the “let me get my gang!” school of internet argument

Today Brendan O’Connor at Gawker wrote something that was wrong and dumb. This is okay. When you write enough you sometimes write stuff that is wrong and dumb. But other people have to tell you when you’re wrong and dumb, otherwise the world gets dumber. So I told him it was wrong and dumb. After doing a bit of the aggregation that is necessary under the current financial structure of the internet, here’s what he wrote:

This is a pretty incredible thing for the readership of both writers—for all readers, really. A hundred years ago this kind of debate likely would have taken place privately, in letters or parlor rooms or whatever. (Actually, a hundred years ago this debate—between a black intellectual and a white intellectual—likely wouldn’t have taken place at all.) The fact that it is taking place online, in full view of anyone who might find herself on one website or the other is somewhat remarkable.

Now, this is factually inaccurate and ahistorical. 100 years ago, people wrote magazines and pamphlets and newspapers. There was a public conversation. There were public intellectuals. Not just a hundred years ago, and not just two hundred years ago (which is what he subsequently changed the paragraph to), but far longer back, there was public, intellectual conversation. Indeed, the very magazine where Coates now writes was published more than 100 years ago. Yes, black writers have always had a harder time finding an audience, but even 100 years ago– and longer– The Atlantic has been publishing black intellectuals like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington. This is not complicated stuff, and it’s not hard to find out. 30 seconds of Googling would be all it took. O’Connor is a professional. He’s getting paid. Actual money.

So here’s what I said.

… what? 100 years ago they had magazines. Including The Atlantic, where Coates is writing his side. And while it’s certainly clear that black intellectuals have historically had a harder time getting an audience, there were most certainly black intellectuals writing in national magazines. Like the Atlantic! Hell, here’s Frederick Douglass writing in The Atlantic a hundred and fifty years ago.

I get that we’re all supposed to pretend that the internet is the greatest because, you know, innovative innovation Snapchat teaching a kid to code, but your final paragraph is monumentally stupid.

I said that his paragraph was stupid, because it was stupid. Because people who are paid to write for a living should not write stupid stuff. They should not write stupid stuff that they could have avoided writing with literally 30 seconds of Googling. They should do good work and not bad work. They should demonstrate historical understanding that any minimally educated 11 year old should possess. That’s not just my philosophy. It’s the philosophy of a good portion of the internet. It is, in fact, the philosophy of Gawker, a website that has spent the better part of a decade making the case, implicitly and explicitly, for meanness in the pursuit of the truth. You don’t get it both ways. If you want to be the ultra-incisive, frequently-cruel truth tellers part of the time, you don’t get to hide behind manners when someone on your team says something really stupid.

So O’Connor did what all of the connected, insidery jet-set do when criticized: he tweeted.

Now this is, like his post, factually inaccurate. I didn’t call him stupid. I called his paragraph stupid. In my defense, it was stupid. Like, mind-numblingly, how-do-you-function-as-an-adult-human-being stupid. Now stupid is forgivable. It happens. I’ve written lots of stupid things, most of them for free. I’ve apologized more times than I can count. And I’ve also said things that other people thought were stupid, and I’ve stuck up for myself. By myself. Without a publication, position, prestige, or posse. Just me. Because those are the options, when you’re a grownup, and people challenge something you say: you can defend yourself or you can admit error. If you’re not a grownup, you can take advantage of the “let me get my gang!” school of internet argument, which is the only tactic that our band of culturally savvy, desperately signaling, quietly self-hating taste makers recognize. It’s what Twitter is for: fighting battles through mutual admiration and a reciprocal regard of Very Important People.

And, of course, the cool kids play along; they want to know, in the future, that they stupid things they say won’t be publicly corrected. They want to know that they can get the gang to back them up, too. So the people who favorite and retweet his tweet– Gabriel Roth, Robinson Meyer, etc etc– probably haven’t even checked to see the (yes!) monumentally stupid thing O’Connor wrote. They just know he’s Somebody, and they want to be Somebody too, and they know that the only way to really be Somebody is to treat other would-be Somebodies the right way. It’s a perfect, reciprocal relationship, a corrupt and empty exercise in horse trading that has no connection to reality. Would any of them defend what O’Connor actually wrote? Do they really think there was no public debate before the internet? Who cares? It makes no difference. He’s in. That’s all that matters. The fact that, as a professional writer, O’Connor’s job is to be a professional arguer; the fact that any adult should feel compelled to actually defend himself, alone and individually, when he screws up, instead of running off to get help; the fact that it’s just talking, just words and ideas, and they can’t really hurt you– none of that matters.

