I am not a fan of media culture; this stance has gotten me a lot of work in media. Let me lay out why media culture is bad, in plain terms.
One of the participants in the charming, public conversation above is Sarah Jones, a journalist. This is not the first time she’s had uncharitable things to say about me. That goes way back. In fact it goes back to before she and I both sat on a panel at NYU, about something socialism-related I can’t remember. When I heard she’d be on the panel I thought it was interesting because of said previous shit-talking. I wondered how she’d act; I had never had a bad word to say about her, but clearly the feeling wasn’t mutual. And the answer, of course, is that she was perfectly nice and friendly. Not a word of complaint, not about my work or my online persona or even the things I said on the panel. Because these people do their shit-talking online. She had every opportunity to tell me she didn’t like me or my work - I don’t think I’m very intimidating - and she declined. She instead does her complaining in a forum that I don’t participate in, where most everyone already doesn’t like me, for which she knows she will receive a dopamine rush from dozens of digital strokes literally called “Likes.” (Here is tweet; please like me.) Going after me on Twitter is the cheapest path to meaningless reward there is. I am the softest target possible.
Now, here’s an important immediate side note: when people from the culture I’m critiquing see this post, they’re going to immediately denounce my including these tweets. They’ll definitely call it weird; it would not surprise me if they call it dangerous or something, that I’ve put people at risk by sharing publicly what they… already shared publicly. Someone will definitely mention my mental illness. They’ll act like it’s totally out of line. But why? Twitter is public; it includes the option to take tweets private if you don’t want it to be. Jones is talking about me specifically on a public forum. Who would not be interested in that, exactly? You wouldn’t have an opinion about someone’s opinion of you, broadcast to thousands? Isn’t a prominent journalist talking about you on a public forum worthy of your attention? And most importantly: why would me talking about Sarah Jones on my blog be any different, any less legitimate, than Sarah Jones talking about me on Twitter? Why would the presumption be that she has the right to talk trash about me, but I’m not allowed to respond?
The reason why is because she is one of them. She’s in the club, so it’s OK. She’s in the digital media kaffee klatsch. (Apparently so is something called Rebecca Baird-Remba; I don’t know, I don’t read Commercial Observer.) She’s done the necessary ingratiating with that crowd. She’s liked the shitty joke tweets and pretended to care about the latest controversy and gritted her teeth and congratulated writers she really, really didn’t like about their new jobs. She has completed the rituals, the sorority rush period by which people in media are awarded a rung on the ladder. That’s why she’s allowed to do it, and I’m not. That’s the only reason. If the situation was reversed and Jones posted some old tweets of mine in a newsletter, nobody would bat an eye. The rules emerge purely from your place within the hierarchy. An intern at Buzzfeed can’t use the word “crazy” without being called ableist; Jia Tolentino can make herself out as the victim of a story about human slaves and emerge with more clout than she had before. The only rule is to be popular.
“We can talk shit about anything and anyone we want, all day every day, but if they talk shit back, they’ve violated some sort of precious norm.” This is, to me, not compelling.
This is one of those things that I write that they consider deeply embarrassing. (They are, of course, the ones being indicted, so.) And I know some of my supporters would prefer I avoid this jam. Trust me, I have a whole lot of other things I’d rather write about. But someone has to stand up to these people, if for no other reason than that they entered a profession dedicated to telling the truth but are too afraid to say what they really feel in person. Journalism matters, which means that the culture of journalists matters, and that culture is a sewer. And because they literally are the media and decide what gets published, nobody talks about this shit critically - the cowardice, the careerism, the jockeying for position, the fake praise and empty conversation, the absolute subservience to a hierarchy of popularity that offers them only vague and empty feelings of importance as reward. All of that seems obviously corrosive in an industry that’s supposed to be really important. That is inherently worth writing about. If I’m the only one willing to do it, then fine.
