Writers and Readers

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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.

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?

The entire article is dripping in cynicism, but I take the point. We live in a weird intellectual context where the give and take of incessant social media debates do not afford the space to make up one’s own mind about a topic without fearing the immediate social consequences–e.g., “If I think X, will that peg me as a right-winger, lefty, or someone too afraid to take a stand?” When you take a step back, these fears seem ridiculous, but the momentum of social media is powerful and all-consuming.

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