“The New York Times Should Buy Bloomberg,” trumpeted my prognostication-prone pal Felix Salmon the other day. It was a provocative salvo, simultaneously sharpened by its tidy headline yet dulled by the ubiquity of its packaging. If you haven’t noticed, the [X] Should Buy [Y] gambit has reached a state of super-saturation in business circles.
Distrust that assertion? Here then, a listicle of evidence, culled from just over the past few month, of pundits recycling that mathematically-elegant sentence structure and transforming the formula into maximum bizness thinkyness:
- “Apple Should Buy DuckDuckGo”
- “Apple Should Buy Netflix”
- “Apple Should Buy Tesla”
- “Apple Should Buy Fitbit”
- “Apple Should Buy Blackberry”
- “Microsoft Should Buy Blackberry”
- “Samsung Should Buy Blackberry”
- “Facebook Should Buy Twitter”
- “Facebook Should Buy LinkedIn”
- “Facebook Should Buy Nokia”
- “Starbucks Should Buy Chobani”
- “Google Should Buy Twitter”
- “Twitter Should Buy Meerkat”
- “Twitter Should Buy Flipboard”
- “Twitter Should Buy Yahoo”
- “Yahoo Should Buy Twitter”
- “Yahoo Should Buy Snapchat”
- “Yahoo Should Buy AOL”
- “Google Should Buy Yelp”
- “Alibaba Should Buy Yahoo”
- “AT&T Should Buy Yahoo”
- “Warren Buffett Should Buy Uber”
- “Amazon Should Buy Uber”
- “Uber Should Buy Tesla”
- “Microsoft Should Buy Spotify”
- “Microsoft Should Buy Salesforce”
- “Pandora Should Buy Tidal”
- “MasterCard Should Buy American Express”
- “Verizon Should Buy Dish”
That’s the abridged list. Copious headlines have been discarded, including “Millennials Should Buy Bitcoin,” because the safety of our children should always come first.
To be sure, different people weaponize this trope with different intent. (The perfect armament discriminates not its victim.) Take the hottest gambit du jour —
“[Google] Should Buy [Twitter]”
This particular subjunctive has been espoused by uncountable masses, with an array of varying motives. Activist investors, for instance, invoke the edict to prod the company in a new direction; armchair finance quarterbacks, à la Jim Cramer, spew it across the tv-verse to simulate a condition called intellect; and business reporters wield it for a variety of purposes, including demoting a company that they believe deserves devaluation. (In their cutesy passive-aggressive way, business reporters abide by a version of Thumper’s Law: If you can’t say something nice about a company, say that it should be bought by another company.)
After all of their effusive pronouncements, one could almost forget the most important part of the “[X] Should Buy [Y]” story template:
No one means what they are saying.
Absolutely no one. None of the people who issue such edicts actually means the words they say. They are always saying something else, entirely.
Because, first of all, it is pure speculation. Only a minute fraction of the people who espouse the value proposition of company X buying company Y actually knows enough about companies X and Y to say such a thing with any confidence.
In some exceptional cases, a person might have accumulated enough information about these companies to declare “yes, it is smart to move the equivalent of a country’s GDP from one coffer to another.” But those people, by definition, have ulterior motives. (If you know enough to be informed, you know too much to be unbiased.) So when these people say “[X] Should Buy [Y],” they actually mean something else:
“[X] Should Buy [Y] Because Shhhhh [$$$$$$$]”
Those people seem to write a lot of Medium posts.
But not everyone is biased!
Proclaiming “[X] Should Buy [Y]” is not an automatic sign of an egotistical soul. Unbiased citizens exist! (They are sometimes referred to as “journalists,” but that’s an improper use of the term.)
These neutral “[X] Should Buy [Y]” invokers— a chatty emulsion of pundits, bloggers, eggheads, and an assortment of creatures culled from the Buzzfeedian phylum and BizInsiderian genus — are usually not trying to deceive you. However, they are always saying something completely different than the words they write.
This should not surprise us, because we know the motivations of these types of people. They are not paid to say something bold; they are paid to boldly say something.
