Social media is both a blessing and a curse for the exact same reason: it gives everyone the chance to tell the world what they think. Aspiring professional contrarians no longer have to ask big-named publications to give them a platform to tell everyone why millennials killed mayonnaise or why the late John McCain was right to sing “Bomb Iran.” One can simply open up a Twitter account for free, start referring to right-winged pundits as Nazis right away, and instantly become the next Voice of a Generation. Eventually the publishing industry took notice, and thus Hot Take Culture was born. Gone are the days of journalists seeking truth even if it goes against both left-winged and right-winged narratives; now it’s all about clickbait headlines and being controversial just to be controversial.
The sad part is from a business perspective, it works. “The quickest, easiest, and most reliable [way to get attention] is to write something controversial,” says Matt Singer of Screen Crush. “One person observes a terrible article, something incredibly stupid or mind-bogglingly racist, then their tweet is picked up by another and another. At some point, a prominent social media presence with thousands or millions of followers catches on, shares it, and then it’s off to the races.”
Technically the hot take is nothing new, as Elspeth Reeve of The New Republic explains. Hot take columns started in the world of sports journalism in an attempt to dispel the Athletic Hero myth, but it’s only been within the past couple of years that political columnists and social commentators decided to get in on the action. Blogs and social media certainly didn’t hurt, either; as Rebecca Greenfield told Reeve, “Hot take is an evolution of the blog post… it was easy to block quote and write a clever headline, so the [Atlantic] Wire had to do one better with the same amount of resources (none).”
I’ve been blogging since the days when Livejournal was the go-to blogging platform for angst-ridden millennials and would-be pundits in the early ’00s, and I can say in full confidence that Greenfield is right. As soon as something big happened in the news, we all ran to our keyboards to tell our followers what we thought. It didn’t matter that we didn’t have all the facts yet or if we were completely wrong. No, our goal was to make sure our blogs stayed up to date on the latest news or else fade into obscurity. Twitter gave us would-be pundits a better chance of throwing our two cents around because instead of sitting down in front of a computer to think of 800 words on the spot, we could simply pick up our phones and offer a hot take about the latest breaking news in just 140 characters.
A surefire way to make a hot take get people’s attention is to use Whataboutism in order to buck the narrative that the mainstream liberal media doesn’t care about the issues the writer cares about. For example, let’s say same-sex marriage is finally legally recognized in all fifty states. Instead of writing about how great it is that same-sex couples have the same legal rights as opposite-couples do, write about how the Left doesn’t care about the plight of LGBTQ people under Islamic theocracies. Or suppose a large number of newspapers simultaneously publish an op-ed of the need for the free press in light of President Trump’s growing threats against anyone who says anything bad about him. Instead of joining the crowd, throw a red herring into the discourse by writing, “What about Twitter mobs?” By being a contrarian just for the sake of being a contrarian, there’s no doubt Saeen will criticize your hot take to his 12,000 Twitter followers, and you can retweet his criticism as proof that you’re being silenced by the Regressive Left. It’s a win-win situation.
From a business perspective, hot takes may work, but are they good for public discourse? Adam Gurri of Liberal Currents thinks so because something something marketplace of ideas and liberalism and stuff. However, from a pragmatic perspective, one must ask, “Do any of these hot takes actually matter? Should we focus all our attention on college students when the president is trying to silence critics? Are debates about the ‘true definition’ of racism going to help end systematic racism against people of color in America?” The thing that makes Hot Take Culture ultimately toxic is that it distracts the public from issues that really matter. We have created our own bread and circuses to occupy our minds while the powers that be secretly take away our civil liberties bit by bit.
So how do we end Hot Take Culture? According to Singer, the best thing to do is just not share terrible hot takes. If another professional contrarian butchers your sacred cow just to piss you off, don’t give that writer the pleasure of being angry about it. As the old saying goes, don’t feed the trolls.
Don’t even share this hot take.