The Bluestocking, vol 195
Giving an opinion is easier than writing a joke.
I’m thinking about leaving Twitter (again). The spur this time was an email from Radio 4, saying that the first two episodes of The Spark had such a big, positive reaction that they wanted me to do an interview for their Feedback programme about how we—the show’s producer Phil Tinline and I—select guests and subjects, and how we get interviewees who are unafraid to say contentious and interesting things in a climate where people are very worried about being attacked for their views.
Two things jumped out. First, I wouldn’t have known about the postbag unless Feedback had told me: occasionally, when I do something with mass appeal, it trickles back to me via the lo-fi method of Mum’s fellow parishioners accosting her in Aldi. But usually you don’t hear anything much unless a) you go viral on Twitter; or b) something gets written up, often because of a).
The second notable thing is that The Spark gets people who are unafraid to say contentious things, I believe, precisely because radio and podcasts are. . . anti-viral. They reward deep engagement (Joe Rogan talks for freaking hours) and they build big, loyal—but hermetic—followings. One of the reasons I’ve been running round recommending Chris and Xand Van Tulleken’s podcast on over-eating to everyone is because there is no way to tell if people know about it. (I went to recommend it to Jonathan and discovered he had independently found it and loved it.) It’s near the top of the podcast charts but it doesn’t feel “part of the conversation”, whatever the F that is.
Why is this? Because audio clips aren’t as shareable as snippets of text, or screengrabs of headlines. And most viral entrepreneurs—those people who live to toss chum into the waters of Twitter—are incredibly lazy. They don’t want to clip something themselves, or transcribe it. Instituting even an incredibly low bar to chum-tossing repels 99% of viral entrepreneurs. Their preferred MO is, after all, not even to elucidate their actual criticism, but instead to tweet “imagine writing this” or “are white people ok” (preferably while being white) or “If I were a writer, I would simply not write this piece”. Thanks, Socrates, I mumble to myself, while noting this idiot fuel has somehow clocked up 3.7k likes. How did we build a machine that rewards people for being the dumbest, snarkiest, most kneejerk tribal versions of themselves? And why am I using it???
One thing that has helped me is realising that some of the most zealous activists on Twitter don’t actually seem to get excited when things change for the better (cf the fall in Covid hospitalisation rates). Their continued relevance depends on finding new outrages, and positioning themselves, personally, as the standard-bearer against those outrages. They don’t want the win; they want the wedge.
I recently linked to Caitlin Flanagan’s piece on her Twitter “addiction.” That’s a good comparison, because if you talk to problem drinkers they will say things like: I drank to drown my insecurity or trauma, but I didn’t like the person that alcohol made me into. Is there anyone in the world who comes off better on Twitter than in real life, anyone whose reputation has been enhanced by watching them dunk on random strangers or misunderstand a meme? I think it was Jesse Singal who said: lots of people need therapy, and instead they got twitter.
I have many personal failings: I equate work with self-worth so I can never relax; I eat cheap meat even though I know the horrible conditions in which those animals live; and I have spent 14 years of my life using a website that I hate, filled with people being the worst versions of themselves. Which brings us back to the van Tulleken podcast, because the big revelation there is that you can know, intellectually, all the science on obesity and junk food and health issues, and still over-eat for emotional reasons. I hope that my own Twitter addiction makes me more sympathetic to people who can’t kick other habits that don’t trouble me: the people who can’t give up smoking, or dating awful people, or sabotaging their careers because they’re afraid of failing and feel it’s better to flame out than simply not measure up.
Added to that, for journalists, using Twitter is so bound up with all the things that drove us to become journalists—a desire to share knowledge, a desire to expose injustice, a desire, fundamentally, to be heard—that quitting feels like a terrible career move and an offence against your innermost self. But as my blissful unawareness of that positive postbag shows, it’s a distorting mirror that has probably made me a worse journalist, and certainly a more hated one.
Watching people not do things they obviously should do is a frustrating business, so I solemnly promise never to write about the awfulness of Twitter, while still using Twitter, ever again. It is embarrassing to me as an essayist. I mean, Joan Didion got the 60s counter-culture and I get the guy who wrote 52 Times Britain Was A Bellend dunking on anti-vaxxers for little red hearts.
PS. Today’s Spark is about “rapport”—find out whether you communicate most like a monkey, mouse, lion or T-rex, and how you can have better arguments.
