The Creative Underclass is Still Raging
Fifteen years ago, New York magazine published a piece called “Gawker and the Rage of the Creative Underclass.” (Alternative headline: “Everybody Sucks.”) The piece argued that Gawker, then still a niche publication beloved of insiders, was powered fundamentally by the resentment of those struggling in creative industries or who aspired to creative industries but had not made it. This, the piece suggested, drove both Gawker writers and Gawker readers. That cultural moment is very much gone, the original Gawker is no more, and the internet has developed a whole suite of new pathologies in the meantime. Yet I have come to think that the basic tenor of online life is still heavily influenced by the dynamics identified in that ancient-by-internet-standards piece. The creative underclass is still raging.
The internet, famously, is full of negative emotion, and there are all kinds of angry people on it. You have conservative anger over an evolving culture, liberal angst over the continued salience of reactionary populism, leftist fury over our inability to make anything happen. You have impossibly defensive stans taking to the digital ramparts to defend their favorite pop singers, you have the endlessly-churning resentment of comic book movie fans who have won an unconditional victory in the pop culture marketplace yet whine as if they lost in a blowout, you have the wails of those whose favorite artforms are dying. You have angry conspiracy theorists and angry fact-checkers and angry gamers and angry Redditors and angry feminists and angry queer people and angry homophobes and angry libertarians and angry anarcho-primitivists and angry guys with podcasts who are under the misapprehension that they’re funny. When it comes to anger online, our cup floweth over.
I have no possible way to be scientific about what I’m going to lay out to you. But I think that, in the cacophony of constant anger online, there’s a kind of person that plays an outsized role in the general tenor of ugliness and resentment that permeates online life, and it looks more or less like the creative underclass that Vanessa Grigoriadis described a decade and a half ago. I’m talking about people, almost always college-educated, most gainfully employed, who have unrealized dreams in creative industries like movies, novels, journalism, music, essays, TV, podcasts. They have positions in the world that are, by international or historical comparison, quite comfortable. And yet they’re angry all the time, angry because of thwarted ambition and the sense that they were meant for more than comfort. Sometimes these people have actually tried and failed in various creative endeavors - gone to film school, sent their manuscript out to agents, bought an expensive microphone and ring light for their YouTube channel, spent a year begging people to like, share, and subscribe to their podcast. My sense, though, is that many of the people I’m talking about have never actually made an honest try at a creative field, perhaps too embarrassed to dream big and fail. They are nevertheless possessed of a deeply-ingrained cultural expectation that they’re supposed to desire more than middle-class stability and the fruits of contemporary first-world abundance.
These people look out at a world filled with creators creating, look at the considerable benefits they accrue (in money, yes, but more importantly in status) and they want. They want what others have. And want breeds resentment, especially when it’s so plain that some of the people who have succeeded have done so despite no clear advantage in talent, worth, or effort. They have absorbed the contemporary left critique of capitalism as an arbitrary and fickle distributor of reward, but without the steadying influence of the old left’s valorization of working, of the dignity and value of work. (They have not apprehended that the left can never be anti-work, that the left is labor.) They live in a digital culture that has obliterated the distance between the creatively successful and their audiences, allowing them to see all that the victors enjoy, over and over again. Crucially, they also benefit from the protections of, if not literal anonymity, then obscurity - the easiest way to avoid getting attacked online is to be so little noticed that no one would bother. Since no one pays much attention to them, unless they get very unlucky, they have no self-protective motive to moderate what they’re saying. And they have ample laptop and phone time - so, so much laptop and phone time - and are perpetually bored. It’s all a recipe for an entire class of people who spend their time taking out the resentment engendered by unfulfilled creative dreams on anyone who they see as an undeserving success.
Grigoriadis refers to the perceived targets of the rageful creative underclass as “the grasping and vainglorious and undeservedly successful,” which is as good a gloss as any. Part of the resentment lies in that sense that the successful are tryhards, that they have pursued their careers too nakedly, that there’s something gauche and uncouth about working out in the open, in full sight of the rest of us. Somehow they think wanting and not getting something is nobler than wanting something and getting it.
