Jonah Goldberg, whom I have read dating back to the 1990s:
Let’s talk about blogging.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to take a seat on the porch next to my rocking chair as I regale you over mint tea about the Golden Age of Blogging. Suffice it to say it was a big deal for a short period of time. The first big disruptor of traditional media was probably Craigslist because it derailed the classified ad gravy train. But, on the content side, blogging was almost as significant.
I have a lot of fond memories about the blogging era. I’m very proud of the fact that The Corner over at National Review was my idea. But then, earlier this week, I had the opportunity to record an episode of Jay Nordlinger’s Q&A (coming out soon-ish, probably). It was a fun conversation, and it continued for a good while after we stopped recording. During the post-pod discussion, I had a small epiphany: Blogging deserves its fair share of blame for much of the craptacularity out there in the media space today.
For people of my generation, this is pretty counterintuitive. The debates of the blogging era feel like witty intellectual badinage around the Algonquin Roundtable compared to the poo-flinging, boorish brabble of the Twitter age. But if you think of “microblogging”—the dumb technical term for sharing your worthless thoughts on platforms like Twitter—as a natural evolution from blogging, its sins become apparent.
Imagine a chart of how people receive news, broadly defined to include everything from tabloid gossip to punditry. If you start just after the first ice age, people received news in intervals that could literally be measured in lifetimes. If you start with the first American newspaper, the Boston News-Letter, those intervals, for some, were weekly. But if you’ve seen the Tom Hanks movie News of the World, you know that this is a bit misleading.
Well into the 19th century, people—particularly non-affluent, non-city-dwelling folk—got their news monthly or even seasonally. And the interval has been shrinking ever since. Even taking into account radio, TV, and cable news, most people in the pre-internet age got their fill of journalism in the morning and then got a brief update at the end of the day with the nightly news, or maybe the evening edition of a newspaper.
The internet filled up a lot of that space. When I started National Review Online, we were considered to be evidence of the hyper acceleration of the news cycle because we would post pieces that responded not only to the content of the morning newspapers, but to stuff that was happening in real-time on cable. Even so, we tended to publish pieces mostly in the morning and then again around lunchtime. For a while, this was considered a blistering pace.
I came up with the idea for The Corner for several reasons. One of them—though not the chief one— was to fill the “dead air” for all the people who wanted more content throughout the day (including my then-boss Rich Lowry). Again, there was a lot of good stuff in blogging. But there was a dilemma. The supply of actual news couldn’t keep up with the demand for “content.” This encouraged a certain style of commentary—a style, I confess, I think I excelled at: the take.
Takes come in many forms. The “hot take” is the most famous. Simon Maloy of The New Republic offers one definition of a hot take as “a piece of deliberately provocative commentary that is based almost entirely on shallow moralizing.” That’s not bad, but I think there are other forms of hot takes, and myriad other forms of takes more broadly. By a “hot take,” I don’t simply mean an unconventional or surprising opinion. Rather, I mean a style of commentary that parasitically feeds off someone else’s argument or work almost instantly.
Media criticism was the bread and butter of blogging for one simple reason: It’s easy. I’ve often said that if the New York Times didn’t exist, conservatives would have to create it, because much of the right is more interested in howthe Times covers the news than the news it delivers. Jay likes to say there are two kinds of writers: those who write about the world, events, issues etc., and those who write about the people who write about such things. Blogging was made for the latter type.
The majority of takes are intended to reassure readers that an argument they don’t want to be right is in fact wrong—and not just wrong, but stupid, evil, ridiculous, and in some instances worthy of canceling the author of such an argument. Bloggers, myself included, stared at their screens like dogs groaking a butcher, waiting for someone to be wrong. Again, some takes are good, some bad. But the bad form has been systematized, corporatized, and institutionalized.
All poisons are determined by the dose. For example, Slate started as a home for very interesting takes. But over time, as I wrote in 2006 (to their credit, I wrote it for Slate), a site that once provided spice in small doses soon began to provide it in large, toxic amounts. Slate became addicted to take-ism, which is why “Slate pitch” jokes used to be a thing. With the exception of Will Saletan, I don’t read many writers over there anymore, but my sense is that the site is now just another organ of the left, dedicated to explaining why progressives are right about everything. The charming contrarianism is gone.
Then there’s the right. Conservatives were complaining about liberal media bias decades before Spiro Agnew was decrying “pusillanimous pussyfooters” and “nattering nabobs of negativism.” But in the blogging age, the complaints metastasized into cancerous obsessions. Yes, part of the story is the way in which the mainstream media often strived to earn much of the contempt conservatives have for it (a development that also has a lot to do with the influence of blogging). But part of it was simply structural. Blogging encouraged writers to focus less on the news than on the way it was presented and those who presented it. Commenting intelligently and quickly on actual news is pretty hard. Finding fault in others is much easier—and more fun.
Just as Starbucks educated the consumer to think it was normal to spend $3 (and then $5 or $6) on a cup of coffee, blogging educated the consumer to think this kind of stuff wasn’t merely fun, but deadly serious. The mainstream media is weaker than it has ever been. Yet many conservatives today would have you believe it isn’t just powerful, but tyrannical.
Finally, there’s Twitter. The term “microblogging” is more apt than I previously thought. When you miniaturize something, you often purify it, distilling it to its purest form. Twitter is like someone took the practice of blogging, put it in a centrifuge, and reduced it to its essence. At least good blogging requires making arguments, marshaling facts, etc. Twitter at its worst, and most effective, strips that stuff away like discarded corn husks. Twitter is the fentanyl of blogging.
I don’t want to go all Marshall McLuhan here, but the medium really has become the message. There are young journalists who think reading Twitter is like covering a beat. “Look at how wrong so-and-so was.” “Look who ‘destroyed’ what’s-his-name.” People, including politicians, think a persuasive argument is defined by a tweet that goes viral among people who already agree with you—or, worse, that goes viral among people who think you’re an idiot. Because when that happens, it’s proof you “owned” or “triggered” the libs or the cons.
The other day, Jim Geraghty lamented the conservative “habit of showing up and opening with the tenth step of a ten-step argument.” I think that’s very apt. But I also think it describes a broader phenomenon. I’d be okay with people doing this sometimes, if they could explain, when asked, how they reached the tenth step. Take discussions of socialism these days. The vast majority of people flinging around the word “socialism”—positively or negatively—didn’t reach their conclusion after working through a 10-step argument, or even a 10-tweet Twitter thread. They just know socialism is good or bad because the people they hate are for it or against it.
Cancel culture exists on both the left and the right for a lot of reasons. Personally, I think left-wing cancel culture is worse for reasons we can discuss another time. But one of the things that fuels cancel culture is the way social media convinces people that their “side” is indisputably right about everything, to the point where your tribe becomes a kind of transcendent corpus mysticum. What I mean is that, in a populist age, your group isn’t just better, it’s sacred. In such an environment, being “wrong” isn’t just wrong in some factual or analytical sense. It’s sacrilegious. Being wrong—even in the most theoretical sense—at, say, the New York Times or (if you read my email) Fox News is an outrageous form of desecration, like when Napoleon’s army used conquered churches for stables. Social media fuels this dynamic because social media provides the virtual comfort of the mob.
Of course, the evolution—or devolution—continues. Just as Twitter supplanted blogging, Instagram and TikTok are grabbing attention from Twitter because images are even more viscerally pure than tweets. At this rate, Matt Gaetz could soon post a video that opens with a photo of AOC taped to his belt buckle and ends with him bludgeoning his own crotch with a ball peen hammer. As long as he got 100,000 responses from “socialists” making fun of him, he’d declare it a huge success.