A case study in the rise of the hot take

Something I keep talking about without ever putting in the work of writing a definitive statement is the history of the hot take as a media format. The UK media industry cluster invented three new ones at the end of the 90s, they were hugely successful, two of them depraved and corrupted everybody and the other was the Grand Theft Auto franchise. In this post from September 2019, inspired by finding my copy of A User’s Guide to the Millennium, I said:

This wasn’t, however, the last word. There was a cheaper way to keep the ads apart, and the doctrine that politics was mere theatre suited it perfectly. That was the rise of the columnists and the evolution of the hot take. The lessons that a large element of public life was ritual, and that much of what was presented as fact was narrative, were repackaged as statements that in that case, anything went so long as it was entertaining. The editor, in this model, became the manager of a portfolio of opportunities to achieve outrage. Shorter and cheaper formats made for greater diversification and a better per-issue chance of hitting the jackpot. In many ways, the opinion pages and the surprisingly revived magazines like the Spectator had already internalized what are thought to be very modern response-optimizing practices long before the Internet advertising industry created the response metrics that now underly them. This is why they, not the real newspapers, prosper today.

More recently, thinking about the rise of the RCP/Living Marxism influence network, I said:

Less flippantly, both the Spectator and the LM crowd’s various outlets prided themselves on offering the same thing. They were the founders and past masters of the hot take, the magazine considered as a diversified portfolio of opportunities to achieve outrage, and ideally also second- or even nth-order outrage at the first set of readers’ outrage, an ironically Keynesian multiplier effect given their opinions on economics. The unique selling point was that they were “controversial” or “provocative” and also “witty” compared with a public sphere dominated by, yes, technical quibbles between administrators. To put it another way, faced with a depoliticised media market, they set out to politicise everything, chiefly guided by optimization for response, and therefore by the pursuit of conflict and drama…Long before it could be said that Twitter or Facebook’s business model was based on trolls, it was true of the generation of opinionators who made their careers in the 90s and who now rule. It is no surprise that they prospered in the Internet era.

Conflict and drama, eh? Having picked a fight with James Butler, and suggested that the NHS contact tracing programme might work, I will now link to Sarah Ditum on that Tory guy’s Cow Website. Here you go. Fortunately I can’t be accused of pursuing online drama myself as I’m doing this on my independently self-hosted blog where no fucker will read it. To kick off:

Every morning started with the Today programme, scanning Twitter, reading the headlines, especially reading the headlines in the Mail, in search of something that I could be mad enough about to write 600-800 hundred fiery words on it…Being mad was important because the economics of this kind of content required fast output (since timeliness is critical) and high engagement (since this is how editors, and writers, measure success). I write quickly when I’m angry, and anger begets more anger, so people are more likely to share and react. Not everything I wrote when this was my main form of journalism was bad, but only some of it was good, and the worst of it had a dishonesty that made me feel ashamed: I was deliberately riling myself so I could rile other people in turn

Well, here’s a case study – even a confession – of what I’ve been talking about. This is what the media industry has been selecting for, in an evolutionary sense – not just writing outrage-fodder, but deliberately outraging yourself in order to outrage others, whose outrage will in its turn outrage still others. There’s something Foucaultian about it. It’s not just writers internalizing numbers-chasing, it’s also that the numbers-chasing emerged even before the numbers, by behaving as if they were chasing the numbers.

Further, if you’re going to do this you’re going to end up by reshaping your personality around the pursuit of stupid beefs, and it’s not like anyone hasn’t noticed there’s a lot of that about. You’re also likely to reshape your audience. If you create a new media format this is what you’re trying to achieve. In the same way that Peter Drucker said the aim of any business is to create a customer, the aim of any media format is the creation of an audience. This is especially important here as the audience is not just participating, but is on stage with you, along with the critics, and surging through the corridors backstage. Serendipitously, Adam Elkus linked to this piece on a now forgotten Internet beef from 2015 earlier today, and it’s much to the point:

The victims are not only the people who get attacked, but also the ones who are doing the attacking. They too don’t realize that it’s theater. They take it seriously. They’re the ones who participate and get all worked up about what someone just said about their hero, and go strike back on their hero’s behalf. Now everyone is arguing with everyone. Fantastic!

They’re all playing a video game, but they don’t realize it. They’re like people who think soap operas are real. What Kane and her troupe are doing is creating an online play where a mix of witting actors and unwitting audience members share in the performance.

Right. In the context of this audience, though, why do journalists love Twitter so much? Here’s Ditum again:

There were the comments, which I was encouraged to participate in (this meant extra unpaid hours of being called a dipshit by the odd, self-celebrating clique that every site will attract in the name of building a “community”), and Twitter, which it seemed (still seems) impossible not to be a part of if I wanted to stake a place in public life. And there’s a buzz to it as well. Being in the thick of the fight, delivering put-downs to all-comers, soaking up commiserations and applause from onlookers, feels good.

I have been convinced for years that one of the main reasons big-name media people love Twitter so much, and why they ignored blogs, is because a horrible mob provides a constant opportunity to validate the media as an institution against the mob, the public…them. Back in the day, the chance of getting David Aaronovitch to actually respond to your blog post – let alone read the thing first – was essentially zero. On Twitter, though, there was a more than decent chance he would get all worked up. People like him endlessly announced their superiority to…bloggers, but they expressed this alleged superiority by ignoring us.

With Twitter, though, you could pick through your mentions and toss the mentions you don’t like to the ones you do. Look how awful they are! And by extension, how important I am! The psychological wage, as WEB DuBois would say, of being superior to Sid and Doris Bonkers could be paid out at any moment. It’s worth remembering that this has always been a feature of newspaper culture – not many industries come up with a nickname for their customers that expresses quite as much contempt. It makes a lot of sense that the psychological reward would come to bulk larger as the pay and conditions became worse. And of course, taken together this created an incentive to provoke one’s own readership.

I think of this phenomenon as troll-host symbiosis, and it’s very close to a lot of celebrity-fan and celebrity-media relationships from the past with the important distinction that it’s accessible to more people on both sides, and that it’s much more direct and unmediated. As the kind of relationship between celebrity and fan, or between, say, Princess Diana and the Daily Mirror is a deeply toxic relationship, this is a terrible development, and I suspect that it is a driver of much of the general awfulness of the culture.

Also, old school celebs employed managers and PRs to process the fanmail, weed out the death threats and begging letters, and forward the choice cuts. Twitter notifications go off in your pocket – in so-called intimate space and using a haptic interface, as opposed to the personal space of a laptop or the social space of a TV across the room. As a result of this, by the way, I recommend not letting it fire mobile notifications and certainly not letting it vibrate your phone. This is why my tweets are the best tweets.

3 Comments on "A case study in the rise of the hot take"

  1. Interesting point on the delayering – could be compared to the rounds of Business Process Reengineering that removed all the secretaries and deluged a certain set of managers in administrivia, which I feel like massively shortened their attention span. So, perhaps, with celebs on Twitter, but crucially with yer commentariat.


  2. Among other things, that’s an excellent argument for staying the hell away from Twitter (see also). I took a week’s break a bit back and had an instant anxiety attack when I looked at it again – that can’t be a good sign.

    The link to the 2018 post is borked, btw.


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