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.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    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

    >=(

  2. CSK says:

    There seems to be a Gresham’s Law of Comment Sections: Bad commenters drive out the good. It hasn’t happened here, happily. OTB appears to be one of the very few remaining where the majority of the participants appear to be sane and reasonably literate.

  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    The comment section here is to the left of where the main authors used to be. The hosts have moved a bit in response to the times, and in response to reasoned argument. That respectful, rational debate between host and visitor is what sold me on the site. I recall having a debate on abortion with James and felt I’d moved the ball a bit. That’s how argument is supposed to work – you say ‘A’, I say ‘Z’, and by the strength of our argument we reach a synthesis.

    (I’d toss the word ‘dialectic’ into this but of course that would make me a Marxist thus a Communist thus a guard in the Gulag and possibly Kim Jong Un’s secret admirer.)

    What’s happening here is a reflection of the larger debate, a debate the Right is not winning, indeed cannot win because that ideology has collapsed. There are no principled conservatives left, the last one is being eulogized by Barack Obama today. But the underlying reason why we no longer create McCains or George H.W. Bushes or Reagans is that they lost the battle of ideas. Conservatism is as dead as flat earth theory. It died of hypocrisy and exposure to reality.

    The battle of ideas is now between dark and light, fear and hope, hate and tolerance. It is that stark. And that’s why the ideological drift of OTB has been toward the Left. The primary authors are a national security conservative and a legalistic libertarian, connected to each other and to the readers/commenters by shared decency.

    In short James and Doug (and Stephen as well, though he never struck me as particularly conservative) are good, decent, honest men who debate ideas fairly. They’re simply not nasty enough or dishonest enough to be part of this newly-defined Trumpian Right. That’s why OTB and the OTB comments section are islands of sanity in a sea of crazy.

    11
  4. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    “…Kim Jong Un’s secret admirer…”

    As opposed to his not-so-secret admirer, D.J. Trump? 😀

  5. Moosebreath says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    While I largely agree with your comment, the line “Conservatism is as dead as flat earth theory. It died of hypocrisy and exposure to reality.” strikes me as wrong. Conservatism is not dead as a concept. However, it is in steep decline because the people who call themselves “conservatives” no longer practice it.

    The concept of conservatism makes a great deal of sense. It encompasses pragmatic, fact-based analysis, considering the costs as well as the benefits when making decisions, keeping an open mind and being willing to compromise. It forms a necessary counterbalance to idealism which can be too focused on its goals to notice the harm caused by them.

    Unfortunately, when faced with Obama, a President who embodied conservatism’s traits better than any President since Eisenhower, “conservative” standard bearers abandoned their principles and retreated into reflexive opposition, without regard to the costs to the country.

    There is certainly a need for conservatism, and room for a new generation to embrace it. However, that will not happen while the current generation of “conservatives” are in power.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Thanks. And we’re in general agreement as to where the ideological fight is right now.

    When Steven and I first met, we were both fairly mainstream conservative Republicans who listened to Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy on a regular basis. He was more religious than me but less Jacksonian on some cultural issues. But, through some combination of temperament and our academic training, I think we’re both pretty open to evidence and shifting our views accordingly. We made similar ideological shifts over the years, although he might have been somewhat to my left by the time he started posting here.

    Like @Moosebreath, I think there’s room for a conservatism in American politics even if the Conservative Movement practiced by the Republican Party and the successors of the Moral Majority are doomed to failure. As it is, though, I’m in the position Dave Schuler recently ascribed to Helen Pluckrose: “Everybody hates the center. To those on the right you’re the left and to those on the left you’re the right.”

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Moosebreath: While I think Obama was and is conservative in the sense of being open to “pragmatic, fact-based analysis, considering the costs as well as the benefits when making decisions, keeping an open mind and being willing to compromise”—as well as in terms of living an exemplary life in terms of both “family values” and “work ethic”— it’s hard to sell him as politically conservative. He was arguably the most liberal president since LBJ; the only real competition is Richard Nixon.

  8. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    I think that part of the problem is that people are used to debating on bubbles on social media and now these people don’t know to debate with opposing viewpoints. The case of the trolls of OTB is interesting: these people always think that they are the same person because they inevitably use the same talking points.

  9. Moosebreath says:

    @James Joyner:

    “it’s hard to sell him as politically conservative. He was arguably the most liberal president since LBJ; the only real competition is Richard Nixon.”

    I would argue that Obama looks more liberal politically than he was because the Republicans did not take yes for an answer. His health insurance plan was to the right of all prior Democratic plans, and would have been pushed further to the right if any Republicans were willing to make any deals. His stimulus was about 1/3 tax cuts, and again would have been pushed further to right if Republicans were willing to come to the table. If he had reached a “Grand Bargain” on the deficit with cuts to social programs, as he was very much willing to, it would be easy to see him a a centrist, not a liberal.

  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Moosebreath:
    I probably should have specified that I mean the post-Civil Rights notion of American conservatism. The 60’s were when the movement began to abandon anything resembling conservatism and migrated toward racism, misogyny, xenophobia, paranoia and mere reflexive reaction.

    Self-identified conservatives would have embraced Civil Rights had they been genuine, the basic ideas are all conservative: equal treatment under the law, juries of ones peers, freedom of movement and association, one-man-one-vote. Even the peace movement was in many aspects small ‘c’ conservative, opposed to foreign adventures, etc… Instead the GOP, the conservative party, abandoned their ideals and toadied the racists and warmongers for votes. And, long story short, the warmongers kept losing wars and the racists ate what was left of the party.

    I realize there’s a conservative economics, but purely in theory. In reality during my life conservative economics has been nothing but one massive con job geared to crushing the working class and enriching the privileged. That’s only conservative in the pre-revolutionary France sense of it, a protection racket for the regime.

