 1996? Today’s internet, by contrast, is arbitrary and charmless. On social media, criticism once confined to the comments now comes as free-range abuse directed at other readers. Readers can address all parties instantaneously — writers, editors, publishers, and the world. And so writers who publish online peer into the fishbowl of readerly reception. Drop in some flakes and watch the fish swarm.
All this is on your mind as you wait for your piece to go up. You’ve just written 1,200 words on Trump, norms, Twitter, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the future of the Democratic Party. Will you downplay its importance (“So I wrote a thing”), or promote it with a tweet thread? Will you retweet praise, or only muted endorsements, detailed enough not to appear self-congratulatory? Will you — boldly — retweet your haters? Or will your piece disappear like all the others, carried along the swift-moving current of the social feed only to be buried in the riverbed and ignored forever? But just when despair has reached its peak, it shows up on the homepage. People tweet lines from your story, or screenshot whole paragraphs, taking care to highlight certain sentences. Not the sentences you would highlight, but people care! They not only read your writing, you see; they want to show others that they read it. Your writing is a badge of intellect.
Axios, whose name is a cross between a defense contractor and an aggressive men’s deodorant, has dispensed with everything but theses and bullet points.Tweet
Then things take a turn. Readers lose patience, and the careful quoting, like snipping coupons with precision, becomes tearing — into lines, phrases, and points. The space grows for misinterpretation, co-optation, and misunderstanding. All it takes is one podcast host with a grudge and a modest following, like an Evangelical pastor of yore, for a small hell to break loose in your mentions. Your authorial control disintegrates. What you wrote is eclipsed by another person’s idea of what you wrote. It’s the reader’s text now — and so are you, an authorial construction, another text to be bandied about. Does anyone enjoy watching themselves get eaten and digested by other people?
The New Yorker writer Adrian Chen recently described the response to his work on the Internet Research Agency, a Russian “troll farm” that seeded false stories of terrorist attacks in Louisiana and the like in the run-up to the 2016 election. Chen had first drawn attention to the agency’s efforts as a way of pointing to other disinformation campaigns. But he soon grew wary of the ongoing attempt to pin the entire 2016 debacle on Russian trolls. He tweeted a clip of his appearance on All In with Chris Hayes, in which he questioned the effectiveness of the operations. The tweet went viral, in the process laying bare the negative correlation on social media between exposure and control. “I clicked through the profiles of the hundreds of people sharing my tweet and found a nearly incomprehensible whirl of agendas, egos, grudges, and strategies,” he wrote. “I was supposed to be influencing this?” The writer, immersed among his readers, loses the ability to communicate with them. “If the metrics testified to my enormous influence,” he wrote, “why did I feel so powerless?”
It can be difficult to like one’s readers on social media. Their reactions can be glib, disingenuous, mocking, cruel, pedantic, self-righteous, derogatory. Every ideal reader you may find there will be matched by another determined to find your faults — your worst metaphor, your least graceful aside, the word your editor wrote in, the Getty Image selected (not by you) to run with your story, with its horrible title. It seems like everyone on Twitter is New Grub Street’s Mr. Fadge, the editor of The Current whose calling card — “flippancy, the most hopeless form of intellectual vice” — was “looked for with eagerness by that growing class of readers who care for nothing but what can be made matter of ridicule.”
To assail an author without increasing the number of his readers is the perfection of journalistic skill, and The Current, had it stood alone, would fully have achieved this end. As it was, silence might have been better tactics. But Mr Fadge knew that his enemy would smart under the poisoned pin-points, and that was something gained.
Some writers choose to bulletproof pieces in advance against these poisoned pinpoints — each this is not to say or in other words a dull sword wielded against willful misunderstanding. To be sure, writers plead — a naive overestimation of their readers’ close attention.
But self-imposed tentativeness has not produced an age of anxious writing. Instead the new style is simultaneously careful and strident, low-key and declarative. Articles are luridly headlined and. Extravagantly. Punctuated. Arguments sit right at the top, just like we were taught to do in high school — except now the enemy is not lack of clarity, it’s impatience. Axios, whose name is a cross between a defense contractor and an aggressive men’s deodorant, has dispensed with everything but theses and bullet points. Transparency about readership has led, in turn, to formal transparency, an internet house style that conceals nothing but delivers no pleasures. Agreeing with something has never felt less gratifying.