Perversely, the dimmer the star in a creative world, the brighter the target. The really successful, the Hollywood types, the A-listers, are still to some degree inaccessible. They’re inoculated from the hoi polloi by fame, money, and success. Despite the fact that stars now reveal everything about their lives on Instagram, most of them still are able to stay in a bubble. (Barack Obama does not check his Twitter mentions.) But people further down the ladder who nonetheless enjoy coveted positions in creative fields are more accessible in pure communicative terms, thanks to social media, and are more likely to engender envy because their station seems more realistic. It’s hard to imagine being Ryan Gosling; it’s not that hard to imagine being one of the hosts of Chapo Trap House. And so people who have tasted some success and get to be full-time “creatives” but who lack fame or genuine riches, as opposed to upper-middle-class extravagance, become the most attractive targets. Like the sibling to the favored son, the underclass has both reason to be jealous and proximity enough that they can reach out and punch their targets.
To pick an almost-random example, you might look at Nate Silver, the polling wunderkind whose reputation has been gradually dulled by Twitter criticism but whose professional stature has not. I mention him in part to emphasize that “creative” does not always mean “artistic.” He’s one of those people where the large amount of entirely fair criticism is often drowned out by unreasonable hate. Personally, I think he’s kind of a dork, and he appears to have some version of the Freudian death drive when it comes to getting dunked on. (He’s the kind of guy who steps in it so often, I wonder if it’s a kink.) But he’s also someone who’s conspicuously successful, having risen from being a fairly ordinary stathead sports blogger to someone whose own publication was acquired by The New York Times and ESPN/Disney. His success is enviable. And yet like the creative underclass, he tweets too much and he looks like a normal person rather than like a movie star and he gripes about Congress and basketball and has generic center-left politics and seems like a guy that you could easily imagine occupying the cubicle next to yours. In other words, he suffers from an attribute that very often makes people a target online: recognition. He reminds the creative underclass of themselves while getting to be a full-time opiner. He is exactly the kind of guy who makes a certain type of person say “why not me?”
It’s worth saying that the economics have shifted out from under this dynamic since the publication of the New York story. For one thing, in the last decade and a half the media and publishing worlds that were once old Gawker’s most consistent targets have been hit hard. As I have argued, no new Gawker could ever emerge today because the stars at Condé Nast and Penguin Random House have largely faded away; the basic financial prospects of media and publishing have taken such a hit that the people early Gawker writers once looked up at and envied barely exist anymore. Grigoriadis identified that trend herself in 2007, and it’s fair to say that things have not improved. There are far far fewer expense-account lunches at Nobu in publishing, and nobody gets the Gay Talese lifestyle in media anymore. Indeed, the great irony is that in many ways the kind of people who wrote for Gawker have gone from being the envious underclass to the envied overclass. I actually think that this was later Gawker’s great failing; long before Hulk Hogan obliterated the company, the flagship publication had spent years pretending to still be a band of outsiders when it had become a vastly influential media empire. Today, many would kill to work for Vox or Buzzfeed or whatever remaining Gawker analogs exist now. I can tell you from experience that a lot of people out there covet the ability to simply exist as professional writers. Of course, the rewards are far more humble today than in the heyday of magazine and newspaper writing; it’s totally common for people who write for “content” sites to earn $60,000 a year while paying New York prices. People still envy journalists, but just about nobody working today will ever go on to enjoy the Graydon Carter lifestyle. They stopped making that job.