  11. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    That was…meandering. Interesting and thank you for the stream of consciousness into your mind.

  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “In reality during my life conservative economics has been nothing but one massive con job geared to crushing the working class and enriching the privileged.”

    FTFY because when has conservatism–political, social, or economic–ever not been about preserving the status quo and hobbling the economic/class mobility of the individual?

    1
    1
  13. Gustopher says:

    On the subject of Douthat — he’s not a good writer, and that essay was one of his worst.

    The only people who didn’t have their eyes glaze over were the people who brought their own agenda to it. And, I just need to add, managing to write something that tedious about sex robots is a pretty impressive feat.

    Part of being a good writer is understanding your audience, and how to connect to them to convey your thoughts and intentions. Douthat doesn’t do that well, and that leads to people misinterpreting him.

    For all the lament of “readers these days, they suck, get off my lawn” that James starts with, I just want to say “writers these days, they suck, get off my lawn.”

    And he has a huge platform. Putting him on The NY Times editorial page is like pulling someone from open-mike night at the local coffee house and putting them on national tv. You’re not doing anyone any favors.

    Which brings me to another point that James has made — the lack of center right voices in the comments here that are identifiably Republican, and which are genuine, and sane, and can express a traditional conservative ideology.

    It’s not just the comment threads here. It’s everywhere. The NY Times tried to find columnists that fit that mold, and they came up pretty empty, and so they went with Douthat. The poor man.

  14. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher: Douthat made a name for himself with a co-authored book and with blogging. I think the twice-weekly 800-word column is just not his forte.

    As to the column in question, I think he had too many moving parts for the space limitation. But I didn’t have trouble understanding his point even while thinking it rather tedious.

    Beyond that, I don’t think the point is “readers these days” so much as the nature of the media. Those of us who read make contact with hundreds if not thousands of bits of it daily, whether tweets, columns, articles, or books. But we tend to be exposed to snippets of ideas rather than the whole piece. And we’ve gotten very impatient and unwilling to read through to understand even a column-length essay.

  15. Gustopher says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Modern “conservative” economics isn’t just about enriching the upper class — that’s part of it, but there is also something more cynical.

    It’s about peddling a lie that tax cuts pay for themselves to deliberately create a deficit crisis, that they can then use to justify cutting programs that are too popular for them to get rid of any other way.

    The conservatives lost in the marketplace of ideas — most people want a robust safety net, and most people want old folks to have at least a basic income — so they have to resort to fraud.

    The recent tax cuts to the very wealthy will create a crapload more debt. And Trump is using it to justify suspending raises for government workers. And this is nothing new, it’s been going on since Reagan.

    2
    1
  16. teve tory says:

    @Gustopher: They’re selling scams to uneducated people who don’t know any better. Trump is the apotheosis.

  17. de stijl says:

    I miss the communal feeling of blogging circa 2003-2006.

    Warblogging when Bush 43 was ascendant was awesome. Sorry that real life interrupted.

  18. de stijl says:

    @James Joyner:

    He (Obama) was arguably the most liberal president since LBJ; the only real competition is Richard Nixon.

    Unexpected, and well played

  19. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner:

    While I think Obama was and is conservative in the sense of being open to “pragmatic, fact-based analysis, considering the costs as well as the benefits when making decisions, keeping an open mind and being willing to compromise”

    “Conservative” has become an essentially meaningless term, having so many definitions as to have no definition. But that is not a definition I recall seeing before. And it certainly bears no resemblance to people who call themselves “Conservative” in the early 21st century.

    Some years ago I read a book called “Reading Obama” by one James Kloppenberg. He concluded that Obama was an American Pragmatist. A term I had not been previously aware of as a proper noun. You’re describing pragmatism, not conservatism.

  20. de stijl says:

    @gVOR08:

    I’ve just learned to understand that when publications say “conservative” it really means Right-wing or rightist or right-leaning or somesuch. There is nothing conservative about the US right.

  21. DrDaveT says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    when has conservatism–political, social, or economic–ever not been about preserving the status quo and hobbling the economic/class mobility of the individual?

    There was a time when it was possible to believe in good faith that (for example) supply-side theory and trickle-down theory and Gary Becker’s theories about rational drug addicts and the whole U. Chicago “rational self-maximizer” model were correct, and should be used as the basis for policy in the interest of the greater good.

    Those theories have now all been thoroughly debunked by actual data, behavioral economics, and reality in general. People who continue to cling to the Vienna/Chicago models are either in denial, or maliciously pushing a self-serving agenda, or (in some striking cases) have shifted their goalposts to prefer what is ‘moral’ to what actually makes people’s lives better.

  22. @Michael Reynolds:

    I probably should have specified that I mean the post-Civil Rights notion of American conservatism. The 60’s were when the movement began to abandon anything resembling conservatism and migrated toward racism, misogyny, xenophobia, paranoia and mere reflexive reaction.

    There was a self-identified conservative moviment before the 60’s (or at least the end of the 50’s, when the National Review was publishing articles like Why the South Must Prevail)?

    My idea (for what I have read about the political history of the USA) is that until the 50’s, “conservative” was usually a slur word used by the self-styled “liberals”; when a self-styled conservative movement appeared at the mid-50’s (with the National Review, the YAF, the books of Kirk and Nisbett, etc.), was a kind of (almost un-american, according to some) transplant of nostalgia for European Old Order, mixing political Catholicism, European Monarchist and/or reactionary emigrées (Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Thomas Molnar, Leo Strauss, etc.), admiration for Francoist Spain, support for any Thirld World anticommunist dictator, “law and order” and, since the beginning, support for the South (and with articles saying that, if there was a problem in the South, was not the blacks don’t having the right to vote, but the poor whites having that right).