Disrupt the buzzword backlash

“The same bingo drinking-game template works for tech’s back-patting and journalism’s navel-gazing. Journalism indulges its own buzzwords, dogma, and secret-handshake crap.”

Last year, my noob forecasting ruffled the feathers of exactly nobody. This year I hope to provoke discussion about the sharp edges of our industry — our tools that cut us when used inattentively. My predictions for 2015 are intentionally edgy.

We’re setting ourselves up for a very hard lesson in how much we encourage the Internet’s trollish behavior while telling ourselves we’re just reporting it.

A surefire way to get the Internet to chatter about your story is to quote The Internet in your story. The worst behavior of online humans lurked within many 2014 news themes, emerging in forms like sockpuppet-amplified “outrage” and digital vigilantes bordering on lynch mobs. News mostly provided directly relevant, thoughtful reporting of The Internet’s reactions — I’ll bet few readers found stories quoting tweets jarring in any form. Yet some stories still gratuitously explain The Internet to the Internet, things like memes and lulz, as if they’re chasing digital street cred.

tiff-fehrThe Internet’s only coherent, consistent plea to its citizens is “don’t feed the trolls”. Trolls lurked within more stories that I wanted to read in 2014. That list includes egregious cases like doxing and harassing women critiquing and advocating for greater diversity in video games and technology, Rolling Stone’s UVA rape story backtracking and the women alleging a culture of sexual assault in college fraternities, harassing people tied (or misidentified as tied) to contentious news stories like Ferguson’s civil disorder, and more.

Yet similar themes merited mention, too, in the amusing, seemingly innocuous stories of backfired hashtag publicity stunts, like Jenny McCarthy’s #JennyAsks. Vaccination supporters vocally regretted inadvertently publicizing McCarthy’s fringe views, even couched in an amusing bit of digital disruption. The media’s wink-nudge, “we get it” smugness around things like #JennyAsks died (permanently, I hope) this fall, when people co-opted a publicity hashtag to force attention to longstanding rape allegations against Bill Cosby. A handful of widely shared, co-opted Twitter posts made many journalists — including those far less self-scrutinizing than Ta-Nehisi Coates — reconsider years of inaction on that story.

From a broader viewpoint, we now have solid cases of news orgs being treated, as an entity, as good web citizens. Consider the huge audience and resonance of Serial — the show interacts with its Internet response with remarkable skill. Yet it, too, has a very sharp edge to it, as the first season’s story concludes possibly unsatisfactorily. One wrong move could trigger a terrifying audience response, with serious, lawyer-asked questions about journalistic culpability.

In 2015, I’d love to see us discuss our reporting on Internet reactions and how disingenuous or bombastic the next case will be, as people test the edges of what we’ll quote. I would like to see us seriously consider the relationship between little-t trollish “I dare you to say X” actions and how it can metastasize into capital-T Trolling and severe digital harassment.

We’ll slog through a counterproductive backlash to tech money/leadership within journalistic ventures.

By the end of 2014, the debate about incompatible cultures and language between tech dogma and journalistic tradition took center stage within the analysis of The New Republic’s revolt. And Aaron Kushner’s reversals at The Orange County Register. And my own paper’s Innovation Report and editorial upheavals. Also NPR’s shifting executives. And Bezos’ Washington Post. And Andreessen Horowitz’s venture investment in BuzzFeed — and so forth, etc.

I’m a member of a newsroom development team. Tech’s buzzwords and maxims are my original professional vocabulary — they can indeed be ridiculous. Those of us blending both cultures understand that reaction, and we can go much deeper in making fun of it. We can recursively run that joke on the command line.

But dismissing the point or the person in full because of buzzwords is denial. Calling it a justified backlash is an offensive gesture towards news staff who run the servers, write the software, hack the CMS, wrangle endless smartphone variations, promote news on ever-shifting tech platforms, and scramble to meet deadlines far more arbitrary than the tech industry itself.

That’s electing to use a meat cleaver as a nail trimmer. The same bingo drinking-game template works for tech’s back-patting and journalism’s navel-gazing. Journalism indulges its own buzzwords, dogma, and secret-handshake crap. And both industries would happily do away with “storytelling” or “disruption,” words diced and drained of any meaning by trite overexposure.

I hope 2015 will see us discussing myopic business tactics and debating half-baked, Hail Mary ideas. However, I expect we’ll jump to debating the backlash to the backlash — or, if tech comes out on top, the forked backlash. And we’ll all cringe at the metaphor-bursting point where we find ourselves with a meta-backlash.

Tiff Fehr is a data journalist at The New York Times.