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Hot Takes and The New Portable Intellectualism
A Machine Built On Skim-Reading and Telling Us What We Want To Hear
I’ve been asked a few times about what “the plan” is for this newsletter - whether it’ll go paid, whether it’ll become something larger where I have guest authors, or even whether I’m going to turn it all into some sort of anthology that I’ll sell called “Remote Masters: Work From Brain.” The answer is obvious:
But in all seriousness, something that has struck me about writing it is that the worst work I do is when I force something out - as I’ve reflected on previously, the need to cater something I do because I enjoy it, and not because I “have to” or “because it’s my brand.” And I think that works for me - and I don’t need to plumb those depths any further than what I just wrote.
A more significant problem that I think we face from being online is comparing ourselves to others. Maybe it’s our Twitter follower count, or the people that respond to us, or the businesses we have, or whether we’re as good-looking or as interesting or as funny as someone else. There’s an endless drive to appear happier or better than we are and to appear to be “ahead” of things - we have the first take, the first reply, the first statement on something, and the first to report on a new trend that’s just been sitting underneath everyone else’s noses. We don’t simply want to keep up with the Joneses - we want them to have to start keeping up with us.
The result, in my opinion, is a mass over-codification of the world around us - to try and see the world for what it is, warts and all, and be the first to report on that in such a way that it gets shared and makes people say “oh, that’s thoughtful.” In turn, people love taking these takes and sharing them, sometimes only having skim-read them, like a meme that’s specifically built to show how clever you are by virtue of someone else’s cleverness. I’m guilty of both the writing and the sharing in this case - things that I’ve read that I sort of agree with that I think are good, and I want others to see, and deliberately not sharing stuff that I think will make me look like an idiot, or knowing that people won’t share it.
This is the natural result of the hot takes industry. One’s “take” on something might be pretty rudimentary or obvious. Still, as long as it’s worded in a particularly fiery or emotional way (I am guilty of all of this), people will generally want to associate with it because it hit at the right time. The hunger of feeding the take machine - and trying to position oneself as an expert - is that you get drawn into professionally thinking about stuff in terms of what might sound profound but be, well, overthinking the whole thing.
It doesn’t even have to be in newsletter or article form - it can even be a simple tweet in which someone shares what one might consider a relatively harmless opinion and end up having a massive argument with people about it. Ideas and takes have become parts of people’s personalities - it isn’t simply enough to like or dislike something; one must marry oneself to it and talk about it the whole time and make “daring” statements for fear that they are considered irrelevant or out of touch.
Take this Gary Vaynerchuk video:
NFTs are an expensive and questionable industry that has primarily led to a few people getting rich because they accidentally bought the correct jpeg of a monkey. Gary Vee - a prime evil of the internet that I’d argue has caused genuine harm to society - makes the argument that NFTs make sense…well, let me type out his argument word for word:
Interviewer: “But NFTs aren’t physical and tangible”
GV: But you can’t physically touch or feel a blue check on Instagram…I don’t walk around…with a blue check tattooed to my forehead. Yet everybody sees it…You can’t “see” my 9M followers on IG…or can you? I would argue the reverse. People can’t see most of the fancy things you have in your house. That other people can see more of your assets in a digital form than they can in real life…and that’s the Ah Ha moment that’s going through your head right now.
Based on the replies to this tweet, you would think that Gary had just come up with a perpetual energy machine. Instead, he has done my favourite kind of hot take - the type that is engineered to hit specific points in the brain that make people who want something to be true (in this case, NFTs are good) with a level of faux-profundity that makes something imminently shareable, despite the fact it makes absolutely no sense.
In this case, Gary’s argument is that because you can’t “see” his followers on Instagram (yet they’re valuable, non-specifically), NFTs are valuable because they have more visibility to the greater world. This makes absolutely no sense - for example, Createspace has let authors self-publish over a million and a half books. Still, the possibility of visibility does not grant them any extra value, monetary or otherwise. The fact that your assets are visible does not give them extra value - perhaps if he argued that if an asset were visible it would gain value? I’m not sure.
It’s because Vaynerchuk and his ilk have built multi-million dollar empires off of pithy bursts of hot air - miniature hot takes, built to be shared and absorbed as fast as possible without much consideration.
This is also what Twitter is built for - lightning-fast formation of opinions based on other people’s takes without the consideration of said opinions. Instead, one just takes the person at their word (even if said words make no sense), based on their authority or simply because what they’re saying vaguely matches what you want to be true. Sometimes this is well-earned - Dave Wasserman, for example - or sometimes it’s based on the fact that they generally resemble something like what you think you should be, like a Gary Vee type hustle culture person.
It’s all very human, though. We all want the world to confirm our biases, and we want to seem like we’re interesting, informed and intellectual. We share takes, irrespective of size, like an influencer might post a fancy car or a beautiful vista on Instagram - it is intellectual flaunting and posturing, and I believe that those making content are aware of it and feeding into it. Hell, I do! I’m writing this shit and I think people are gonna share it because it’s good! I love it when people respond to my stuff and say it’s smart, it makes me happy! But the stuff that we share - especially the takes - are a form of factual factionalism where we take our positions from other people so that we can be seen as having intellectual capacity by proxy.
