The Press vs. Social Media
An interview with Freddie deBoer
A couple of weeks ago, huddled up in a Coral Gables WeWork, I hopped on a call with Freddie deBoer—Xennial, Marxist, fellow Substacker, and author of The Cult of Smart. We talked about political versus social power, how trends are cyclical, the Gawker era of media, and why Twitter politics seem to have a chokehold on journalism.
Thanks for talking with me.
You’ve been on my radar for a while, but I only recently started reading your Substack and I love how compassionate of a writer you are. I really liked your recent piece about how our cultural moment is changing especially, but it seemed like a lot of people misunderstood it.
Could you explain the post a bit?
I think if you look at what I tend to call social justice politics, they have, in every obvious sense, achieved level cultural hegemony in the discourse-making and ideas-making industries in American life: media and academia, nonprofits, and the fields that describe the culture to itself.
That’s very hard to fight against, but they haven’t achieved an equivalent level of political power.
If you ask, “What has the social justice movement done, what have they achieved?” it's a much harder question. It's hard to find specific things that the movement has done that represent itself in a material policy.
You might expect that since they’re so culturally and socially dominant, that they wouldn’t be so politically impotent. So, paradoxically, I think that the way social justice politics will lose their hegemony is in the cultural and social spheres.
There are minor signs of that grasp loosening, though.
The default model for some time now has been to make politics operate under the same logic as social trends. Make politics be an extension of fashion, so that it becomes very uncool not to embrace social justice politics. And so, everyone raced to embrace them because they don’t want to appear uncool. The problem with that is that trends change.
I think that if you talk to younger people—Gen Z—they have far less reverence and far less commitment to these politics. There is a chance that people are going to see and in short order a real resistance to that terminology, that kind of piety in places where people think that it'll be woke forever.
I feel like it all is sort of blended and because there are a lot of superficial changes. Advertising execs are putting a certain kind of person in Instagram ads and on billboards, baristas will list their pronouns on their name tags, social media de-platforming continues to be a hot topic, so it creates the illusion that these policies are encroaching on all parts of our public and private lives.
But the people who were poor are still poor, the people who were destined to be rich are still rich. What streams on Netflix has changed, but I don’t know if that’s political.
I get the sense that changes like that can be ripped away at a moment’s notice.
I think the thing that people don't want to reckon with is the fact that there is a resistance to piety and to social control and to conformity that is pre-political.
Just because it’s a convenient—to use the example of Red Scare—it frequently gets cast as, "Oh, that's just conservative. That's just a right-wing sort of alt-right kind of podcast."
To me, that's just not accurate even if you are a critic of them. I don't think they have any interest in a conservative movement. I think what they tap into is to a pre-political rejection of piety.
If you look at any cultural or social history, it’s always a series of clenching the first of social control, and then a loosening response. That process, that clenching and loosening, is not fundamentally a liberal or conservative or left wing or right-wing phenomenon.
The 1950s were very repressive—it made people feel like the possibilities in their lives were very constrained. All these identity groups that were being shut out of prosperity, and people rebelled against that, and it led to a dramatic loosening in the 1960s.
They set aside society’s constraining mores, but eventually that led to decadence and decay in the 1970s. People felt like civilization was falling around them; there was a crime spike. There are dramatic rises in the divorce rate and children were being born out of wedlock. That sparks the Reaganite retrenchment.
This social justice era, this woke era, this is certainly a constriction. But it's a constriction that sells itself as being a left wing constriction. It's saying, “We're going to really tightly police people's language and behavior in the interest of marginalized peoples and everyone has to get on board with this because this is what justice dictates.”
People who are into that don't like to see themselves as the kind of people who are advocating for social constriction, but they absolutely are. And the underlying structure of constricting social mores is eventually leading to rebellion that creates a loosening, which then leads to another constriction.
It doesn't really matter if you think that the underlying ideas are good or bad, you just have to understand that it’s a cycle.
