The Tribe Still Comes First
In the fifteen years I’ve written for public consumption, this is the topic I’ve returned to most. I have argued that people who work in the media are in great majorities unduly concerned with being popular among their peers, and that this desire distorts our newsmedia and what it covers in destructive ways. I also believe that the most important site of this kind of social conditioning is Twitter. A corollary to this is that the industry, which will give the most trivial subjects immense amounts of coverage (like, say, the “Try Guys”) avoids talking about the powerful impact of the desire to be popular, a kind of within-industry omerta that prevents anyone from looking too closely at how the sausage gets made. I told this story my first year of writing, I’ve told it most every year since, and I’m telling it again now. Because nothing ever changes.
There are, of course, many people of both talent and integrity within the industry who do their best to avoid this social capture. Many of them are open-minded about who they read and what they’ll engage with. Indeed, the median writer is (unsurprisingly) more thoughtful and willing to challenge consensus than the crowd. But even the most independent of them tend to at least maintain the code of omerta, refusing to publicly question the in-crowd dynamics even if they won’t play into them with their own behavior. And I do get it; they have to live and work in that industry and coexist alongside the peers that they might be criticizing in aggregate. It would, though, make me feel slightly less crazy if more people would say, even occasionally, “people in the industry really want to be well-liked, and they change their public personas and their work to remain so.” What’s frustrating for me is that, while they may not share my level of disdain for this condition, many individual writers have privately conceded the broad contours of what I’m saying. But they don’t do so publicly. Like I said. Omerta.
Of course, the disciplinary action taken against people who speak the way I am is exactly what you’d expect: insiders accuse critics of insiderism of merely being jealous that they aren’t insiders themselves. It can’t be the case that someone like myself could genuinely, organically observe the ways in which media cliquishness distorts the practices of journalism and commentary and advocate for something better. Any such critics must necessarily merely want to be a part of the hierarchy they criticize, sour grapes. Again, it never changes.
What I never understand is why no enterprising media reporter doesn’t ever try to report this out. There are no industries where insiderism and patronage don’t impact the labor market to some degree, so why not try to explore that influence? How does the insiderism of elite media Twitter influence the industry and thus our national story? This topic would seem to fit perfectly for several people who have undertaken career-long investigations of media and online culture. I don’t know how anyone who works in professional media can fail to understand that what gets covered and who gets advanced within the profession is deeply bound up in who’s perceived as cool among peers, especially as expressed on Twitter. But my sense is that if any particular media reporters were to see this post, they would likely just make fun of it - and in so doing, take part in precisely the kind of social capture I’m critiquing. Because the way that people assert their status as insiders is with the ritualistic rejection of outsiders. Part of the reason I rarely take media insider criticism personally is because long ago I realized that, a lot of the time, I was being invoked only opportunistically; I was merely a convenient symbol of what a given critic didn’t want to appear to be.
Often the media is accused of being too solipsistic, generally unafraid to report on itself. But while we’ll get a newscycle out of the idea of a “vibes shift” we won’t get a single New York magazine feature about how there’s a high school-like popularity hierarchy on Twitter that enforces consensus and helps determine who becomes a big deal in the industry. Honestly, I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that many of Twitter’s most passionate users feel compelled to dismiss the idea that they’re attached to it, as this would be uncool. Thus you have people who have tweeted hundreds of thousands of times but performatively deny that they care about their position in the network. But the entire media industry talks to and about itself on Twitter all day, every day. How could this not be worthy of serious and critical analysis?
I think a frank, broad conversation within the industry about the tendency of in-group dynamics and social incentives to influence coverage and careers would be beneficial not just to the quality of the work that gets published but to the people in the industry themselves. I suspect that many of them feel hemmed in by the constant need to carry water for the consensus. Personally, as an outsider I’m blessed with freedom. I can read who I want, write about what I want, and arrive at whatever conclusions organically occur to me. A few of my readers may have been annoyed by my back-and-forth with Parker Molloy on cancel culture, but I was excited to do it, and crucially I have no tribe that I needed to avoid offending. (I didn’t become independent to be part of some social movement of independent people, which is not real independence; I am not here to gore your favorite ox.) I can write about whatever I feel like and praise the work of whoever I please. In contrast, there are many big-timers in the media kaffeeklatsch who would never feel they have the freedom to engage in such a dialogue with me, someone who is to be avoided per mandate of the insider circle. I can’t imagine living that way. I’ve got to be free to write about whatever I want, and in particular I value my ability to praise the work of people I really don’t like, when it merits praising. (Nice job, Nathan!)
A few times a week, I’ll pop the URL for this newsletter in the Twitter search bar. This has been suggested to be an embarrassing behavior, though I genuinely don’t understand why - I want to know how my work is being perceived beyond those who comment here or email me, who are a self-selected group. Mostly it’s just people sharing and praising, or substantive criticism that actually responds to a given piece, which is the point of all of this. But just about every month, there will be some of these cliquish behaviors - sharing a piece I wrote but only after layering on endless caveats and provisos to make it clear they don’t endorse me in general, sharing something I wrote and then being immediately chided for having done so, a lot of “lol not clicking” by others in the the tribe. The saddest is when someone shares something, receives the mandatory social conditioning, and deletes the tweet in shame. I recognize the ritualistic quality of all of this and so I don’t take it personally; with my second book sold, my freelance credits what they are, and a comfortable income here, I certainly don’t need to. I do, however, feel bad for the people who have to live like that. It seems exhausting, and it doesn’t have to be this way.