When these Chatty Cathys say “[X] Should Buy [Y],” they actually mean something else:
“[X] Should Buy [Y] So You Can Hear Me Say ‘[X] Should Buy [Y]’”
It sounds impressive to tell a $550b company to buy a $75b company. Try it!
Jason Calacanis, who leveled up the “[X] Should Buy [Y]” template into a prediction — “Apple Will Buy Tesla” — does not actually believe those words. (Go ahead, ask him to bet that it will happen. He will make excuses not to wager.)
But that’s fine. No one suspects that Calacanis — a blog mogul turned entrepreneurial impresario — said those words because he believes them. (Hahaha, seriously no one thinks that!) He said those words to be said, and then clicked on.
And you clicked, and I clicked, jesus maybe four or five times now, and then suddenly he had his most popular blog post of all time.
That’s just how it works. It’s a formula. Bank.
No one ever said you have to believe what you to write. (“Write what you know” is two MFAs away from “Write what you believe.”)
And let’s be honest — writing has always been a game, of sorts. It is a system of formulaic rules to be identified, followed, and bent. Good writing is knowing how to correctly repeat, and when to playfully manipulate, those rules.
Writing on the internet is no different — except even more so. Contrary to the perception as an “anything goes” medium, the internet is an especially codified place. Perhaps you’ve encountered a formula of internet prose. One of these —
- [____] Is the New [____]
- Uber for [____]
- [____] Should Be the New CEO of [____]
- [____] Explained
- A Brief History of [____]
- [____] Things to Know about ____]
- How to [____]
- [____] Lessons I Learned from [____]
- Here’s Why [____] Just [____]ed
- [____] Happened, You Won’t Believe What Happened Next
- [____] Reasons to [____]
- My Month of [____]
And so on. You likely have your own personal favorite.
And the paradox is, we are actually to blame for this mediocrity. We, the workers of the internet, contribute to this encyclopedia of formulaic writing. We entrust web metrics to reveal success and follow its rules. We A/B test headlines until we are funneled to the most clickable, most performative story formula. It’s a numbers game.
We get the clickbait we deserve.
This was never meant to be a tirade against hackneyed internet prose. I have led you astray. Because, let it be known:
I love the [X] Should Buy [Y] story!
If you put one of these stories in my news feed, I will always click it, 100 percent of the time. The formula works.
I suspect this is because [X] Should Buy [Y] stories aren’t predictions, exactly, but they are about the future. Or rather, a future. The [X] Should Buy [Y] story proposes a destiny that no one believes will happen. They are pure hypothesis, uncontaminated conceit, as close to science fiction as business reporters are allowed.
Their prose most resembles slash fiction. Every “[X] Should Buy [Y]” story is a fantasy hookup realized through writing. Its author, who likely once yearned for some carnality between Bones and Kirk, now pines for synergy between Apple and Uber.
[X] Should Buy [Y] is the Fifty Shades of Grey of internet prose.
Over the past few days, I have consumed dozens of [X] Should Buy [Y] stories, discovering authors along the way who seem to be performing something closer to scriptwriting than reporting. Like other writers of fantasy, these authors aren’t trying to create hypothetical worlds that are right — they merely need to be right enough.
And even when they are proposing a solution (the [X] Should Buy [Y] formula always projects itself as problem-solving), these writers seem unable to disguise the subliminal malaise for their imagined futures. [X] buying [Y] is always hopeless, always anti-climactic, like trying to build a utopia from within a dystopia.
Perhaps that malaise persists because we live at a time when Facebook drops a billion here, or Google drops a few more billion there — it resembles a fickle child at play. We have placed our fates into the hands of unit-shifters, those gods who append multi-billion-dollar apps onto their megacorporations, like Lego blocks onto toy spaceships.
In that sense, the ubiquity of the [X] Should Buy [Y] resembles a massive coping mechanism. By making the dubious formula widespread, the whimsy of capital seems almost bearable.
We write the [X] Should Buy [Y] story to feel in control again.
This is part one in a series on the new language of business. Part two of the series, “VCs Are the New Media Moguls,” will be published next month.
“Follow [X] at [Y] on [Z]”
X = Rex Sorgatz
Y = @fimoculous
Z = Twitter