I think that people have really talked themselves into the idea that the current social justice mores of right now are forever. That there's not going to be another stage of human rebellion against these things. And I think that that's a profoundly misguided idea.
Why do you think that people are so resistant to the idea that there can be change? From my perspective, I often wonder if there’s an emotional attachment to feeling like you can't change it.
I just think that we as a species have a really hard time seeing outside of the lens of our own current moment.
So many people from various parts of the political spectrum believe that capitalism is the end stage of human existence. That we have reached the point where, okay, this is what the mature development of human economic potential looks like, and it can't go anywhere past this. But people have believed that at every stage of human evolution.
But these things always change. Another example is the climate after 9/11. Twenty years ago, there was socially enforced militarism and nationalism and paranoia, like nothing you've ever seen in your life. But even that changed.
9/11 is a good example. I’ve made the connection between the post 9/11 haze and the attitude we're seeing now. Like if you take a clip from like Glen Beck in 2002, and you switch out Muslims for white men, you would be forgiven for believing it was Rachel Maddow.
But I wonder, is that a real change in attitude or is it just like an aesthetic shift? Are things getting worse in one direction, but with different aesthetics?
Well, there's always going to be an old guard against which the new one rebels, and they're always going to identify convenient enemies who are vague enough and amorphous enough and large enough that you can't ever define whether you sort of win or lose against them.
This was true of the post 9/11 era. It was a matter of absolute public belief that we would be hit again.
But the evidence on the ground that there were these splinters cells or whatever they called them, sleeper cells, was always nonexistent. It was a profoundly convenient sort of set of ideas because it meant that everyone had to kowtow to this ideological construct because the enemy was always everywhere.
I've said many times before that, if you look at racial dialogue, there's been this consistent move to abstract the enemy more and more and more. Right now, the enemy is “whiteness,” which is a profoundly amorphous thing that floats in the ether around us.
No one can describe what whiteness is. What’s the value of abstracting racial issues to that degree? If the target is “whiteness,” there’s no way that you can ever say that you've just decisively won, and it perpetuates this kind of forever war.
So, we are in forever wars culturally, habitually, at least as an American culture and probably as a species. Certainly, the Russians played that role for a very long time.
The question is not, “Will we abandon our dedication to identifying abstractions as enemies and having a new big bad that we talk about?”
The question is what will that next enemy be?
If there's one thing that the people should be reminded of, it’s that the next generation will always see the last generation’s emancipatory politics as insufficient. If you get a bunch of radicals together now, and you say, "Okay, talk about the deficiencies of the 60s,” they'll give you an enormous list of ways in which the social revolution in the 1960s was insufficient.
It's impossible for people to see this now, but people are going to have the same opinion about the wokest of the woke right now.
There's going to be axes on which we simply don't understand what people are going to be mad about in the future. I've been vaguely predicting that the tools we use to attack racism and sexism will be applied to eating meat, which potentially will be the next very brutal cultural battle.
But I don’t know. Something is going to pop up. I don't know what it's going to be, but tomorrow won't look the same as today.
I often wonder if the next big enemy might be tech. It seems like a lot of social ills are downstream of complaints about digital life, to me.
This is a good segue into my next question which is—what impact, if any, do you think the Internet has had in these cultural battlegrounds?
As someone who's been an in real life activist his entire adult life, one of the things that the internet has done is that it has allowed people to abstract the concept of activism to the point of meaninglessness.
You have a lot of people who self-define as activists, but who have literally never organized in an offline space. They literally think that tweeting constitutes in and of itself some sort of practice or whatever.
One of the things that I think people who are enthusiastically involved in the social justice world don't seem to grasp is that they have been able to effectively colonize the most well-situated-to-speak members of our society. The idea generating parts of the economy are the most woke—academia and media and all the industries that tell our culture’s story.
The internet has created a certain mass conformity of ideas and vocabulary in the obvious places, but it's also created all these other spaces where forces are gathering, some of them quite dark forces, that are axes of resistance against the current dominant cultural morality.