I’m just a jamoke with a small audience and influence, but I do get to be a full-time writer. Is my position enviable? My not-entirely-sincere modesty says no, but experience says yes. (I’m very very grateful, if that’s the question.) Everything else aside, I get to do this professionally, and that’s certainly a blessing that I expect others to desire. Which leaves me in a somewhat awkward position here; I understand that, for some, this will look like I’m pulling up the ladder, mocking those who don’t have what I’ve got. But zero mockery is intended here. I’m just trying to wrestle with why online life is so unpleasant and to identify one piece of why. And the people who spend tons of their life spewing bile at minor internet celebrities out of jealous anger are themselves the biggest victims of this dynamic. It’s not pleasant for anyone, and deeply self-injurious for those responsible.
I have also been unusually invested in helping people who want to make it as writers. I’ve written a ton of practical advice toward that goal, such as here and here. Last year I put together a free ebook collecting years of advice I’ve given to young writers about achieving the kind of (admittedly weird) career I’ve had. I’m trying to be helpful. Usually the trouble, though, is that a big part of my advice is to have a day job. People really, really don’t want to hear that; they want to write, as a profession, and have it support their lifestyle, which is eminently understandable. But it’s just really hard, especially when you’re starting out. (I also think there is such a thing as talent, for a writer, and not everybody has it.) And if you can get a job as a staff writer churning out takes at some random site, or if you’re trying to grind enough freelance stuff to make ends meet, you very well might not have time to do the kind of writing you actually want to do, which is a little perverse. Besides, tons of celebrated writers have had day jobs. But people just don’t want to hear it. Getting out of middle-class but low-status white-collar work is part and parcel of their desire to write, or to create in any other field.
The difficult thing is to have an appropriate perspective on this undercurrent of anger from the losers in the game of having a cool enviable career. On the one hand, the vast vast majority of humanity would kill to have what the creative underclass has. Bullshit jobs really aren’t that bad. I had an email job for four years. I sucked at it and my superiors didn’t like me so eventually I was fired. But objectively, you couldn’t call it a bad gig. This was especially true because I was in a union, which almost nobody with an email job has, but still - strip away the collectively-bargained contract and its benefits and I still lived a relaxed, low-stakes day-to-day existence. Most people in email jobs have a browser full of tabs that have nothing to do with work. They watch YouTube endlessly. They listen to podcasts and they drink their coffee. They shop on Amazon. They don’t do a single thing that’s physically taxing, risk no injury in their work other than carpal tunnel, and are often minimally supervised. And all of that could be had in a cubicle; now a lot of people with these jobs work from home, expanding their opportunities to set their own schedules and to goof off relentlessly. Of course there are exceptions, but if you’ve got a nice low-level white-collar job doing some sort of administrivia for, like, a car insurance company or a commercial bank or on the bureaucratic side of an ad agency or in myriad other places, you’re enjoying an existence that most human beings can only look at and covet. That perspective has to be brought to bear here. People need to count their blessings.
But it must always be remembered that we don’t live within the grand sweep of historical and international comparison, but in the flow of our own day-to-day lives. I’ve never been one to say “you have running water and the MMR vaccine, quit your complaining.” And it happens that all those late-90s movies were right to say that late capitalist corporate existence is a site of sadness and anomie. More to the point, we’ve created a culture where it’s widely understood that you can’t simply make enough money to live; you also have to be serving some higher calling or deeper need. I’ve written for years about the fact that we’ve built a society in which there are more ways to be a loser than a winner. Most people, certainly most college-educated upwardly mobile people who enjoyed active and pushy parents, feel the need to do more with their lives than to fill out TPS reports. This is as human and sympathetic desire as I can imagine. And at the same time I understand that there’s plainly a certain carrying capacity for employment in creative fields; we can’t sustain an all-podcasting economy, despite the efforts of an army of people. All of which is to say that life isn’t fair and the world is imperfect.
I don’t know, I feel like a hypocrite. I think the reputation of inoffensive laptop jobs needs to be rehabilitated in order to make a satisfying life available to more people. Our economy appears to have an insatiable demand for such jobs, so we should teach people how to be as happy as they can be within them. And also my life, my day-to-day existence, really doesn’t suck. I don’t quite know how to synthesize those facts in a sensitive way.
