I had no idea what a “dad bod” was but suddenly it was floating across my Twitter feed. I gave it a week or two to go away. We call this a 21st century skill. By week three, it was sticking. Dad bod was sticking. Say that aloud and then purify yourself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka. Anyway, once a thing is sticky I have to find out what it is. I’m a reasonably learned person. Recently, a university even certified me as such*. I should know about sticky things.
This presented a problem. Dad bod was already on week three, at least. WEEK THREE! In academic+social media terms, Dad bod was hegemony and I was late-dot-com. You don’t just jump into a meme midstream unless you’re a pitiful commercial brand striving for relevancy.
What was I to do?
And, BAM! Just like brown Jesus from on high, Vox tweeted an explainer: “Dad bod: what is it, and why is everyone suddenly talking about it? I was like, hell to the yes, Vox. Tell me, what is Dad bod and why is everyone talking about it.
As it turns out, Dad bod is basically Seth Rogen. I don’t want to body shame. But, you should know that before you click any links about Dad bod. You will almost certainly find a picture of a half nude Seth Rogen. No one told me. I am telling you. Bless his heart and thank me later.
Dad bod is also, according to a quick content analysis of Vox’s illustrative examples, a white dude. Vox should have led with that. The Internet should have led with that. Talk about burying the lede beneath a mound of Seth Rogen’s flesh.
But, it occurred to me that this is what Vox has become for me. Vox is a Rosetta Stone for translating a specific type of mainstream white cultural discourse. It’s a step above satirical “Stuff White People Like” in that it is sincere and it usually has an infographic. Infographics are how you know something is “data-driven”. This isn’t just a read of stuff white people like. It is actually what some white people like enough to talk about it across media that Learned People cannot avoid.
This is an amazing discovery. Like a lot of other people, I wasn’t sure what Vox was when Matt Yglesias started name dropping it in essays and tweets. Yglesias and I were Slate-mates at the time. Suddenly, Ezra Klein and Yglesias and a handful of other folks were like mad rappers dropping references in mixtapes. I was all, “WHAT IS VOX AND DOES IT HAVE SICK BEATS?”
I wasn’t even exactly sure what Vox was after I read it a few times. Vox explained things, thus the neologism “explainers”. But, Vox didn’t always explain things I needed explaining. Yet, Vox sometimes explained things I didn’t know I needed explained to me. I love Libby Nelson on education over there, by the way. But she is cheating. I am a sociologist and I study education. She knows I need what she’s explaining. Not so much for some of the other stuff Vox explains.
Some of that other stuff only becomes a thing to the extent that it is culturally ascendant but not culturally specific to me. Vox, then, is Urban Dictionary.
Urban Dictionary is where people who are too old or too something go to translate what kids these days are talking about. Anil Dash is twitter famous. Anil Dash says Urban Dictionary is the other Wikipedia. That is called an expert opinion.
Early descriptions of Vox in its Super Secret Phase described it as a “bit like Wikipedia articles written by journalists”. The Wikipedia analogy doesn’t feel quite right. Wikipedia aims to be the people’s canonical digital text. Urban Dictionary says there isn’t a single canon, only cultures.
Vox may think it is the people’s Wikipedia for news (it may have evolved). But I experience Vox more as a snapshot of media culture for a very specific culture of many. Vox isn’t THE cannonical source for cultural references. It’s a way to figure out what highly educated, affluent, mostly white people are talking about and why.
I recently used a link to Urban Dictionary’s page for “studdin’” in a post aimed squarely at academics. That’s how useful Urban Dictionary is. Studdin’ is a regional (I think black but maybe just southern; it gets confusing) iteration of “studying”. It is used to say that someone or some anthropomorphized thing is not presently concerned with you or your situation. As in, most of the time I am not studdin’ Vox…until I am. I do not go to Vox. It magically shows up with something I do not know or cannot recall; tells me that I need it; and, then provides me the thing it tells me that I need.
That’s a very particular kind of service, especially on the Internet where we’re consuming and producing information in very active ways. It is probably even a valuable service. I think there’s a name for it. I’ll wait for Vox to tell me what it is.