Sooner or later, those forces are going to amass in a way that ends up with them taking back the public square from today's era of social justice advocates. And I think that the people within that world are totally unprepared for that, because they've come to see owning the discourse and the conversation and the vocabulary as their birthright.
You describe this, and I can’t help but think of Gawker, which is now pretty woke. But it’s like, they were sort of at the front lines of the 2010s “provocative-for-the-sake-of-it” tone of writing that dominated pre-wokeness. It seems like that transition was seamless, or as seamless it could have been.
Oh yeah, I think that most of the old guard Gawker writers have gone pretty woke. I mean, I've pointed this out as a matter of hypocrisy in the past— A.J. Daulerio, who was the editor of Gawker for a long time, and was a beloved figure among those people, and is still defended by a lot of them today, is a guy who for example, published a video of, I think she was maybe 20 or 21 years old, a college student who was clearly too inebriated to consent having sex, or if you prefer, being raped on the floor of a stadium bathroom.
He published a video of her and both she and her father wrote to Deadspin, where A.J. Daulerio was in charge at that point, and begged them to take it down.
The internal email about that request within Deadspin, which we know because of the Hulk Hogan trial, had the subject line blah, blah, blah.
When he saw the request that they take down the video, A.J. Daulerio told this young woman, who, again, had a video of her being raped on the floor of a stadium, “I recommend you don't make a big deal of this because it's only going to go worse for you.” This is someone whose biggest supporters and closest friends are now paid up members of sort of social justice media. They've adopted this sort of woke sort of self-presentation.
Or another obvious figure is Drew Magary, who was another Deadspin guy. He, when he was, I think, 33 wrote a piece and published a piece in Deadspin saying that it's good to objectify women.
He has said that he used to use anti-gay F slur like a comma.
He said specifically that he did it because he hated gay people. And now he writes pieces online where he defends canceling as a political tactic.
That’s the media world—not just Gawker. People started off as being shocking, profiting off violating others and taboos, and things like that. But then when the media world got woke, they did too. So many people were grandfathered in and aren’t questioned.
It speaks to the omnipresent hypocrisy of wokeness and the media, but it also speaks to how easily things change. There was a time when it was the coolest thing in the world to be mocking people, to be posting videos of women being raped. But then everything changed. And everything can change again.
It feels like the press needs to trend forecast as much as—or even more than—they report newsworthy stories.
I have written many times, and I get made fun of for this frequently, but journalism and media are extremely cliquey professions that are driven by the social conditioning that happens on Twitter.
Everyone is afraid of writing something or saying something that will get them made fun of by their peers in media. And until very recently being popular with your peers was vastly more important for professionalizing than being good at your job.
In other words, five or ten years ago, if you were someone who was a writer and you wrote in the domain of politics and culture, short form nonfiction pieces for sites like Buzzfeed or Gawker, or any number of other ones, The Outline, whatever—if you wanted to advance in your career, the most important thing was making sure that your peers in media liked you. You’d get hired on that basis. Popularity has always been the coin of the realm. And it’s a specific kind of popularity: Who’s kissing your ass on Twitter?
Twitter is where everything happens in media. Crowdfunding has changed that dramatically. I'm getting paid dramatically more than any of the staff writers in any places like that are because I'm being paid by my own readers.
The fundamental economic situation in media is not great. Places are always getting shut down and layoffs are always happening, in a way that undermines any confidence that you can have, that you can be provocative or challenging or daring. And again, popularity becomes very important.
One of the things that's happened recently is the social circle that was associated with New York writing has taken a big hit, largely because of COVID, but also because a lot of people are sort of drifting away from Manhattan as the base of operations of media because of the costs involved.
People are aging out also.
A lot of people are now in the having kids stage of life.