At least a dozen times I have met media types in real life who had talked shit about me online. And they were always all smiles. Oh hey dude, nice to meet you. Call me old school, or maybe I’m just weird, but I think that’s a mark of poor character. I tell people I don’t like them in real life all the time, because when you’re an adult you express how you feel honestly rather than feel one way and act a different way. (Don’t worry, I will email Jones the link to this post, and only the link, as soon as it is posted.) If you’re more conflict avoidant than me, simply make the grown up choice: you’re either bothered enough by this person to let them know, or mature enough to keep your mouth shut. Running to the playground to tell the other kids about who you don’t like is neither adult nor constructive. Perhaps it’s not ideal that the media is made up exclusively of asthmatic indoor kids.
I am many things and I have many problems. But I am not passive aggressive. I don’t refrain from telling people I don’t like that I don’t like them. I don’t avoid conflict. I may be crazy, but I’m not fake. I doubt even they would say that I pretend to be something I’m not. I don’t like them. So I’m telling them. It’s simple and freeing.
If you don’t like what I’m saying here, why not say something better? There’s opportunity there! I don’t understand why nobody ever takes me up on this: media’s social culture has, let’s say, some unfortunate elements, as I think even the most paid-up member of the system would acknowledge. Why doesn’t someone produce some big chunky essay about how the social mores of media affect the industry? Why not something about the pressures younger journalists feel to conform to the orthodoxies of media Twitter? If you aren’t nearly as negative as I am, fine! Show me I’m wrong. Demonstrate how a culture that teaches thousands of 30 year olds that they should throw stones only from the safety of a social network is good. Explain it to me. Tell me why groupthink and parasociality are healthy. But somebody, please, just write about this. What does it mean when an immensely important industry has organized itself entirely around the petty popularity hierarchies of a social network? That’s a New York magazine cover story, if you want it to be.
Not that I’m sure it would do much good. Certainly they won’t listen to me, right, but that’s a given. The issue is that Twitter is both the problem and the means through which the problem is avoided. If some already-disgruntled participant in the media circle jerk were to read this post, find some things to agree with and start to wonder if I’m on to something, those feelings would be quickly suppressed by all the other writers on there insisting that no, our critics are just assholes, there’s nothing worth talking about in our social culture, our industry is perfectly healthy, we’re just fine thanks. If self-criticism is possible for individuals, it’s not possible within mutual admiration societies. The socially-enforced self-defensive capacity of media Twitter means that no one ever takes a long hard sober look at whether everyone in an entire industry trying to ingratiate themselves with their peers literally all day and night could have some unforeseen consequences. It’s a shield against introspection.
The truth is of course that these people are whistling past the graveyard; their endlessly workshopped dry one-liners, shared relentlessly on a forum that makes them depressed and anxious, are the cries for help of desperate people, trapped in a dying industry, making pennies to grind out something called content while 70 year olds in the same business write 5000 words a year and watch their pensions grow. They think that they’re participating in the traditions of Joan Didion and Ellie Bly but the work they produce are listicles about Tik Tok and thinkpieces about Rick & Morty. They tell themselves that someday they’ll graduate into writing that book, not seeming to understand that literary advances are drying up like piss in the Sahara if you aren’t already famous. They cling to each other in mutually parasitic insincere relationships out of the vain hope that one day, one day, it’ll pay off.
They insist on living in the most expensive cities in the country while the interest on their student loans grows to many times the principle. They mock Silicon Valley while quietly knowing that they are utterly in its thrall, that any shithead VC baron could come along at any moment, decide to throw a switch, and obliterate them and their publication. They relentlessly freelance to get a chance to write for the big places and are shocked to discover that the big places are very happy to pay you $75 for 3000 words. They look at publications like the New Yorker as the cathedrals they aspire to work for, not seeming to realize that the beauty of being a cathedral is you get to treat even your big name employees like shit. They hate their industry and they’re tired of the city and they want some security but they won’t take that job offer from their uncle because they’re sure, somehow, that they’re better than him.
You’re poor now and you’ll be poor later and you always said you were happy to trade it away to do something meaningful and now you cry at night because you know none of what you do matters. So who’s the real fucking loser?
By the way, since apparently my deal with Substack is so interesting - no, I don’t know how long this will be my primary source of income. Can’t say. But they’re paying me to write what I would have written for free. If I get enough subscribers to keep doing this after the first year and I want to keep going, cool. If not, it will have cost me nothing. Would you have turned that down?