Friday, January 18, 2013

Alexis Madrigal is peddling bullshit once again (and other wisdom from the unbranded Internet)

Writing for a professional publication, particularly a self-fellating august organization like The Atlantic, has both benefits and drawbacks. The benefit is that you can be paid for rehashing the conventional wisdom and calling it contrarian, trolling feminism, making embarrassingly false claims on issues of national security, and, if you're Alexis Madrigal, alternating between talking about how great life will be (for you and your whitebread upper class cohort, natch) when the kewl technologiez get here and whining about how technologiez are letting you down. You can also get paid to write intelligent and useful commentary. But we were talking about Alexis Madrigal. (zing!)

The downside to writing for this kind of magazine is that you're meant to take yourself very, very seriously. (In general, there is an inverse relationship between the quality of a given writer for The Atlantic and how often they write about how important the magazine is.) That means that you can't just go full flame war on people even when you really want to. So check out this piece from Madrigal on Rick McArthur of Harpers. He dresses it up with some airy talk about search and the Internet-- like all of his pieces, Madrigal explicitly tells you that he's smarter than someone else, an important activity when your writing itself is incapable of getting that job done-- but let's get real here: what Madrigal wants is to write a hit piece. The problem is that he's in such a self-serious venue that he can't actually just go ahead and do it. Worse for Madrigal is that the club he wants to beat McArther with is the use of branding on the Internet, saying "For just about every person, the Internet is not content brands that they return to mindlessly day after day."

Coming from The Atlantic, and particularly from someone who won't stop writing about how very important the magazine he writes for is, this is utterly shameless. The Atlantic is an institution that never stops branding! What does Madrigal think those "Ideas Festival" circle jerks are for? Does he think that people would overpay so wildly to attend a "Food Summit" if it wasn't tied to the carefully stage-managed gravitas that the publication endlessly pushes? On their website you're never far from someone telling you about how fortunate you are to be reading it. Madrigal's complaint is like saying that elf labor is inefficient when you work at Santa's workshop.

But don't take my word for it. How does The Atlantic actually feel about its own branding and the Internet? Let's check their job listings!

Now, I'm neither a Thought Leader nor part of the new breed of global business executive that mistakes terms like "start up mentality" for actual content, rather than the kind of language stupid people use to sound smart. But it sure looks to this poor country boy like The Atlantic is peddling exactly the kind of managed, branded, controlled, top-down, aristocratic, commerce-first vision of the Internet that Madrigal mocks McArthur for pursuing. The company has been very successful-- I know because they never stop saying so-- and that's because of its branding. I can only conclude that he is taking up this line out of petty resentment at another magazine, and one that values depth over hype, the arduous work of gaining knowledge over the facile assembly of glib narratives, the responsibility of adult discrimination over the cheap thrills of fanboy fawning and reckless optimism.

Madrigal is not wrong to celebrate the people-powered, brand-free side of the Internet. It's just that The Atlantic is truly the furthest thing possible from that. The unbranded Internet looks like this blog, not like The Atlantic, and as I will inevitably be scolded for writing a post as unserious as this one, you can see why it might be falling out of fashion. Madrigal is celebrating an Internet that his own company is slowly choking to death. He certainly is engaged in that process himself. I mean, I certainly hope that Madrigal he's pursuing some sort of editorial directive when he posts about  "The Coolest Looking Dolphin." (Otherwise, I might start to suspect that he's a shallow person.) And while Facebook and Google might not be content providers, they are most certainly brands, and the notion that they represent some sort of untamed vehicles of "human intelligence" is techno-utopian woowoo bullshit. But then, that's Madrigal's brand. Isn't it?


ryan said...

Feeling our oats today, are we??

Freddie said...

I'm afraid that 4 comments on this post have been inadvertently deleted, including one of mine.