Unctuous free-speech advocates, who decry left-wing readers as snowflakes, react to both subtlety and stridency with perfect consistency — they steamroller over the former and are triggered by the latter. Their more honest comrades on the slightly farther right have made entire careers of misreading. But no matter the source of the outcry, writers often end up defending the piece once it’s published — explainer journalism turned inward, against oneself. After filing a column in the New York Times on involuntary celibates and the potential for sex robots to fulfill their libidinal needs, Ross Douthat faced heavy criticism on Twitter for seeming to validate the incels’ claim of a right to sex. Douthat, who has spent his career hoping to roll back the Protestant Reformation, tweeted in response, “When so many descriptions of an argument are unrecognizable to its author, that usually suggests the author failed in some important way. Still, I think hostile readers should consider re-reading the piece and I’ll try to have some further thoughts a bit later.” The next day, he rewrote the main points of “The Redistribution of Sex” in a series of tweets (“All right, let’s see if I can write a short thread restating the argument of yesterday’s column in ways that are less amenable to misinterpretation. Here we go”). But which version is the real Douthat — the column that reads like a series of Freudian slips, or the tweet thread that reads like a rhetorical bunker?
Were his readers not reading well enough, or did he not write it well enough? Disagreement is mostly blamed on miscommunication. The burden of clarity is now entirely on the author, which makes for dull and repetitive arguments — and a demand that certain people come to represent, unambiguously, certain arguments. One’s cards must all be laid on the table, faceup, and one’s position must be unified. But the rise of misreading doesn’t give permission not to mean what you say.
To be a reader is to suffer. The endless call-and-response that leaves writers forever relitigating their work . . . all this is for our sake? In the not so distant past, we could sit with an article and decide for ourselves, in something resembling isolation, whether it made any sense or not. Now the frantic give-and-take leaves us with little sovereignty over our own opinions. We load up Twitter to discover some inscrutable debate (“Why is everyone fighting about the Enlightenment?”), usually over a series of misinterpretations, which in the space of an hour or two has ended friendships and caused major figures to leave the platform. The task then becomes to read in reverse — clicking backward through a series of quote-tweets to reconstruct the original offending article, and try to understand who’s on what side, so you can know precisely what to think and where it will land you, socially.
What must it feel like, we wonder, to carefully slather such oleaginous smarminess over statements that you cannot possibly believe?Tweet
Yet these debates are still more tolerable than what’s happening in the pages of the Times. Since Donald Trump’s election, new prominence has been given to an otherwise deranged and degraded form: the op-ed. The Times op-ed page — along with its basic best friend, the Washington Post op-ed page, and its evil, basement-dwelling older brother, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page — should have gone the way of the classifieds section. Instead it exerts a malevolent gravitational pull, delivering with punishing regularity an endless stream of annoying and offensive provocations.
The irony of the op-ed’s depressing reemergence is that everything is an op-ed now. The op-edization of all writing should have rendered its traditional purveyors redundant. Why read a Times columnist when you can read the same opinion delivered with more style and energy almost anywhere else? But even as internet writers refine and defend and reiterate their opinions — an archipelago of converging takes — so-called traditional outlets have consolidated their influence.
One can still find, in the Times, the old writers who serenely offer their bluff authority as if no one had ever challenged it. But their colleagues, too, seem to have internalized their seismographic sense of what will cause an earthquake. Like Facebook, which squeezes them for clicks, the papers dominate thanks to canny acquisitions: first James Bennet, formerly of the Atlantic, as its editorial page director, and then Bari Weiss as staff editor and op-ed writer. As a Columbia undergraduate during the George W. Bush years, Weiss made a name for herself defending Columbia Unbecoming, a “documentary” by right-wing students who had secretly filmed Arab professors of Middle Eastern studies. The idea was to catch them criticizing Israel in their classrooms in order to expose them to public censure: a fine exercise of First Amendment rights — or McCarthyism. Since then, Weiss has rebranded herself as a noble advocate of free speech and reasoned debate. But she is a provocateur with little flair for drama. Unlike the great controversialists — Hitchens, Cockburn, Paglia — her prose is outrageous only in its dreariness.