My sympathy does not extend to the actual bad behavior these conditions engender. The creative underclass screams and snarks and insults and trashes and rages impotently, every day. I see it all over, Twitter and Reddit being clear examples but really anywhere that people from different stations of life congregate online. There’s just so much anger and so much resentment, everywhere. I’m sure anyone who’s a reasonably successful journalist or writer or pundit is tired of being screamed at all day. Criticism comes with this kind of job; it’s the empty, unfocused resentment that's something else. And obviously, as I said, the internet is a resentment machine in all of its corners and the people I’m talking about are just one cadre of anger’s army. But I do wish people were better at identifying the real source of their rage.
Ultimately, I think all we can do is further commit to a project we should be engaged in anyway: shattering the myth of just deserts. Reminding people that they don’t control their own destinies. Insisting on the truth that chance and path dependence play huge roles in our lives. Giving no ground to the myth of the self-made man. I believe I’m very good at what I do, but/and I’m exquisitely aware that if a few things had broken differently for me, I’d never have enjoyed this opportunity to write as my only job. (I’m also exquisitely aware that in five years I could be filing TPS reports for some small-city government myself.) The question is whether people should have fits over my success itself, as opposed to all the substantive reasons to dislike me. It’s difficult for any of us to really grasp abstract problems like inequality or corporate domination, and the temptation to nominate some individual people as the receptacles for your anger is understandable. Understandable, but not helpful, least of all to the people who get perpetually enraged in this way. I wish there was a good way to drain the internet of all of its envy and resentment. Until we find one, all we can do is remind people - it’s all capitalism; it’s all Chinatown. Nobody planned on any of this. What you do for a living is not a referendum on your value. We can and must achieve a world where everyone has food, shelter, clothing, education, and healthcare, but we can never achieve one where everyone enjoys public acclaim. And you have to find a way to deal with that. You wanted more, and you got less, and it hurts.
Here's the commenting rule I posted yesterday.
"Starting tomorrow, there’s a new rule in place for commenting on this newsletter: any comments that do nothing other than to dismiss the relevance or importance of the topic of the given post will be deleted, and the commenter will be issued a one-month ban. I mean specifically comments of the type “this is worth talking about because?,” “why is this worth a post?,” “I don’t care about the phenomenon the post is describing,” etc. There’s not going to be any warnings - if your comment merely dismisses the relevance or worthiness of a post’s topic, you’re banned for a month.
A particularly annoying, self-aggrandizing version of the type of comment I’m talking about is the “this is just meaningless online stuff!” “This is just a Twitter phenomenon!” Etc. These comments are uniquely annoying and self-defeating. First, this newsletter is about many things, and one of those things is online culture and its influence on culture and politics. Many people, in the 21st century, spend a great deal of time online, so elements of online culture have natural and intrinsic interest. If you personally don’t see the interest in a given post, simply pass it by; no one will miss out on anything by not seeing your comment about your lack of interest. Another aggravating element of this tendency is that commenting on an internet newsletter is inherently a marker of being online. This tends to be so self-celebratory, even masturbatory - “you’re all so online, but not me! All of this online stuff is beneath me!” My friend, if you are online enough to launch a comment on a blog, you are not so offline that you get to strut around in that way.
If you routinely find yourself uninterested in what I write about here, you are of course free to take your readership and your money somewhere else. That’s an option you have. An option you no longer have is to peacock around in my comments section, bragging about how the topic of the day isn’t worth your interest. That ends now, and people who violate the rule will catch bans. You have been warned."
One thing I hope we see in the future is more outlets for non-professional creative expression. The need to express ourselves creatively is a universal human desire. But there are very few spots for professional creatives.
I think a better society will have a lot more community theatre, boutique publications, small improv groups, community writers' workshops that can give people outlets for creative expression even if they don't make it their profession.