It’s pathetic, and it’s why the internet is such a broken, stupid, aggravating place. It’s why nothing ever changes. Because nobody who has any clout, visibility, or stature is willing to risk their position at the party. Because it’s more important to defend stupid then than to correct it. But there’s no reform possible; if any of them find this post, they will ask the crowd, “should we take this criticism seriously, crowd?” and the crowd will soothingly reassure them. It’s all very elegant. And it’s exactly these people who will complain the most about the stupidity and the brokenness. They create the conditions they say they hate, and they live in them, and they deserve to.


  1. I would say that a future civilization that unearths the remains of ours will find out just how quickly our political elite became obsessed with Twitter, and it will be like when we realized that Rome used lead pipes. I would say that, but I doubt that there will be much tangible evidence of Twitter and its corrupting influence on the minds of our “influencers” and “thought leaders.” Our philosophers, meanwhile, had some great thoughts on Kripke’s approach to semantics, for what that will be worth.

    1. “I doubt that there will be much tangible evidence of Twitter and its corrupting influence on the minds of our “influencers” and “thought leaders.””

      That’s a good point — after all, unlike blog posts, Twitter has provided billions of tiny, fleeting comments and conversations that get lost in the aether. Years’ worth. Hard for anyone to get a grasp on all these tweets, even if the Library of Congress is stuffing them away.

      “Our philosophers, meanwhile, had some great thoughts on Kripke’s approach to semantics…”

      I presume you mean Saul Kripke, not Barry Kripke?

  2. I know you’ve only got one speed and that’s your charm and what brings me to your blog at 10 on a Saturday, but this is a little over the top.

    1. Seconded. Do you think there’s any relationship between how you shaped your initial comment and the form O’Connor’s response took? That doesn’t excuse him, but it doesn’t excuse you either.

      1. Everyone else seems to agree with you, so maybe this is a purer vision of hell than I can understand; maybe I just inhabit it. But your comment is the top one on the post, and he has long since changed part of the paragraph.

        I also don’t get why that part was caught your eye. I don’t know much about newspapers, but I’d imagine, although this Gawker writer doesn’t specify what he means, he’s sort of right about this hundred years ago thing – this sort of speed in response and the editorial freedom allowed is closer to a private exchange than the cycle of magazines or newspapers would have allowed back then, I’d think. The rest of the article was pretty dumb, though, just excerpting their brief, quasi-snide remarks in a debate on important subjects.

  3. “They create the conditions they say they hate, and they live in them, and they deserve to.”

    Brutal, and true. I feel a twinge of pity when individuals become exasperated by a culture that they actively maintain. It’s some kind of weird scale problem where people forget how to properly delineate their self, maybe. In any case, this post has given me a moment to reflect on the extent to which I am very passively consuming lots of good writing (from your site and only a handful of others). You’ve identified that the culture might be corrupt and hypocritical, but I think there’s also a structural problem wherein the internet doesn’t really reward or care about your earnest participation. At least a face-to-face has some stakes. I don’t think the internet can help the fact that it’s driven the cost of communication to zero (or possibly lower).

  4. Freddie —

    There can’t be a person on earth that hates what you’re describing more than I do. Twitter is like an ant farm for students of human behavior and, as far as I can tell, it doesn’t teach a single lesson to lift the spirit. Status rules is really the beginning and end of it. So naturally when someone gets offended by a person of lower status, they’re going to draw on their social capital to mete out punishment. This phenomenon didn’t begin with Twitter. Twitter just makes it easier. There will be no changing this. I think you err in thinking most of the people you’re dealing with here want it to change. This, right here, is just plain wrong:

    “If you want to be the ultra-incisive, frequently-cruel truth tellers part of the time, you don’t get to hide behind manners when someone on your team says something really stupid.”

    Like I said, status rules. People get away with as much hypocrisy as their status will afford them. The greater the status, the greater the hypocrisy.

    Fortunately, in this particular case, you picked on a fairly small player and, as a result, you got off kinda easy. You could have shown O’Connor his errors without calling them ‘stupid.’ This is not to say that’s what you should have done — I would certainly be a hypocrite to insist on that — but one little snide tweet seems refreshingly proportional. And it was kind of a left-handed compliment anyway. What’s the big deal?

    Now you’ve gone and blogged about how his one little defensive tweet embodies the broken internet, which hardly seems the best way to lead by example, and which will give all the worst people more fodder for feeling superior to you. If you ever piss off one of the true demigods — someone with real clout — you will wonder why you ever complained about this. Trust me.

    While I completely agree with the whole status thing you’re getting at here, for me what makes Twitter so broken is that most people clearly don’t read any of the shit they tweet about. This is precisely why O’Connor feels free to mischaracterize your remark. This makes status-driven beatdown situations particularly stupid and toxic, but it infects everything. I have been on Twitter for something like three years and I have watched people get noticeably dumber and duller in that time. Seems to me any critique of a broken internet — particularly one directed mostly at Twitter — should probably begin with a discourse built on fumes.

