Internet Culture: Popularity, Conspiracies, and Numbers, Numbers, Numbers

Last week, Conor Friedsdorf of The Atlantic wrote what I thought was a fairly charming vignette, of obviously limited factual value, about how he, along with two girls denied Harry Potter tickets, were the only attendees at the Orange County premiere of Sarah Palin’s comically titled new biopic, The Undefeated.

Seriously, she lost in 2008. We all remember that, right?

Anyways, this puff-piece, dashed off at 3 AM PST, has since become the most popular (and controversial) piece of Conor’s short career at The Atlantic. In a post yesterday, he chronicles his shock, responds to his detractors, and in the process, pens an abnormally all-encompassing story of life, culture, and writing in the internet age. Let’s investigate.

Popularity: as American magazines go, The Atlantic is fairly highbrow — exceedingly, even– and Conor’s writing is no exception. As he notes, he’s written a number of pieces sharply critical of the left, of the right, and several excruciatingly well-researched pieces, some of which took months, and one of which — on the best long-form journalism of 2010 — I will certainly now read. Yet he’s become “famous” for a hastily penned gag post that, while very clever, bears little relationship to the reason we value publications like The Atlantic, and writers like him. Why?

Because we read for sensationalism, not for substance, and the internet rewards writers who understand this.

My experience is similar (though on a lesser scale). As of this writing, this site’s most widely read post, at 28,1256 page views, questions whether Birther queen Orly Taitz is, or was likely to remain, a lawyer. And the premise of that post was ultimately disproved! She was properly admitted to the Supreme Court’s bar, though I still maintain that she fairly clearly committed several grave violations of the rules of professional conduct. My favorite post, on Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, actually took a long time to write, holds up well, but clocks in at the #3 slot, with a comparably dismal 12,158 views. (My second favorite, on science fiction’s moral authority, comes in at #12). If we construe exposure as a “payoff” in blogging, the effort-to-payoff model this sampling suggests discourages talent, insight, and substance, to instead reward well-timed hackery and snark.

Some blogs defy the odds. Andrew Sullivan supplies consistent quality content and, by all estimates, is widely read for it. But he’s the exception, and his stats probably admit of similarly disturbing trends. This is a serious Problem For The Internet, probably compelled by the breadth of available content, and the frequency/necessity of on-the-go reading. Both pressures combine to create the internet as a medium exclusively designed for rapid consumption.   I’m as guilty as the next man, but it’s something we need to confront, because the alternative, of an internet where information is sought only for entertainment, feels disastrous.

Conspiracies: call it a corollary of the last point. Any world where sensationalism rules becomes, naturally, a breeding ground for conspiracy theories. Just so, Conor’s critics latched onto a provably false fact pattern where Conor didn’t just invent the whole story of the empty theater — no. He made it a reality by conspiring with theaters, newspapers… everyone… to bring about the downfall of Sarah Palin, by underreporting attendance at a fictitious theater. Naturally, the theory was picked up, and run into the ground, by Andrew Breitbart, who us did the favor of even reporting the lie incorrectly.

From “death panels” to birthers, here, too, is a poignant representation of political discourse in the internet age. “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on” and, because it sounds better, is more widely read, sits more prominently in the public consciousness, and controls the conversation moving forwards.

Numbers, numbers, numbers: Finally, Conor flags one of the stranger points about this entire exchange. How many people attended Palin’s little panegyric is, literally, irrelevant. He says:

But what is ultimately at stake? Say it earns billions. Is that going to shrink the federal government? Or reform entitlements? Or affect the foreign policy America adopts? Why would an ideological movement that insists the country is going down the tubes waste so much time and energy complaining about their perception that a movie is doing better than the MSM says?

A good question, which becomes better when you realize that this isn’t an isolated incident. Time and again the conservative media have instigated, or suborned, attempts to artificially inflate attendance numbers at rallies, and general caucus strength. The movement seems more obsessed with proving its relevance, rather than earning it with policy victories. The tea party has always been more heat than light, and based on the battles they pick — like this one — that’s how they like it.

*     *     *     *     *

Sensationalism, conspiracy, and an obsession with status. Such is the state of political discourse on the internet, and therefore, the go-to style of the conservative grassroots. It’s strange to see these three ills so close together, and in a situation where they’re so clearly problematic, but we have Conor, and the Palin camp’s reflexive need to overreact to damn everything, to thank for this rare opportunity. Now, what can be done about it?



  1. Because we read for sensationalism, not for substance, and the internet rewards writers who understand this.

    Right – for example, you read Red State and Glen Beck – I don’t. On the flip side, I read your site. We all have our guilty pleasures.

  2. Har har.

    And fair, but I’m not addressing a “guilty pleasures” problem. I’m addressing an “exclusive focus on frivolous things” problem. You write and read substantive things, as do I. We’re not the problem people!

  3. But the high volume of posts about people who DO write about frivolous things (Beck, RedState, etc) seem like frivolousness-by-association.

  4. But that’s a different issue. The question there is how to confront sensationalist frivolity, when it monopolizes the marketplace, and however you answer that question, I don’t think it gets you what you want.

  5. I din’t think you confront it by writing about it yourself which again, make your post frivolous-by-association. I think you ignore them. You stop giving them a platform. That’s the absolute fastest way to shut them up.

  6. Oh? And how did ignoring the crazies work with the birthers? Pretty well, right?

  7. Birthers have absolutely no impact on American politics except in the minds of liberals. Period.

    A much better analogy would be the co-subject of this post, Sarah Palin. She’s become increasingly ignored and is quickly fading from the public scene. If you all REALLY wanted to purge the public arena of these people you would follow that same gameplan for all of them. But let’s be honest Ames…you like having crazy Republicans around because you think it helps your cause. Sort of a corollary to Rahm Emanuel’s “Never let a crisis go to waste.”

  8. Wouldn’t Donald Trump disagree with your first paragraph?

    And I have never believed that bullies disappear if they’re simply ignored.

  9. What impact does Donal Trump have on American politics?

    The bully analogy is a poor one for a number of reasons. The correct analogy would be the class clown. If no one laughs they quickly stop acting like jackasses. These people want attention. You happily give it to them.

    1. I should add that these talking heads are only as effective as the volume of their voice. They only have success in influencing policy makers if they can be heard. Everytime the Left talks about them you make it just a little easier for some junior congressman to believe these people are worth taking seriously.

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