Online Contrarianism: How It’s Killing Writing

It seems that every other byte of the Internet landscape is littered with contrarian opinions. It’s the perfect link bait. One blogger is a Celine Dion apologist, while the next is pontificating on Michael Bay’s auteur filmmaking. Of course, it would seem that I’m simply making this crap up, but I am not.

Contrarian editorials can be done well, as Christopher Hitchens often proved, but more often than not we are subjected to uninspired contrarianism in online publishing. No one benefits in this arrangement. Not the writer, not the reader, and not even the publisher, which may benefit monetarily for a time, but ultimately fall behind in an ever-shifting Internet landscape.

In 2011, Indiewire’s The Playlist did a Michael Bay retrospective, in which the writer, Oliver Lyttleton, actually made the following argument regarding Bay’s debut film Bad Boys:

[F]rom the dewy sweatiness of the actors to the way the sets are assembled (with billowy curtains and giant signs, indoors) to the swirling camera angle that follows Smith and Lawrence as they triumphantly stand to the length of Tea Leoni's skirt – would become directorial hallmarks that would inch him further away from "some action movie director" realms and closer to "auteur" territory.

Does anyone believe that Lyttleton actually considers Bay’s stylistic fetishes tend toward the “auteur”? Or is it more likely that Lyttleton was grasping for something, anything, to justify the article’s existence? I don’t think it’s too hard to answer that question.

Then, of course, we have BuzzFeed’s “10 Reasons Celine Dion is Amazing,” which really isn’t a list at all but a video camouflaged as a list in the headline. It’s great link bait—short on substance and typical Internet fodder. If you don’t already suspect that a world mirroring Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy” is right around the corner, then take off the blinders. It’s already on its way. How else do we describe the “24 Reasons Why ‘The View’ Should Never Go Off The Air”, when the show is well past its due date and has never been a critical triumph?

Another offender—though it comes from a reputable publication—is The Guardian’s “10 reasons why it sucks to be rich”. Granted, the author, Zoe Williams, seems to be coming at the subject from a satirical angle. But in the glory days of publishing, this article wouldn’t come into existence as a list. There’d be more substance than what we get: 10 short, sugar-coated bits of ADD bait. But the more vital point here is not the list itself but the reality that Williams has to bait readers with such a story in the first place. It panders to class resentment. It fits neatly into the socio-economic zeitgeist without editorializing the study’s findings. There are no demands placed on either the reader or the writer, and this is a problem in a world that must overcome apathy and ignorance in order to progress.

(Full Disclosure: I myself have had to create these lists, and I’ve disliked every minute of it, except in very rare instances.)

Another slice of this online contrarian nonsense is “Why You’re Wrong About Monty Python,” written by Tom Doran and published on The Daily Beast. This might be the piece that pushed me to a critical mass of intolerance toward online contrarianism.

Doran argues “large stretches of [Monty Python]aren't funny,” continuing a few lines down with “They threw every mad idea at the screen, which sometimes resulted in new highs for the comedy genre… but just as often fell flat, feeling merely surreal and disjointed.”

One almost sympathizes with Doran’s limp attempt at criticism here… almost. For in the world of Monty Python, the surreal, the disjointed and the mad were all part of the aesthetic—all part of the act. The Pythons were the rightful heirs to the Surrealists, the Dadaists and Alfred Jarry, the grandpappy of them all. Like their absurdist forefathers, the Pythons were at bottom pranksters and provocateurs. Even a cursory glance at Monty Python reveals that the series wasn’t merely about comedy. It was about deconstruction, parody, nonsense and countless other techniques and sketch-driven misadventures, with the main objective being the anarchic destruction of middling comedy.

The Pythons were every bit as biting in their satrical endeavors as, say, Kurt Vonnegut or Thomas Pynchon—authors who knew that a work needn’t be be laugh-out-loud in its black humor and slapstick, but a vehicle by which one could critique the status quo. It’s the court jester brand of comedy, in which the jester is allowed to say things in public that others wouldn’t ever attempt out of fear of state reprisal. George Carlin and Bill Hicks were two other such minds who could go stretches without actually being funny.

Ideally, comedians aren’t there simply to make us laugh but to make us think.

Doran references Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore, the creators of Beyond the Fringe, in his attempt to inform readers that the Monty Python brand of surreal, satirical sketch comedy began with those four. But one must wonder if Doran actually took the time to watch the entire Beyond the Fringe TV special, or just dropped the reference for reference’s sake. The TV special is also unevenly funny. The real thrill of Beyond the Fringe, it seems to me, is watching Bennett, Cook, Miller and Moore flex their kaleidscopic minds and critique the status quo, whether funny or not.

I could keep on offering up examples of this pandering brand of online editorial, but I won’t. It’s far too pervasive culturally to necessitate a stream of citations.

But what’s the alternative?

If the only thing at present keeping online media publications afloat is the list, how do we re-emphasize quality content? The Grantland seems to be able to manage, as do The Quietus and The Independent. Wired has managed the traffic demon quite well, too. The rest of the web operates by one immense collective editorial remix first perfected by The Huffington Post. BuzzFeed, the “listicle” king, hired Ben Smith 2011, announcing that it was attempting to get serious with its editorial. Whether or not they succeed will probably serve as a barometer for the future of online journalism and publishing, in general.

Something needs to change. Perhaps Google and advertisers, which ushered us all into this age of algorithms gathering all sorts of traffic metrics, created this mess. And since the money’s good (for some), there’s no real incentive to change the arrangement.

Some sort of innovation needs to arise, though, otherwise we’re all going to be reading pure drivel within a few years’ time.

Assuming that we’re not already doing so.

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