Who Puts the “I” in “Internet”
Last week, Humans of New York founder Brandon Stanton took to Facebook to write an “open letter” to Donald Trump. From a literary perspective, this letter displays all of the worst tendencies of internet content. Mr. Stanton’s piece arrived replete with several gimmicks that seem to pervade every conversation on the internet (particularly regarding politics), and using it as a guide proves instructive of what not to look for. In short: if one is searching for real content, avoid pieces where the author seems primarily concerned with him or herself.
What to Avoid:
1) “I don’t normally do this but….”: Author Credibility
In Mr. Stanton’s letter, he spends roughly 75% of the piece (a full three out of four paragraphs) using endless “I” statements and rhapsodizing about the dilemma he faced in weighing in on a political matter. Just look at the first paragraph:
I try my hardest not to be political. I’ve refused to interview several of your fellow candidates. I didn’t want to risk any personal goodwill by appearing to take sides in a contentious election. I thought: ‘Maybe the timing is not right.’ But I realize now that there is no correct time to oppose violence and prejudice. The time is always now. Because along with millions of Americans, I’ve come to realize that opposing you is no longer a political decision. It is a moral one.
Any sophomore English teacher would read this and politely ask the author to get to the point. Strong writing implicitly includes the urgency or need for the piece to exist in the first place; it should not take three sentences of navel-gazing to get to the stance that American voters should avoid Donald Trump.
Additionally, when authors start their pieces (or statuses) with “I don’t normally do this but…” sentiments, it always begs the question: why start now? And why — as a reader — should we trust you, if you don’t normally do this? It is precisely this combination of sanctimonious deference and assumed moral authority (after all, if the author is finally weighing in after “not usually doing this”, then he or she seems to believe this will be the last word on the topic) that damages the author’s credibility and weakens the writing. If you want to take a stance, take a stance; don’t shy away from it. Imagine Malcolm X starting a speech with “I don’t always like to be political but…” It’s not quite the same, is it?
2) Know Your Format/Medium
Open letters are referred to as “open” because they are meant to bring a response or discussion. Clearly, this is not Mr. Stanton’s intention; he addressed the letter to Donald Trump, and after spending the majority of the piece doting on himself with “I” statements, he resorts to a familiar, polemic tirade against Trump:
Those of us who have been paying attention will not allow you to rebrand yourself. You are not a ‘unifier.’ You are not ‘presidential.’ You are not a ‘victim’ of the very anger that you’ve joyfully enflamed for months. You are a man who has encouraged prejudice and violence in the pursuit of personal power. And though your words will no doubt change over the next few months, you will always remain who you are.
Personal feelings for the Trump platform aside, how would one expect him to honestly respond to that? It is well-documented that, in the eyes of Trump’s supporters, his greatest virtue is that he “will always remain who he is”. Is Trump even expected to see this letter that is addressed to him? Is he supposed to read it and think, “You’re right, Brandon. I’m not presidential. I’m not a victim.” To honestly expect this impact would require uncharted levels of delusion.
Unless of course the letter was not meant for Trump…
3) Know Your Audience
It seems improbable that this letter sincerely intended to reach Trump. And yet when one remembers that this received millions of “likes” and “shares”, as well as an endorsement from Hillary Clinton, it becomes plausible that it could have.
Writers can get off the hook for weak writing by preaching to the converted. For a written piece to have value, it should look beyond the throngs of people who already hold the same beliefs as the author. And moreover, it should employ persuasive language and examples to convince those folks of the merits of the author’s beliefs. Absent these fundamental tenants of persuasive writing, and we find ourselves in the proverbial “echo-chamber” that the Internet has become.
In other words: does ubiquitous, high-profile “sharing” and “liking” constitute added value? I argue that it does not. Just as Donald Trump will not see the Humans of NY piece as an impetus to drop out of the Presidential race, his supporters will not see it as an impetus to stop supporting him. They can just as easily find and share articles that reinforce their view that Trump would make a great President. And is it really such a stretch to imagine that those articles deploy similarly vague and “I”-centric language to support their case?
The author has reached only those who are at the least already skeptical of Trump, and offered them nothing that they could not just as easily find elsewhere.
How to Fix It:
The goal is not to pick on Brandon Stanton. These tactics surface on most written content on the Internet, but his piece just happens to have all of them. Rather, my goal is for us to take the extra second when “liking” or “sharing” content with a stated purpose to ask if it genuinely concerns itself with the larger conversation. If an author has a platform and speaks only about him or herself, then perhaps he or she is focused on something other than the piece’s stated purpose.
A reader must keep a critical mind and evaluate the arguments presented to them, resisting the urge to interpret familiar stances as gospel truth. Additionally, the onus falls on writers and authors of internet content to make better arguments, and this cannot happen until readers demand better. In the age of the internet, we are all simultaneously consumers and providers of content, so keeping a critical eye and following a few additional steps will drive up the quality of composition.
1) Publish Less Content
The ability of more people to add content through various channels has brought an unprecedented stream of articles, statuses, think-pieces, long-form writing, and journalism. This has meant more content, but each with less substance, as the market has become over-saturated. It seems odd that in an economy centered on scarcity, we seem to value sources who keep us inundated us with supposed “news”.
On top of this, Internet authors vary regarding vulnerability to their own importance. The Internet has invited “me”-centric journalism at every turn, and it seems to spew endlessly. Every small update receives yelps of importance, and promises a fresh perspective before failing to deliver on either count. This comes not only from the author’s vanity, but also from the author’s need to fill space. In defense of Mr. Stanton, what could he really have written about Donald Trump that hasn’t already been written?
Regardless: Opinions are not facts, gossip is not journalism, and conjecture is not news. Allow things to develop before we start wringing our hands and making bold proclamations, grabbing headlines and viewership on the way. Have something to say before taking up the space (and the headline) to say it. Taking this into consideration would open the floor up for fresher takes on a wide range of topics.
2) Be Humble
Everything isn’t always about me. Make a point and let it speak for itself. There is no need to try to use big words and act like an expert when you are seeking self-validation. Everything is not a “brand” — ideals, style, news, aren’t all meant to blend together and form a shared language of harmonic conformity.
Status updates aren’t political statements, they are ads for a brand of “you”, with tiresome grandstanding and the certainty of wisdom. It’s intrusive. People should have difficult conversations and host foreign beliefs, but there is a tactful and constructive way to do it that draws more on the issue than the person discussing it. Everyone should strive to learn at all times and make themselves available, but find it harder to learn when every bit of knowledge arrives sprinkled with an agenda. Who can we trust? The question invites conversations worth having, but away from where everyone can see them. Separate the brand from the ideal and we can start to find out.
3) Speak Honestly
This may prove more difficult than the other two, but remains just as imperative.
Disagreements provide opportunities for growth. If unfamiliar beliefs and ideas don’t find their way to our minds, we become self-reinforcing masters of our own cult. Everything would be viewed through that lens with which we already see the world. Disagreements and contradiction provide us with the chance to reexamine our own systems of belief, and as long as those involved speak with honesty and clarity, then they give themselves a chance to grow.
It’s troubling that in a call-to-action letter that drums up its own moral responsibility, the author ponders:
I didn’t want to risk any personal goodwill by appearing to take sides in a contentious election.
Forget about personal goodwill and “appearing to take sides” (even here, the author is shying away from his point). Writing and speaking with conviction are not mutually exclusive from staying open to new points of view. But everybody has to work towards both for these conversations to have impact.
Write what you believe. Don’t concern yourself with how masses of strangers will interpret your message, or who you might alienate in the process. As long as you make a clear case and invite discussion, then you’ve done all that you can do.