There’s a weird, unsettled feeling in my age bracket, among the people who write what I write: short form, argumentative nonfiction. Nobody's sure when the financial problems are going to rear up again and we're going to see another wave of layoffs. You've got people who are suddenly making in the hundreds of thousands of dollars because they've been able to go independent, but many people don't have the kind of names that they can do that with because even though they were very popular within their cohort, they were also super identified with their publication. And nobody is sure what this industry is right now.
And unfortunately, it's already an industry with a lot of conformity and well, I would say professional cowardice and when everything's so unsettled it still is. I'm not sure if that answers your question.
No, it did. It’s something I think a lot about—especially as I watch alternative media ecosystems grow. I have this hunch that this same conformity that you’re describing is starting to exist in the parallel hierarchies that have spun up in a response to New York media. People don’t get cancelled like you might if your name ends up on a Shitty Media Men list, but you get pushed out by similar mechanisms of popularity. So, I’m always curious about the sustainability of any kind of media ecosystem, it feels endemic to the form.
It’s hard to overstate the financial situation in media. It’s always been an industry where people don’t make a living wage but are still doing full-time work. Once upon a time, you at least had the potential to be one of the small number of winners who were allowed a very lavish lifestyle. ‘80s and ‘90s Condé Nast writers who became names in and of themselves.
People who’d get sent on assignments where they could spend half a year on a single story. They would have unlimited expense accounts. They would be paid well for the time. They would meet great celebrities and they’d be going to parties with movie stars. That top is gone.
Today, there are some people who get grandfathered in, in terms of money. David Brooks is not exactly in that world, but he’s a good example of the kind of contract that they don’t hand out anymore. It essentially doesn’t exist for new people. I’m sure they’re paying their younger staffers pretty well, but not as well as people might think.
I tell younger writers this all the time like, one of the dirty secrets is, is like the biggest places don't pay that well, because they don't have to. I mean, one of the perpetual little scandals is that the last time I checked, it might have changed recently, The New Yorker's staff writers still don't get health insurance.
These days, you have a lot of people who have to hustle on the side to make a living wage, even if they’re at some of the most prestigious magazines to write for in the world. Writing is a way to get celebrity, then celebrity gets you a book deal.
The number of people employed in newsrooms in this country was cut in half in the span of ten years from 2008 to 2018. You’ve got this constant game of musical chairs where everybody knows there's going to be another round of layoffs. And a bunch of the people who get laid off are going to get hired up some someplace else, but there's only so many seats.
And so, the social world becomes a big part of it. And so you had people who would come and they'd write for, sometimes legacy media, but more often than not, it's these newer, online only publications, often sort of very irreverent, very in your face, written with a lot of attitude, they have basic sort of click farming economics where getting clicks is everything, because they're all based on entirely on advertising models and you might write about sports or music or politics or whatever.
A huge part of the draw was to come to New York City and be a sexy person who goes to these cool parties and does blow in the bathroom and is just seen as somebody. That social world, from my perspective, from where I'm sitting, like I said, has been dissolving. Again, because COVID certainly took out a lot of it.
The industry is aging is my perception, that people, or a lot of people are moving on into the later stages of their life and they're not getting replaced because young people are finally catching onto the fact that you're going to make $55,000 a year. And when you have a 100 grand in student loan debt, the math just doesn't work.
That core element of being a cool person that is recognized as cool and finally has their high school experience—that's gone. And so, I would like to think that there's an opportunity now for people to just concentrate on their work, to really care about doing cool shit and to worry so much less about the opinion of their peers.
The problem is, is Twitter still exists and Twitter is hugely important for generating traffic and traffic is still the coin of the realm. So again, I feel like I've gone really far afield of what you were talking about. Sorry.
No, it’s good. I think Twitter has an outsized impact on media, and therefore the zeitgeist. I find that often I’ll read something, and the reporter is reporting on Twitter drama as though it’s something that’s happening between real people, in real life. Or the scale is just skewed. Or like a conversation that only exists online is being painted as this pressing thing.