Weiss’s most high-profile intervention to date has been an article about an “Intellectual Dark Web” composed of what she calls “iconoclastic thinkers” (e.g. Sam Harris, strident “new atheist” and militant podcaster) forced to the margins of the internet by a reactionary readership. The rest of us would identify them merely as right-wingers and right-wingers who claim not to be right-wingers. In the ultimate bad-faith move, Weiss takes the uproar she receives in response to her articles as proof of collective small-mindedness and censorship. “I am a classical liberal who has run afoul of the left,” Weiss writes. “Having been attacked by the left, I know I run the risk of focusing inordinately on its excesses — and providing succor to some people whom I deeply oppose.” The dilemmas! In this beautifully tautological system, the only solution is more visibility for the wretched of the right: more TV appearances, popular podcasts, sold-out live events, and sinecures at the Times op-ed section.
The most successful aspect of this con is that unlike the proletariat of diligent and aggrieved internet writers, its proponents can glide by without actually defending their ideas, opinions, and statements. Conservative grievances online follow a pattern so unswerving that they might as well be collected as Mad Libs, distributed to every aspiring William F. Buckley Jr. “Universities are well-known bastions of ________ (singular noun), yet _________ (plural noun), who claim to believe in _________ (noun), are hypocrites, as was made clear last week by their treatment of _________ (proper noun, right-wing provocateur). Yes, ________ (plural noun, opposite of “rightists”) believe extremism only exists among conservatives. This is why they’re afraid to talk about the extremists in ________ (oil-rich Latin American nation bordering Colombia)!”
From the perspective of the op-ed editors, “good” readers who see through editorial bad faith and express their outrage have become indistinguishable from “bad” readers who don’t, since outrage is a sign of consequence, and both guarantee traffic. This is how the racist Trump mouthpiece Michael Anton gets an editorial in the Washington Post arguing for revoking birthright citizenship. Most readers won’t know about Anton’s history (his pseudonymously published “The Flight 93 Election” helped land him on Trump’s national security team), about his misquotations (“the last shreds of Anton’s intellectual integrity evaporated into nothingness,” wrote the political scientist Daniel Drezner in a response also published in the Post, far too late to make an impact), or about the ethics of publishing such a piece in the first place. It is in the op-ed section’s interest for those readers not to know.
When questioned about their motives, the editors responsible for all this irresponsible writing rarely answer. They say only that they are acting in good faith: furthering the dialogue, expanding the conversation, exposing their readers to new ideas, inviting everyone to the table. “We give people an honest struggle, an open debate from a lot of different points of view and show that you can do that kind of work respectfully,” Bennet told Politico in April. What must it feel like, we wonder, to carefully slather such oleaginous smarminess over statements that you cannot possibly believe?
One merciful reform, at least, would be term limits for columnists. An older generation is long overdue for gentle removal to Hoover or Brookings. David Frum, Thomas Friedman, Andrew Sullivan, and David Brooks are a decade and a half past their most enduring intellectual contribution: zealous support for an evil and illegal war. (Frum, newly recast as a hero since the election, even helped start it.) Sullivan may have recanted his support for invading Iraq, but he has the particular distinction of never having backed away from publishing an excerpt from The Bell Curve in the New Republic. Perhaps they should be offered a platform in the AARP newsletter, where they can continue to compete for the attention of ageing Americans with the dementia-inducing Fox News.
But this is inadequate. Everything about the recent past, and the generalization of the op-ed form across the internet, suggests there is an inexhaustible fund of such figures, a reserve army of op-ed labor waiting in the wings. Twitter has helped turn the internet into an engine for producing op-eds, for turning writers into op-ed writers, and for turning readers into people on the hunt for an op-ed. The system will not be satisfied until it has made op-ed writers of us all.