  5. It’s a “public intellectual” chicken omelette topped with meta, smothered in a keyboard-brain to mouth sauce with a crispy schadenfreud-one-upsmanship pedancy pickleback. Crippling college debt *5 figure supplemént*.

  6. Funny. I came to this post immediately from a post at Balloon Juice referencing this piece by Andrew O’Hehir:

    The responses in the BJ comment section were entirely predictable.

    Also, I would say you minimize the stupidity of O’Connor’s piece by focusing on the final paragraph. The whole thing was dumb. And have you noticed that he’s updated “a hundred years ago” to “two hundred years ago”? You scored a hit.

        1. Sorry. My point here (and in my earlier comment) is that Freddie’s first comment on O’Connor’s piece was…bellicose. At least, that’s how it struck me the first few times I read it. I find it a little less so, now, but any person who spends as much time thinking out loud about internet discourse as Freddie knows how much an immediate impression sets the tone. Of course we should all take a deep breath and count to 100 and read something several times and probably sleep on it before responding. But of course, almost no one does that, and we know that. And if I found Freddie’s comment hostile on first reading, I imagine that O’Connor found it much more so, since it was directed at him. People don’t like it when you call them stupid.

          Was what O’Connor wrote stupid? Sure, kinda. Absolutely agreed that a quick Google search could have saved him. But Freddie was a dick about it, and O’Connor responded in a pretty reflexive manner by turning Freddie’s criticism into a badge of honor and hooting for his buddies. For O’Connor to respond that way isn’t really right — but it is normal.

          There are times anger or hostility is absolutely warranted when responding to someone online (or offline). I don’t think this was one of those times. O’Connor demonstrated a lack of knowledge of history, and a lack of understanding about how journalism should be done. Having written for Gawker Media, I can say with some measure of certainty that it is not a news organization that does a lot of hardcore editing and fact-checking before publication. (If I’m wrong about that, someone please feel free to correct me.) Freddie has written plenty about the sorry state of online news publishing. This is a consequence of that predicament. In years past, one would like to believe some experienced editor would have caught the issues in O’Connor’s post and spiked it or had him revise. Today, that is just not how it works most places, most of the time, and as frustrating as that is, it’s not O’Connor’s fault. He’s stuck in a profession where it is hard to find thoughtful mentorship.

          Again, this is not to excuse his response. It’s just to say: It’s disingenuous for Freddie to come out the gate taking a swipe and then to be simply appalled, my heavens when O’Connor responds by taking a pretty typical defensive posture. It is Freddie, after all, who has written many words about how people are constrained by the culture and conditions they grow up in; it is Freddie who written about how hard it is for people to learn, even when they have a good teacher. It is Freddie who aspires, as best I can tell, to be a good teacher.

          I don’t want to overstate it, because this is all pretty piddly in the scheme of things, but O’Connor is part of the same system most of us are stuck in — very few of us were reared with an appreciation for history or taught to be thoughtful or skeptical about our technologies and the rest of our environment, and at the same, we’ve been told we should have an opinion on just about everything and that sharing those opinions is a courageous and self-evidently worthwhile thing to do. We also have a limited number of jobs available to us, and much of the institutional infrastructure in many jobs has slowly eroded. We are all, to varying but significant degrees, trapped in the system. And: “Between prison guards and the prisoners they beat and terrorize, I will always choose the prisoners.” Even young white dudes who write dumb stuff on the internet are stuck in it, and when Freddie gets into this kinda thing, it just feels like, Dude, honestly, you are too thoughtful for this shit.

          1. Okay. I’m a little conflicted by Freddie’s reaction here. On the one hand you are correct, it was pretty harsh given the provocation. On the other, as I noted, I thought the entire piece was a general insult to the intelligence and I have a hard time working up sympathy for someone who reduces an important conversation between two good writers to a “deathmatch.” But on my third hand, I sometimes wonder why Freddie spends time at Gawker in the first place. Anyway, I’ve run out of hands.

          2. I think Gawker does a pretty good job, actually, of fostering always boisterous, often thoughtful conversation that is probably less stupid than average, and that doesn’t sound like a compliment, but it’s meant as one. Gawker is far from perfect, but I have never gotten the sense it was aiming for perfect. And I’ve had a lot of fun, even fruitful discussions over there (although it’s been awhile).

    1. Fixed, thanks! I have typos a lot.

      Of course, the point wasn’t that O’Connor wrote something wrong. That happens all the time. The point was that he reacted to being criticized about it by complaining about it on Twitter, rather than arguing with me or conceding the point. Which I find unhelpful and indicative of a serious cultural problem among online writers.

      But you knew that!

  7. This is one of the most overwrought reactions to a minor, trivial error I have ever seen. Surely your time, energy, and words must be worth more than this?

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