Analyzing the conflict between commentators and their audience
The biggest online feud isn’t between some random celebrities. It’s between critics and the unwashed masses, and it’s been building for years. In 2014 it peaked in the god-awful clown fiesta Gamergate, but even after that mess died down the mutual hostility never quite faded.
When you see a fight it’s tempting to figure out, as quickly as possible, which side’s the ‘good guys’ you should empathize with and which side is the ‘bad guys’ you should attack. Tempting, but unwise, especially in murky situations. It’s also not intellectually engaging. If you just want to rah-rah for a team without truly understanding the situation, why bother reading about it?
I wanted to be as disinterested as possible when I studied this clash. Otherwise, it’s not analysis, it’s an exercise in confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. You might think that I’m being too cautious, and that an intelligent person can hold a strong opinion while studying an issue and keep their biases in check. You would be wrong. More intelligent people are just more creative at justifying their biases.
Professional critics, commentators, and pundits have never lived a ‘normal’ life. Making your living from writing and TV appearances is very different from serving hamburgers or working construction. The perspective and values of the critic weren’t the same as those of the average consumer. They were much closer than today, though, for two reasons.
First, critics were in contact with a wide variety of people. Church attendance was more common and clubs were more popular, so people from different walks of life rubbed shoulders in their spare time. As Robert Putnam described in Bowling Alone, this has changed. Americans have separated from each other and disengaged. Critics spend more time in narrow social and professional circles with less exposure to diverse views.
Second, Americans have become more ideologically sorted, and ideologies have become more extreme. Bill Bishop described our ideological self-segregation in The Big Sort, and the 10-second summary is that people are surrounding themselves more and more with people who think the same things they do…