Quick take: rapid cycling discourse and the state of popular debate

Part of this morning’s media feed was this article on detecting important things on the Internet (satire, of course). In it, Capitalization Practices, salacious slugs, sensationalism, and more are given their due in brief. It is not a revolutionary critique. It is, in fact, pretty passé. We have all already complained about clickbait, traced the history of clickbait, redefined clickbait, and told each other to shut up about complaining about clickbait. We conclude that there’s nothing new to see here.The conversation’s tired. The conversation’s done.

This seems to be the flow of a lot of contemporary populist criticism. Stage 1: Raise Concern. Stage 2: Interrogate Definition of Concern. Stage 3: Criticize Those Who Are Concerned (often noting that Nothing is New).

And then comes Stage 4, which is roughly Recede from Debate.

I harbor what I think are legitimate concerns about the rapidity of issue cycles and its effect on public memory, political and social discourse, and mechanisms of social control. In brief, if we allow our critique to be as thin, rapid-fire, and utterly predictable as it is today, we risk glossing over issues that deserve sustained, in-depth attention. In a world in which “thought pieces” about major events have to be online in less time than it takes to properly think and in which the success of publications and social clout of individuals is, in part, incumbent upon one’s ability to jump on the latest trend, we are encouraged to ask only the simple questions and shy away from less easily-digestible critiques. And since the world is a tremendously complex place, the reduction of ongoing issues to rapid-cycling soundbytes means that issues can continue, not even necessarily behind the scenes or obscured from view. In other words, an ADHD approach to what we, the public, espouse concern about degrades the quality of of our critique and the effectiveness of our complaints. 

This isn’t really about the death of long-form so much as it is about the half-life of a contemporary crisis. We’re constantly moving on to the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing because we can (really because the existing publishing, technological, and psychological/social structures we’re embedded in converge to encourage this type of behavior). Those who demonstrate sustained concern, or else revisit existing arguments articulated to their satisfaction, are maligned for their continued boo-hooing and told that their interpretation of an issue is insufficiently original or otherwise not worthwhile. At times, there may be some truth to these assertions; after all, those engaging in the conversation later have had a bit more time to mull things over. Nonetheless, it’s unfortunate that this is the direction our discussions so often take.

How to fix this, I don’t know. One might even argue that I contribute to the problem through my work. Ironically, I must be brief as I’m working on a longer response to a different issue, something that I fear will remove itself from public view before I’ve got around to it. It’s certainly easier to complain about the state of things than to propose actionable solutions, and I’d like to make sure that any that I might outline are carefully conceived. So we’ll leave this here for now. Proposals welcome in the comments.