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Reaction Culture Is the Internet’s Biggest Blindspot, and It’s Growing
08.27.18

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 Harvard professor calls coconut oil “pure poison” — not everyone agrees. Idris Elba says he’s not the next James Bond. A Crazy Rich Asians sequel is already in the works. Don’t hire Michael Cohen, President Trump says. Kendall Jenner responds to backlash over comments about the fashion industry.

It took no effort to create this snapshot of 2018 — I simply popped into Twitter Moments for 30 seconds. Had I done it five minutes earlier, I’d have collected an entirely different batch of headlines. This is the internet today: a chaotic reactive beast, expanding in every direction, folding back in on itself then exploding anew. It’s no wonder so many of us feel suffocated. We’re living in the matrix.

While none of these particular news stories explicitly intersect, they all share an important quality: they are secondary reactions to a more central narrative. In many ways, this is how news functions today. In some ways, this is how people function today. We want to know it all; we want to track the ripple effects. You don’t have to be a new media scholar to understand the ways in which online journalism have informed the way people think and behave. When we have access to what everyone thinks about everything, it’s hard to expect anything less.

“On its own, a single hot take might not seem all that bad. As with any other kind of junk food, the problem is in aggregate,” writes John West for Quartz. “Our attention is limited, and so are publications’ resources. So hot takes compete for space in our collective consciousness with articles about, say, the water supply in Flint.”

West is talking about a specific flavor of hot take — that of the attention-seeking, clickbait variety. Or, as Salon’s Simon Maloy once described it: “deliberately provocative commentary that is based almost entirely on shallow moralizing.” But there’s another type of hot take gaining traction, especially in more democratic spaces like personal social media accounts: the reaction.

Once you start noticing the public emphasis on reactions — or more specifically, “correct” reactions — it’s impossible to ignore. What’s her take on all this? Did he speak out on that yet? Did she post a response on Twitter? Has she publicly decried his actions? Will he respond or stay quiet? Has she even acknowledged it happened?

In an average day, I’ll read any number of these questions. They’re flying around the internet at hyperspeed, leaving a heavy trail of exhaustion, and to me, they beg far more important questions, like: What happens when people are no longer the sum of their actions, but their reactions? What happens when we aren’t what we do, but what we say?

One of the biggest issues in placing so much weight in how people respond in the aftermath of an event or news story is that it lays the groundwork for a kind of performative wokeness — one where resharing a quote on Instagram or giving your profile photo a rainbow overlay or Tweeting “this is not okay” can ostensibly stand in for the kind of activism that requires more than 30 seconds. Or the kind of learning that demands you look inward, dismantle your implicit bias and examine your own role in the problem. Shooting off a quick response might have a place in the arc of progress (awareness, after all, matters), but it can never stand in for the action that must follow it. If we fool ourselves into thinking it does, activism will become its own theatrical feedback loop.

Take the current size conversation in the fashion industry, for example. Scroll through a certain vertical of female-targeted Instagram and you’ll conclude that many fashion brands and influencers support size-inclusivity and the body positive movement. Look for real-life evidence of those beliefs echoed beyond marketing and social media posturing and you may be left wanting. Writer Amanda Mull wrote about this phenomenon in a piece for Racked called “Body Positivity Is a Scam.” In it, she outlines the ways in which brands have managed to align themselves with certain moral principles without doing any of the work required to enact change. “In this system, corporate interests have a clear opening to insert themselves into the fray and emerge as heroes simply by hiring an ad agency or casting director who can read the room, and without changing their business’s treatment of anyone,” she writes. “Body positivity in 2018 rushes right up to the line between aesthetics and politics but puts not one toe over it.”

This is a critical flaw in the way activism is being metabolized in our current moment, and I’d argue it’s happening on the individual level as well. In the era of Instagram, when personhood becomes personal brand, aligning yourself with a particular set of beliefs has become more important than thinking and behaving in accordance with those beliefs. And “reacting” in the proper way to global tragedies or systemic injustices can stand in for being someone who’s actively examining herself and the system, and pivoting how she moves through life as a result of those learnings.

This isn’t just a problem in the activist space; public self-alignment with any idea has become a modern tenet of identity formation. It’s less about what you create and more about how you respond. Some call this “the death of the individual.” This value system goes beyond judging someone’s quickly shot off Tweet — it’s seeped into how we see and process the world. Today, personal and corporate brands are built on the opposing or supporting of specific ideas, long think pieces are churned out before the writer’s had a chance to process what they actually think, and entire cultural narratives are shaped by the bad actors that make us angry.

Whether or not someone’s willing to participate in this kind of reactivity, there’s a certain kind of progress that can’t be postured. Like more ethical hiring practices and healthcare plans, for example. Or movies written by new people that tell new stories. Clothing that actually fits women of all sizes rather than simply advertises to them. Treating your neighborhood and community with respect. Reading words by people who don’t look like you. Casting a vote. Giving yourself time to process and change. Listening.

As long as we rely on social media as a means to spark progress, I think we also have to acknowledge its limitations. When we overemphasize how people react to the world instead of what they contribute to it, aren’t we feeding the wrong beast? When we expect an immediate response, are we setting the bar high or clearing the path for performative progress?

Gif by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

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