New Reading Environment?
Social media has altered the way writers and readers interact in odd ways.
The editors of n+1 offer some thoughts on what they dub “The New Reading Environment” that begin with promise.
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.
As both a writer and a reader, I’ve experienced both sides of this and have occasionally been guilty. Indeed, just the other day I had a discussion with the author of an article not knowing that he was the author of the article because I’d seen said article via a re-tweet from someone else and lacked the context.
The piece continues in that vein for a while.
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.
I miss the communal feeling of blogging circa 2003-2006. Even then, there were incidents of a deluge of readers coming to comment on a post because of a link from elsewhere, meaning they lacked the context of the unfolding conversation that was originally the essence of the medium. But, for the most part, the commentariat consisted of people who either more-or-less agreed with the front pagers on basic principles or were relative moderates from the other side of the aisle looking to have a good faith conversation with folks who disagreed with their worldview.
Alas, the trolls and flamers have driven off most of the conservative and libertarian voices, leaving behind a handful of regulars well to the left of the hosts to spar with some masochistic Trumpers and various trolls and sock puppets. And OTB has one of the better comments sections out there.
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.
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?
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.
Quite. Having to hedge each declaration with caveats to avoid honest or willful misinterpretation is exhausting to writers and readers alike. It’s simply bad writing.
After that setup, however, the editors execute an odd about-face.
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.
The rest of the article continues in that vein, a screed against the entire op-ed genre and against various individual editorialists. And it’s not without merit. But the fact that there are some hackneyed writers with prime editorial real estate doesn’t justify the practices seemingly decried in the long introduction.
The Douthat essay in question is actually an example of both the futility of that medium and of the willful misreading of others that the buildup seems to castigate. While I followed Douthat’s writing back in his blogging days, I stopped regularly reading his column even before I stopped regularly reading columns, period. There’s only so much pining for the days of Latin masses and premarital celibacy one can take.
Yet there’s also no way an intelligent, reasonable reader of the column in question to conclude that Douthat is arguing men have a right to get laid. The setup of the argument-in-chief is rather clear:
[A]s offensive or utopian the redistribution of sex might sound, the idea is entirely responsive to the logic of late-modern sexual life, and its pursuit would be entirely characteristic of a recurring pattern in liberal societies.
This is followed by the standard Douthat discourse on the evils of modern society, which transitions to the inevitable call for a return to Catholic values:
There is an alternative, conservative response, of course — namely, that our widespread isolation and unhappiness and sterility might be dealt with by reviving or adapting older ideas about the virtues of monogamy and chastity and permanence and the special respect owed to the celibate.
But this is not the natural response for a society like ours. Instead we tend to look for fixes that seem to build on previous revolutions, rather than reverse them.
Followed by more hand-wringing about our sex-crazed modern world, leading to an only-mildly-thought-provoking conclusion:
But I expect the logic of commerce and technology will be consciously harnessed, as already in pornography, to address the unhappiness of incels, be they angry and dangerous or simply depressed and despairing. The left’s increasing zeal to transform prostitution into legalized and regulated “sex work” will have this end implicitly in mind, the libertarian (and general male) fascination with virtual-reality porn and sex robots will increase as those technologies improve — and at a certain point, without anyone formally debating the idea of a right to sex, right-thinking people will simply come to agree that some such right exists, and that it makes sense to look to some combination of changed laws, new technologies and evolved mores to fulfill it.
Whether sex workers and sex robots can actually deliver real fulfillment is another matter. But that they will eventually be asked to do it, in service to a redistributive goal that for now still seems creepy or misogynist or radical, feels pretty much inevitable.
While I find the column mildly exasperating, it doesn’t offend me. He opposes the notion that there’s a right to sex, much less the idea that woman have some sort of duty to satisfy the demands of random dudes who can’t otherwise get laid for it. Indeed, he opposes the right of women who want to sell sexual access of their own accord to do so and at least strongly disapproves of women performing in pornographic movies for the indirect sexual pleasure of men. And, seemingly, of inanimate objects designed for that purpose.
Whatever one might think of Douthat, his belief system, or the merits of the arguments in that column, his being exasperated at being assailed by those who claim he’s saying the opposite of what he’s saying strikes me as perfectly reasonable.