THR Web Features   /   March 5, 2015

What We Talk About When We Talk About What We Talk About When We Talk

B.D. McClay

The duck-rabbit. Wikimedia Commons.

The box that contains my cheap delivery pizza lists five cows by name, thanking them for their contribution of cheese. I hate few things like I hate these cows. I know as well as the person who designed this advertisement that the milk for this cheese did not come from cows frolicking in a meadow. This lie, which seems so unnecessary to the selling of my pizza, irritates me beyond measure.

But as I was throwing out this box, I found a new annoyance: instructions on how to Instagram my pizza, down to the lighting I should use (natural), the temperature of the pizza (hot), and the hashtag that ought to accompany my picture. And I thought: How strange, first of all, that this pizza, which I have already purchased, is covered in advertising for itself, and also, why is it so focused on being my friend, so as to trick me into advertising for it?

“Funny how hard it is to be alone,” Philip Larkin once wrote:

Just think of all the spare time that has flown

Straight into nothingness

Larkin, always aware that time is limited and that we are all going to die, was referring to the necessity of socializing with people you despise. These constant advertisements have much the same effect, even if you are being as anti-social as you can manage by ordering some pizza to eat alone. Someone, somewhere, is interested in monetizing your day-to-day activities, your bad habits, and even your irritation. (As one of the people responsible for The Hedgehog Review’s social-media presence, I am, in fact, one of those people.)

Not all advertisements announce themselves so clearly. A month ago, Jonathan Chait published an article in New York Magazine titled “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say.” Poorly argued and mostly a rehash of material from 2007, it was not very good. But it didn’t need to be. “Chait's piece isn't a piece,” the feminist critic Sady Doyle wrote at In These Times, “it's a machine built to generate thinkpieces, and every Tweet is a viral ad.” Judged by that metric, which is almost certainly the only metric by which it was judged, Chait’s piece was a success.

It was also short-lived. After a week or two, the piece might as well have never been written. People had moved on. Increasingly, this burst of response followed by widespread forgetfulness characterizes the lifespan of these articles online. News stories, too. When the Charlie Hebdo offices were attacked, I found myself buried in many levels of commentary before even a day had gone by. It was a significant story, but that wasn’t really why it was so widely shared—when Danish cartoonists were attacked a month later, there was barely a peep.

There are cheerier cases. By now, you’ve probably seen a picture of a dress which looks like different colors to different people. (By now, in fact, that dress is a week old and old news.) That colors have this property is recognized widely enough that it’s a joke: “When you see the sky, is it the same sky that I see?” one stoner philosopher asks another, and then they go dress shopping. By itself, it’s not difficult to see why people would share such a puzzling image. By itself, in fact, the image is fun, and though I'm a grump, I'm all for fun.

Fed into the online content machine, the dress behaved much the same way as an essay or a shocking news story. Websites immediately set about repackaging the phenomenon in a way that would draw attention their way, and people, still fascinated by the picture, shared those articles, driving further articles about the dress, driving further sharing. To generate this traffic, it was barely necessary to do anything at all: Business Insider put up a picture, some celebrity tweets, and a plausible-sounding but unverified scientific explanation the author had pulled from somebody’s Tumblr.

Other websites did more work. I saw articles on the dress and the philosophy of mind along with one on the dress and optics. And while I’m not going to look to see if somebody published an article called “ten dresses that changed the world,” I would be surprised if it didn’t exist. But none of these articles are really articles. The text could simply be lorem ipsum repeated for the requisite word count and no one would notice. This series of observations is not especially original, but it also doesn’t stop being true.

What distinguishes all of these media stories—“Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” or Charlie Hebdo, or this dress—from each other? Formally, nothing. When I go to websites, I usually find a host of articles formatted in the same way, promoted in the same way, and responded to in the same way. Philosophy of mind is just one nifty and smart-sounding way to package a story among many, an intellectual party trick that lets smart people feel better about reading a dumb story. A thoroughly researched article with a provocative thesis becomes indistinguishable from a shoddy one that is simply very long.

Of course, these things are distinguishable, if they are read with care. Philosophy of mind is more than marketing trick. But it’s hard to prevent hot and trendy topics from blending together, even when they themselves are much weightier: ISIS, political correctness, a dog playing a cowbell, an actress giving a speech at the Oscars, a dress. They are all just content. Any content will do.

There’s not much that can be done about this state of affairs. Everything has to keep running, and it is death to stop talking. You can, if you want, resolve to read better articles or to read only books or to read only books published by dead people. Though these choices might make a positive difference in your individual development, they make little difference to the machine, which will make sure that you see that dress ten or twenty times and which will eventually get some sort of reaction out of you.

The day after the dress picture broke, a faculty member at my undergraduate institution—which is famously detached from the larger world—sent me a message: “After seminar last night, I and another tutor had a choice: talk about John Locke; or talk about colors of The Dress.”

“I am hoping you made the right choice,” I wrote to him, “but I'm guessing you didn't.”

“Well, see,” he said, “we disagreed about the colors, so, er...”

It gets into everything.

B.D. McClay is associate editor of The Hedgehog Review.