ANTISOCIAL: More Thoughts on Counterculture and the New Right (PART 2)
With the emergence of the social web and the newsfeed in around 2006/7 and the election of Barack Obama, there was a widespread sense amongst both conservatives and liberals that progressive values on the march. Progressives bragged about it, conservatives stewed. I recall a new triumphalism around the 2012 election for the left, one that even found its center right equivalent in post election autopsies for the Romney campaign: demographics are destiny. Soon America will not be a white majority country, which means the future belongs to non-white progressives. This was touted by the triumphalists in the language of tech-utopianism. The internet just wasn’t a place for white conservatives and their backward ideas, it wasn’t by them or for them. And the internet was now a major force in electoral politics. It was for young, diverse, forward-looking people. People who knew when a catchphrase or meme was hot or not.
Around this time, the virality business had undergone several iterations, many of which are chronicled in illuminating detail by Marantz in “Antisocial.” Those who were very online back then, especially those of us who were working in the virality industry, remember these phases. I Can Haz Cheeseburger cute cat vids. Upworthy. Gawker. The Huffington Post. Joking about Pitchfork rating decimals, then joking about People Who Still Read Pitchfork. Fail videos. Funny or Die.
But these methods of delivering and sharing potentially viral content were constantly being honed and perfected. A/B tested. Simple, cute and funny could do a great job at grabbing a few seconds of attention. You could only multiply that phenomenon so many times before a user got bored. You could only post your favorite pop song with a caption indicating your popism so many times to your audience before it became tiresome. Attention merchants and virality chasers needed something more to juice the engine, and they found it in politics.
Again, I wouldn’t claim that this was ever deliberately instigated or coordinated. But it wasn’t hard to see a change from the tired LOLcats approach and the growing tendency to subject all pop cultural items to a test of political ethics. I’m sure everyone saw this from their own vantage point and I wouldn’t claim to know where it started or who went the hardest. In my personal bubble Jezebel feminism seemed the strongest force. Posting about the deficiencies and problems with new films, TV shows, and records wound people up. And I don’t say this disparagingly — I didn’t agree with every take, but I learned plenty. And yet, as someone who was working in viral analytics, it wasn’t lost on me that there was a certain strategic value at work. Find a Search Engine Optimized term, something everyone is already talking about, and inject an incendiary interpretation. People would talk. And share. And talk and share some more.
Here again I return to the notion of values after dynamics. I think we can and should be able to attribute a positive value to the ways in which some of this critique educated a generation about entrenched power relations. We should also be allowed to recognize that it was obeying the profit incentives of social platforms: keep people engaged, keep them talking, keep them liking and sharing. The importance of making this distinction cannot be overstated since much of what was to come would rely on a false binary between incendiary progressive critique as a.) inherently true and therefore good or b.) cynically performative “virtue signaling” and therefore bad.
The viral internet started to run on this fuel. Cute cats still could haz cheeseburgers and fail videos were good for an occasional laugh. But people who still posted that kind of stuff came off as a little fuddy duddy. Out of touch. To be in touch was to be “engaged” with “the conversation” and the conversation was almost always political. If anyone said they didn’t want to talk about politics, you could just remind them that everything is political. Even being apolitical is political. The culture was the internet. The internet was young and progressive. Everything was political and urgent.
Destruction of previous consensus about cultural interpretation, the replacing the old principles with new dogmas was a really reliable engagement model. People who were too young to remember that nobody saw “Fight Club” in theaters had new ways of judging it: through its online fanbase. To them, “Fight Club” was a monolith because it had attracted a fandom and that fandom’s understanding grew to matter more than anything. New expectations for evaluation were floated: maybe films like this needed to be “held responsible” for all of its bad interpretations and badly behaved fanboys. Guilt-by-association took on new levels of power and prevalence, until defending what had previously been somewhat apparent intentions of authors like Chuck Palahnuik or Anthony Burgess or directors like David Fincher and Stanley Kubrick became problematic merely because by association one was defending every twit on 4chan that quoted rapey droogspeak as if it was cool instead of insidious.
The music you grew up with was problematic so were the movies. They could be problematic just because enough dumb fans acted dumb about it. Postmodern detachment — at least in one sense — was over. If you were authentically bad you were bad, and transgression? Many of the new progressives had, however accidentally, ended up on the exact same side of that argument as conservatives. Since the 1960s they’d been warning that the counterculture was morally depraved, producing works of art in a haze of substance abuse that flew in the face of good moral judgment.
Transgression was problematic. If you wanted a break from talking about how everything was “problematic,” well, that just showed how problematic you yourself were. A lot of people experienced this as a trap. For some it felt like the conservatism of their youth. They wanted out.
Armed with their internalized consensus set of countercultural notions about false consciousness, rebellion, transgression, authenticity, and postmodern detachment, some people started attempting a breakout. Recognizing that a new mainstream had emerged, they struck a subcultural pose. The new outsiders would refuse to care about what was problematic. They would code switch and play in the postmodern sea of signifiers however they wanted, rejecting the new viral masters’ expectation that everything be taken seriously, ethically probed, and discussed into oblivion until the next controversy landed…
*NOTE: I’d be remiss if at some point in these posts I didn’t make absolutely explicit that my claim here is not that the online far right is only the result of a counterculture and media crisis. After the financial crash of 2008 I said in a Facebook post we should probably set our watches for the coming fascism. I’m a musician, though, one who used to make a dayjob paycheck studying the viral internet for advertisers. I’m not an economist, so this is “my lane” so-to-speak. I think there’s something subculturists can take away from charting these shifts and examining how we existed and hope to exist in the future.