There also used to be more career progression. You’d go to college, write for your college paper. Then you’d go to a respectable state-level paper. The Hartford Current, for example. And you would send them your clips from college and if they thought they were any good, they would hire you, but you were not producing anything for public consumption for some time.
It would be perfectly common for you to start as a fact checker, right. Or to start as a copy editor. So you would start at these lower levels of within the organizations and you would have an opportunity to work with people who are more seasoned and to develop a better sense of here's what I need to do in order to be good at my job. And, you would often get assigned to a beat as your first work for public consumption.
If you were in sports, you would cover local high school sports and you'd go to every game and you'd hang around and you'd talk to the coach and to the opposing coach, et cetera.
You might have a beat doing local city hall politics in your small to mid-size American city, you’d learn some of the dynamics. And you would get this sort of shoe leather reporting experience that would flavor everything that you would do going forward
These days, you are overwhelmingly drawn from a tiny handful of American elite colleges, because people in this industry love to tell you how it doesn't matter if you went to the Ivy League. And they'll love to shit on the whole idea of elite colleges, but they still hire people based on resumes that have those names.
Going to an exclusive college is exceedingly rare. But that's who was getting hired into these positions and yeah, maybe they wrote for the college paper, but it was just as likely that they were doing reviews or just op-ed pieces. And the day after they're hired, they're producing three 800-word pieces a day that go out to two million people or whatever.
So there's no apprenticeship capacity at all. There's no opportunity to develop actual reporting chops.
And there's no sort of sense of professional craft or craftsmanship that gets built in. And so of course people are writing stories that are like, okay, what's happening on Twitter today, because they have no experience writing anything else. Their day-to-day experience of how to gather information is to open their Twitter feed.
And they open their Twitter feed, and they see a tiny number of all the accounts are providing the vast majority of the tweets and the vast majority of the tweets that are getting any engagement.
They elevate these people in their opinions, in their mind to being very, very important when they’re just not that meaningful or important in the broader scheme of things. But how would they know? Again, they came straight from high school and college to working for whatever.com and making $44,000 a year doing it and churning out low quality unedited pieces to get clicks.
How would they know how to do real reporting? And unfortunately there just doesn't appear to be the will to invest in people, in the human capital in the way that would be necessary to sort of build them up the way that they need to be.
I think you're right. And I think that the tragedy here is that what they write becomes reality in a weird way. They sort of say it and then it, however many million people read it in The New York Times and then they're like, Well, it must be true. And we start, there's a weird disconnect where they're more writing the future than describing the present.
Yeah. I mean, it certainly, I don't want to get too wonky here, but I think that you can say that we're talking about generations now where the concept of a world away from the keyboard is becoming harder and harder to parse.
Who are used to mediating absolutely everything, certainly their relationships more than anything, through a sort of a digital intermediary.
And so when you say to them like, "Okay. Yes, everyone you know on Twitter says defund the police. But most of this country isn't on Twitter and even the large majority of black Democrats who in fact are generally speaking, a very moderate part of the electorate, don't want to defund the police.”
But when you have that insistent drip of it in your brain day after day after day, it comes to seem like public opinion.
I put a piece out in The New York Times a few weeks ago, which was just saying, I've been into socialist politics my whole life. I've done a lot of socialist organizing. I want socialism more than I ever wanted anything.
But so many people that I’ve talked to are convinced that the public is already convinced that we just have to run the right candidate. That if they had nominated Bernie and got out of the way, then we would have Medicare For All right now. They cherry pick carefully worded polling questions to sort of suit their preferences.
They ignore very inconvenient polling data.
For example, Medicare For All implies the elimination of private insurance and eliminating private health insurance is one of the least popular polling items we have out there. They've just convinced themselves that like, “Oh yeah, the country just wants socialism and it's just the people in charge who are preventing it.”
And so there's this postmodern attitude towards public opinion because to them public opinion just appears in front of them on a page on the internet and they can see how it changes in its dynamics and so they think it's just that easy.
But unfortunately, moving Twitter on a question is something very different from moving the American public.