Three years in, deeply unhappy, she decided to leave the program, though not without finally reporting the harassment to the university. “They were like, ‘It’s your word against his.’ You can probably guess now why I extensively documented everything I gave to Julia,” she says, referring to Julia Carrie Wong at the Guardian. “I didn’t want to be in another ‘He said/she said’ situation.”
(A Princeton spokesperson said he was unable to comment on individual situations but stated the university’s commitment to “providing an inclusive and welcoming educational and working environment.” “Princeton seeks to support any member of the campus community who has experienced sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment,” he said.)
“What these experiences have in common is the fact that I’ve experienced repeatedly falling through the cracks of responsibility,” Zhang wrote in her memo. “I never received the support from the authority figures I needed … In each case, they completed the letter of their duty but failed the spirit, and I paid the price of their decisions.”
I’m always interested in why people blow up their lives by whistleblowing. It takes a rare combination of principles and courage and ornery-ness to do so. This piece profiles Sophie Zhang, who wrote a blistering memo about Facebook’s lack of interest in election interference on its platform outside of the (PR problematic) US and Europe. Her childhood gender trauma, cultural background and sexual harassment at university all left her with an inability to tolerate injustice.
Conan Took The Hard Road (Persuasion)
Giving an opinion is easier than writing a joke. If you ever saw a “Last Week Tonight” piece that ended with a political statement instead of a joke, there’s a good chance that one of the writers (probably me) stared at a laptop for 90 minutes trying to come up with a joke, then finally said, “To hell with it,” and wrote a Big Important Statement instead. Another trade secret: The Big Important Statement doesn’t need to be very sharp as long as your audience agrees with it. The splintering of media, along with the tribalization of American politics, has led to ideologically homogeneous crowds, which, in turn, has made “clapter”—making the audience clap instead of laugh—a potent force in comedy.
Political comedy can also be a shortcut to critical acclaim. We all know that actors chase credibility by seeking “challenging” roles: Every actor dreams of playing a dyslexic orphan born with no torso who wants to compete in the luge at the Olympics. In the same way, comedians sometimes seek out Big Important Topics even when they have nothing funny or insightful to say because tastemakers validate that choice.
IMO, this whole problem arises because almost all comedians are at least vaguely leftwing, but also on the left there is a deep suspicion of anything which isn’t handing out leaflets in the rain, i.e. fun (How can you laugh when Venezuela is happening, etc?) so comedy is valued only so far as it smuggles messages about our glorious progressive future past unwitting normies.
After this piece was posted, Hugo Rifkind pointed out that Jeremy Hardy—one of the funniest people I have ever met, but also one with the most deeply held principles—had no patience for courting clapter.
PS. I’ve said this before, but if this subject interests you, then read Andrew Hankinson’s Don’t Applaud. Either Laugh Or Don’t, about New York’s Comedy Cellar in the wake of the Louis CK affair.
I love this guy’s art and Simone Biles is the perfect subject for it.
“The real lesson – or one of them – is that it pays to use whatever freedom you do have over your schedule not to "maximise your time" or "optimise your day", in some vague way, but specifically to ringfence three or four hours of undisturbed focus (ideally when your energy levels are highest).” Oliver Burkeman on why you can only do 3-4 hours of really intense brain-work a day. When I was writing the last book, it took me a long time to accept that it wasn’t “lazy” not to be able to write for 8 hours a day.
“If our old class structure was like a layer cake—rich, middle, and poor—the creative class is like a bowling ball that was dropped from a great height onto that cake. . . The modern meritocracy is a resentment-generating machine. But even leaving that aside, as a sorting device, it is batshit crazy.” David Brooks on “bobos” in The Atlantic.
“On Wikipedia, a collective, ‘democratic’ project, anyone can challenge any entry, and propose that it should be deleted, on the grounds that its subject isn’t ‘notable’. Tripodi found this strategy is disproportionately used to target women. Biographical entries for women make up less than 20 percent of all biographical entries on Wikipedia, but they consistently account for over 25 percent of the items nominated for deletion.” Deborah Cameron on the forgotten (or deliberately erased) women of history.
Bluestocking recommends: This Archive on 4 about Barbara Castle. Stay for the bit when the snotty interviewer asks her “you’re just a woman, you don’t drive, what do you know about it?” before insisting that he can drive as well on several pints as some people can do sober, and she replies “Famous Last Words.”