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back to the future: modern media emulates victorian debasement
our choices created this mess and they will get us out of it too.
people lament how “woke” and crazy the media has become and marvel at how out of touch and outright deranged it has become. they wonder how its politics became so bizarre and performatively outlandish. they boggle at the voices it chooses to platform and the things those voices have to say.
i’d like to put forward a somewhat unpopular idea: this is not really the media’s fault and there is not a whole heckuva lot they can do about this.
the problem is us.
it’s easier to demonstrate such ideas using concrete instances.
here’s a recent example (and yet more proof that without knowledge of a speaker’s priors, any sufficiently woke statement cannot be discerned from parody)
yes, they really just said that.
pretty provocative stuff, no?
i want you to consider how reading that made you feel. what’s your mental state? what responses and reactions are forming in your mind?
now hold onto that. we’ll come back to it.
first, a word about modern media:
ad driven media in the modern age is in desperate straits. once, there were but a few broadsheets and stations competing for your doorstep and attention. they had something akin to oligopoly/regional monopoly on broad based advertising.
they exercised editorial content and refrained from races to sensationalist bottoms because they could. it’s an indulgence you can afford in low competition systems.
now there are infinity instant on outlets clamoring for mindshare in the all out battle-royal of the attention economy and unlike past periods, feedback is instant. they forensically track what you click on, hover over, or pause on. they would track the color of your socks if they could.
in a manner never before present, they know EXACTLY what garners attention.
similarly, in a manner never before present, they face competition from all sides.
and this has changed everything.
the evolutionary/competitive demands are as simple as they are brutal:
command attention or perish.
and this is a race to the bottom.
sorry, but it is.
the media have lost all sense of reason or dignity because they can no longer afford such luxuries. they are just foregrounding whatever outlandish telenovella lunacy or offensive anger inducer they can find on the cheap because that’s how you stay alive in the savage media wars. paying expensive staff to generate nuanced long form content that can support the kind of expense bases of a newspaper has become all but impossible.
you’re either in it for the propaganda or you’re gonna have to act like the ricki lake show.
you give the people the upsetting and outlandish circuses upon which they click because making them mad and or afraid pays.
they are just giving the public what it clamors for. good and hard.
i have written at length on this before.
the holy trinity of clickbait is:
and if i can hit the trifecta in one weaponized assault on your sensibilities, i have you hooked. fear and anger garner attention. but it’s smug that really drives the machine.
step one is the aversive arousal state. you’re mad or scared or both. add in outrage an disorientation and now we’re really getting somewhere. this has you ready, primed to take action. your body and mind thing they are getting ready to fight or run from a lion on the savannah.
and the smug determines your course, because NOTHING makes people forward memetic information like that wonderful supercilious felling of “can you believe how wrong/crazy/outlandish these people are and how superior we are for knowing this and noticing it.”
you forward it because action resolves the aversive arousal.
arouse then channel into desired action. that’s the game.
you do not feel this need around reasonable, nuanced, balanced content. it does not leave you stewing in unsettled emotion.
now think back you your reaction to hearing that “women should smell more poop to show alliance to trans.”
did you feel angry/afraid/outraged/disgusted?
and then did it flip to smug and make you want to show someone and tell them how stupid/awful/outrageous it was?
yeah. i’ll bet most of you did. (but hey, at least you didn’t write a whole substack full of cat memes about it….)
it gets weaponized by both sides. it’s just a property of the system.
it’s not that the whole world is this poorly calibrated. it’s that they are seeking they out preferentially as the modern version of “pay two bits, see the amazing fish boy!”
does this make sense now?
so stupid spreads and sane stagnates. unhinged outspreads balanced.
iterate this across every internet reader and aversively arousing outrage becomes the signal and sanity the noise.
but we’re the ones mistaking being endlessly provoked and upset for entertainment.
this is not accession to or validation of the viewpoint. the new york post is not looking to normalizing making out with cars. they are just clamoring to generate sensationalist frissons to garner and monetize a moment of attention.
this is quite literally an enterprising doctor selling tickets to the insane asylum to bored victorian socialites. (and yes, they really used to do this)
such doctors did not do this to convert patrons to schizophrenia, they did it to make a buck.
but such a practice does not emerge and persist absent demand.
you might as well blame the local bodega for stocking white zinfandel and failing to carry good cabs. if people wanted them, they’d carry them.
a great deal of media has become naught but shock and awe to grab your attention and spread the dandelion seeds of clickthroughs in the age of enrage and engage.
the problem which this is it DOES normalize things, even if not by design. anything you see, over and over, starts to seem normal. it’s how surgeons get used to blood and squiggly bits or trash collectors to l’eau de manhattan dumpster en été.
the media becomes a circus sideshow and drags society with it.
this places society as some new, weirder valence that sort of seems normal but everyone kind of knows isn’t.
but this society requires even more to shock it.
so the media must ramp up its assaults on senses and sensibilities to remain atop the ruthless game of king of the mountain upon a melting iceberg that has become their ecosystem.
and so we keep veering more and more into the victorian nuthouse tours of ever increasing debasement because the last tour no longer seems sufficiently shocking. and pretty soon it’s season 5 of some telenovella, everyone has amnesia, just impregnated their sister, and got kidnapped by space chihuahuas from the lost city of atlantis.
and that’s when shows die.
it just gets so ridiculous that no one can bear it anymore. there are no sound storylines, no redeeming characters or qualities.
i think we’re living through this season right now. sharks are literally jumping over the fonz as the ramp up of provocative absurdity goes parabolic seeking to employ exponential amplification of outrage to garner attention, but it’s past the break point. more is no longer more.
we’re realizing it’s not real, that it’s not a mirror but rather some sort of funhouse contrivance distorting and deranging the images it captures.
we’re evolving past this and media dying like some sort of failed deer species where big antlers attracted mates right up until no buck could lift his head anymore and so they all died out.
children born today will find it hilarious that anyone ever trusted mass media for news or editorial. they’ll look at you like you mistook geraldo for a poli sci class.
it’s too absurd and no one can take it. no one wants it.
and if we all just stop clicking on it, it’ll go away.
it is our consumer sovereignty that drove this collapse of standards and sanity and it is our over-satiation on asylum tours and overwrought confirmation bias to inflame meaningless distinctions into existential crises that will bring it back.
media is changing RAPIDLY. it’s moving away from mastheads and toward personal brands of social media.
and it makes sense. why on earth would i trust the take of some journalism major from washpo about the implications of new pictures from a space telescope when i can get it straight from the scientists?
jack of all trades media cannot compete with instant access to every long tail of expertise unless they are really, really good, and the really good don’t want to work at mastheads anymore.
and the best money is now online. the folks that have successfully moved to places like substack with an eye toward monetizing it are killing it. they are far out-earing their broadsheet peers. podcasters are crushing TV anchor earnings. this is the place to go now if you’re really that good.
media used to be the gatekeeper of access. no mas.
now everyone can have it if they can earn it. it’s egalitarian in a way never before seen. and it’s only going to get better.
and what rises to the top of this ecosystem will be what we ask for. the consumers of media are also going to be the program directors.
vote with your attention but perhaps more important, vote with intention.
this world will become what you click.
read the media you want to see in the world and stop bingeing the junk food of scare story sensationalism.
oh, and support cats. after all, offending the internet’s native species is never wise.