Now, I admit that I am describing how human beings consume and share knowledge. It’s good to get information from different places and it’s fine to share it with others, I do it, you do it, we all do it. But the problem becomes when we begin to passively share things without really reading them (guilty), or when the machine itself starts trying to engineer itself to find mystic treasures within fairly obvious things.
The whole conversation around “revenge bedtime procrastination” is a frustrating example - it is the idea that we are staying up late doing things we want to do instead of going to bed, which is otherwise known as “being a person.” I’ve seen several different articles about it, going into depths about “the why” of people staying awake doing stuff before bed. The answer is probably that they’re intellectually stimulated by the thing they’re doing and like doing it and are more interested in the thing than going to sleep. Big deal! But it’s now yet another codified entity for people to chew over and ask themselves about - am I “revenge bedtime procrastinating?” A take that seems profound and thoughtful, but is laser-focused on being shared by people saying “hey, I also do stuff instead of going to bed!” Entire articles now exist of people talking about why they stay awake instead of sleeping, as if that’s new, or thoughtful. And now people have a new term for something that didn’t need a term, and can bring intellectualism to “I stayed up until 1am playing Slay The Spire.”
And people love it. It’s the hunger we all have to see the universe for what it really is, ideally on a deeper and more meaningful level. Human beings want to understand things, but we also want to feel smart and powerful - and thus we want to share these things not simply because we like them, but as a way of branding ourselves as Big, Meaningful Thinkers.
It reminds me of the infamous “time for some Game Theory” thread by Eric Garland, a…writer? I think? Anyway, his deranged thread about Russia and America and some other stuff that my brain is blocking out was hailed as “a Federalist Paper for 2016” and “great writing” by famous journalists, despite it being - as obvious then as it is now - utterly incomprehensible nonsense. Nevertheless, I saw it shared at the time by many people simply because they wanted it to be true, even if “it” meant something vaguely like “Donald Trump Goes To Jail Or Is Otherwise In Trouble.” The hunger to share and applaud this thread came from (in my opinion, I am not a mind reader) a place of intellectual association - to be first on the Big Smart Person Train to See The World As It is, and to look back and say “yeah, I was there,” when something approximating a big meaningful Hot Take was made.
As I have repeatedly said, I am guilty of being both the fuel and the fire. I have shared things that I have barely read before, simply because I trust the author and the quote I read that they posted sounded good and smart. The media industry still uses clickbait, but I also believe that they (we?) have now moved toward a model where it isn’t necessarily about treading new ground, but the appearance of having done so and creating the reaction in the person’s brain that This Is New And Smart.
Getting people to share stuff simply out of anger isn’t enough - the new depths of “doing numbers” comes from writing a hot take that pisses off some people, but confirms the biases of others in an imaginative new way.
Now, I’m also still being a little reductive, because this is also how writing for other people works. You write stuff that you think they’ll like, and sometimes you’ll write about something that’s been written before but with a new spin - otherwise known as analysis, which again has a valid and meaningful reason to exist.
I believe Hot Takes depart from this because they’re written specifically to get people to say “damn, that’s true” and share it so that people know that they’re smart and also have the right opinions. They are not necessarily written with the expectation of being read, but with the idea that you’ll take out the quotes that you love and share them. It’s not just about telling you something new - it’s about reassuring you that you get it and that you’re smart, and that your life is very special and different.
Or, perhaps, that your struggle is both valid and real - a thing that all humans wish to feel - even if your position is one that is not necessarily founded in reality:
I constantly find myself going back and forth with this idea because like any broad stroke, it has a danger of absorbing stuff I’d still consider good and meaningful.
Perhaps the best way to frame this argument is that there is a habit that we have to seek out information that confirms our biases, and that we want our online presence to be representative of the things about us we care about and are proud of.
There are times when articles are not written to take advantage of this instinct that do by accident - people find the things they like, cherry pick them and that’s how they show they’re smart and cool. Inflammatory language can be used innocently to convey the emotion that the writer wishes to, and thus it can have an unintended reaction that helps spread the piece.
Then there are times when things are written in such a way to take advantage of our desperation to feel important and unique, or to help us feel better about something (say, NFTs or returning to the office) that we feel others don’t believe in. These hot takes don’t even need to be opinion pieces - they can be news pieces that selectively quote the right people (I have talked about this before) with a clear agenda that they know the right people will share and be happy with, and those who are mad (me) will share through endless Substacks.
As with many points I make, there is no grand conclusion here. This is the next stage of clickbait, a more nuanced attempt to attract clicks and shares that isn’t simply built on offending or surprising people, but playing to their desire to belong or to be right. And, ironically, I’ve fallen into the same trap - overcodifying things that people say and do online with the hopes that people will find my analysis interesting enough to want to be associated with it.