December 28, 2012

In “It’s Not OK To Be Shitty: Guy Fieri, BuzzFeed, And The Tyranny Of Stupid Popular Things” on Deadspin this week, Will Leitch has written an essay he might otherwise have titled “Why Everything Is Bad Now.” Winding his way through the Guy Fieri v. New York Times fiasco of last month, on toward the tyranny of lowered expectations across the cultural board, and the dashing of thousands of once pure writerly souls on the shores of pageview-chasing Buzzfeed-style stunt posts, he comes to a point that stuck out for me coming, as it did, just as I was posting what must’ve been somewhere around my second dozenth reactionary Buzzfeed hate-blog.

This inclination of mine to rail, (in futility, I’m well aware), against the oppressive blandness of the internet behemoth (just kidding if you’re hiring) places me firmly in a category which you might call a “hater,” or “h8er” if you’re short on characters and/or a teenager and/or a rapper and/or a teenage rapper short on characters.  So be it. It’s time more of us speak up in defense of the hater, or at least differentiate ourselves by a small, but significant matter of degree.

It’s probably not a coincidence that in the age of the “like” and the “favorite” and the “<3″ that we’ve assembled an oppositional army pushing back in the other direction, but it’s one that’s easily neutered. The brilliance of the hater rebuttal in diminishing criticism of any sort is that, like its cousins “U MAD?” and “U JELLY?”, which Mobute See Seko deftly delineated here, it reduces the slight to one based in an irrational, emotional reaction.

Leitch explained:

You see this everywhere, from box office results to online pageviews to Nielsen ratings to freaking Twitter followers. More people watch the NFL on television than any sport so therefore IT IS THE BEST SPORT. You have fewer Twitter followers than the person you’re criticizing? YOU’RE A HATER. You don’t like that album that went platinum? YOU JUST JEALOUS. BuzzFeed has put a bunch of pictures of kittens together in a way that is easily passed around by idiots? THEY HAVE FIGURED OUT THE INTERNET THEY ARE SUCH BRILLIANT PACKAGERS OF CONTENT THE FUTURE OF MEDIA. We have become a culture that, because we can quantify things in a way we’ve never been able to before, are acting as if those numbers are all that matter.

Despite recognizing all of that, even as I go about my own hate-fueled internet windmill-tilting, I’ve often wondered whether or not my own visceral reaction to Buzzfeed, or The Oatmeal, or  Thought Catalog, (essentially what Buzzfeed would look like if every sappy, stolen picture was given its full thousand word allotment and then some), could really be based on something so vile and mediocre as jealousy?

Yes and no, is the short answer. There’s a key distinction between, say, the type of “hate-watching” discussed in this AV Club piece and being someone with a critical point of view, I think. “It’s a knee-jerk rejection of everything a piece of entertainment might have to offer,” they write. “Just as in politics some people judge what a politician says based on whether there’s an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ next to his or her name, so Smash could conceivably deliver an outstanding episode full of great performances, sparkling dialogue, and heartrending songs, and some viewers wouldn’t notice because the only reason they tuned in was to rip it apart.”

We regularly see people decrying the snarkification of the internet, the constant stream of zingers and “hate” on Twitter, but there’s a reason for all of that; we’re a nation of cynics only because our inner idealists have been buried under an avalanche of shit. The only reason I tune in to Buzzfeed may be to rip it apart, but that’s not simply because it’s bad, it’s because it’s both so bad and so popular, and its success in the near-zero-sum game of page views democratizes mediocrity. We do not hate things only because someone has become successful (even if they’re Northern), we hate because the wrong person has become successful. Gawker is another widely read website seemingly ripe for a steady stream of diarrhea-like hate from someone like myself, and yet I regularly praise it because it’s regularly good, (even while pointing out the occasional misstep.)

That’s how it should be. When someone performs well, we should praise, when they do not, we should point out why, not because we want to drag them, Day of the Locusts-like back into the faceless mob, but because we want the things we like to be as good as they can be. (Responsible hating, it should be said, can only be projected upwards. Lateral hating is known as being an underminer. Downward hating is known as being a horrible person.)

To reduce the criticism of any successful thing to terms of jealousy robs us of our agency as cultural critics, both of the professional kind, like myself (ostensibly), and the average social media user. Thousands of internet commenters don’t harbor a deep-rooted jealousy for Lena Dunham based on her success alone, to use another frequently mentioned internet lightning rod of spite, it’s because people don’t think she’s that good as a function of her success. That right there is an acceptable, even, I’d say, vital, type of “hating.” How many people have you heard espouse that same sort of disdain for, I don’t know, Louis C.K.? Would I like his success? Yes, of course, but he happens to deserve it more than I do; so it’s an acceptable state of acclaim disparity to me.

That is in direct opposition, of course, to the role that the hater is normally cast into online: the petty scraper, the venal status-obsessed bean-counter, or, worse still, the person-who-dares-express-distaste-for-anything. (As a related note, your average person cannot therefore have haters. If you find yourself constantly ‘s/o yr h8ers’ it may be worth considering whether or not you’re just shitty person).

Attention or success or acclaim or page view domination in the hands of the unworthy is what vexes the ethical hater then. It’s not that we hate out of some chaotic desire to watch the internet burn — that’s called trolling — it’s the exact opposite, we want things to be better.

Naturally, in the era of instant notoriety, be it through viral meme driven channels, or reality TV-based brand-building, there are many more opportunities for the noble hater to sound our barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world, to lean speciously on Whitman. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.

This has been going on for some quite some time, of course. Martin Amis was railing against it as far back as 2001 in his haters-guide book The War Against Cliche. The value of valid criticism, he says, speaking about literature, but the point maintains, was destroyed “as soon as the forces of democratisation gave their next concerted push.”

Those forces – incomparably the most potent in our culture – have gone on pushing. And they are now running up against a natural barrier. Some citadels, true, have proved stormable. You can become rich without having any talent (via the scratchcard and the rollover jackpot). You can become famous without having any talent (by abasing yourself on some TV nerd-othon: a clear improvement on the older method of simply killing a celebrity and inheriting the aura). But you cannot become talented without having any talent. Therefore, talent must go.

Talent, thankfully, hasn’t been eradicated just yet, but it’s taken a back seat to exposure and visibility, and that sort of thing will never sit well with the hater. As Amis concludes, “To idealise: all writing is a campaign against cliche. Not just cliches of the pen but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart. When I dispraise, I am usually quoting cliches. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy and reverberation of voice.”

That’s all the hater wants. Every execrable listicle or page-view gif-based dump is a blow against freshness, energy and reverberation of voice. There’s certainly plenty of that to be found in the vastness of the internet, but it’s easy for it to become obscured by the shadow of an oafish giant. We don’t hate out of a desire to bring the successful down to our level, we hate because the success of the unworthy makes it harder for the things we want to champion to gain hold. We hate, in other words, out of love.

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