Reflections on Years Lost in Personal Political Social Media

After writing my last article, where I used the podcast “Red Scare” as a jumping-off point to talk about gender and media, I listened to their latest episode, where they react to their haters, and it was even meaner than I had thought. It got me reflecting on what feels like a very strange moment in pop culture.

On the last “Red Scare,” the hosts give a particularly galaxy-brained take: that the critics who dislike them for body-shaming and the critics who dislike them for having provocative political opinions all essentially hate them for working harder.

They’re wrong. The phenomenon they’re observing in our culture, which they interpret as mere jealousy, is that a lot of people can’t handle, or can’t achieve, or don’t want the ugliness of a hyper-competitive culture. So they support and comfort each other instead.

For years, there was a comforting, and plausible, illusion that, essentially, all marginalized groups of people had some sort of common cause. That they all liked Obama, and that gave them the same interests. That put us all on the same side of history.

In 2016, that unraveled. The 2016 election season reminded people that their cynical acquaintances were even more cynical than they thought, and that their allies had different priorities than they’d assumed.

I think we’ve been in a fallout from that ever since — at least myself and many, many people between 25 and 40 have.

I remember feeling like we were all united again on the day before the 2016 election, when Clinton seemed like a shoo-in. The day after, I doubled down on that belief, and on nostalgia for those days before. I feared the divisions coming back. I slowly began to accept that we were in a world of shifting alliances and that the culture was likely going to change in ways I couldn’t predict, and that my sources of comfort and distraction — social media, regular media, talking with friends with knowing nods to opinions that we assume we all share — would no longer be reliable sources of comfort and distraction. If anything, they might start to reflect the world that I was looking for a distraction from.

In 2016, a low-fi leftist podcast hosted by dudes became a significant moneymaking operation, and many of us tried to imagine that it — “Chapo Trap House” — was something a lot more than that. It was, but it wasn’t what anyone had thought. The cultural moment that it encapsulated wasn’t a new frontier in leftist media — it encapsulated a nostalgia for the world before Trump got elected. An almost biological rejection of recent history. The show itself successfully evoked nostalgia for that era, and it gave its detractors a steady supply of nostalgia as well. Hating it made them feel alive again. It’s a good show and it’s more worthwhile than any current events podcast that I can think of. But the extra je ne sais quois that it provides is, I think, nostalgia.

These days, the most disaffected of people interested in politics have given up on passionately defending or hating Chapo. They’ve reconciled the fact that it’s an institution. They hate, or love, “Red Scare” just to feel alive again.

But I don’t think it’s going to work. I think that people are slowly realizing that this mix of politics and entertainment that we’ve been injecting into our brains is bad for us, but are also afraid of letting it go. I think people are realizing that all of our illusions of cultural and political consensus were always unfounded. They’re realizing that entertainment doesn’t satisfy the urge to organize politically with your acquaintances, and that organizing politically with your acquaintances doesn’t scratch the same itch as aggressively agreeing that a famous online personality is uncool. Folks with day jobs are logging off, realizing that virtual social networks are no longer fun enough to risk messing up on the job. Folks with more freedom to use social media are feeling the emptiness that results when other people no longer have that passionate desire to momentarily escape their jobs by getting into a good argument.

The era in which social media and non-interactive media combined, and many of us spent hours looking at screens and felt the exhaustion one feels after making a speech in public, but without the sense of satisfaction, is coming to an end. I think that the declining quality of online callouts (less unified & more niche) and influencer meltdowns (less strident and less funny) is an indication of that. I think it also means something that the most controversial podcast in my twitter feed is a comedy show where two women imagine that everyone wants to be as thin as them, and people egg them on by demonstrating disappointment that (in a world where Bachelor Recap shows are also popular) their show is popular. I think it’s mostly good that this era seems to be ending, but we are correct to be nervous about whatever comes next.