This was an interesting article on modern "journalism" (in scare quotes just to include forms of non-professional media, like blogs, and non-traditional subject matter like how-to articles). Specifically it discusses how modern media purveyors (in an increasingly competitive bid to capture scarce readership) are taking a page out of the playbook that internet trolls have been using for over a decade now in order to more deeply engage (or enrage) their audience.
I think that direct, strategic assaults on readers’ self-conception have only recently become a deliberate technique. To me, Slate’s “You’re Doing It Wrong” cooking columns are the epitome of the trend (“you make pumpkin pie with condensed milk? you’re an asshole”), and represent a more dramatic divergence than one might first think from the counterintuitivism the brand is known (and gently teased) for. But examples are everywhere.
The opposite dynamic seems to work nearly as well: people love to be told that they’re great just the way they are. I think this is the lens through which one should view much of Gawker Media’s output, from their shaming of racist teens on Twitter to their outing of Violentacrez the Reddit troll. The moral judgments underlying these articles aren’t wrong, which makes them very hard to argue against. But the public performance of those values is clearly about flattering the sensibilities of the audience — “gawker” is exactly the right word for it. When the formula works, there’s an element of triumphalist mob mentality to the proceedings. To me, at least, this often seems more odious than the pathetic and easily-dismissed troll’s gambit.
In some cases, a single article can benefit from both strategies, simultaneously trolling and flattering. Usually this involves an attack on a cliched straw-man — the NYT’s recent piece on hipsterism fits the bill, as does this Philippic by Jill, er, Fillipovic. You can count on some portion of the audience to angrily recognize themselves as the ones being caricatured, and another portion of the audience to pat themselves on the back for participating in the shaming of that imagined subclass. Everybody wins, except for the part where they’ve just demonstrated themselves to be petty, provincial rubes.
I definitely do this, in real life and on the blog. I am sometimes annoyed by how effective it is, when used by people who are challenging my own interests. I have a friend who considers himself a professional troll, and I sort of respect the artistry of it when I see him create antagonism and xenophobia out of no where. But perhaps because I am actively and daily aware of the fragility of the social fabric and the potential fallout from disturbances, I still worry about mob mentality. We fight so hard against "rogue" nations having nuclear capabilities, but in a lot of ways this is a much bigger vulnerability.