The internet is a reliable source of nothing so much as simultaneous self-aggrandizement and humiliation, and the latest entry in the struggle saga has been generously provided by BuzzFeed. Yesterday, the respected hub for longform journalism drew some withering skepticism from our sibling GMO-shilling chocolate blog, after the BuzzFeed Life vertical deleted a post that was critical of a BuzzFeed advertiser and replaced it with the sentence: “We pulled this post because it is not consistent with the tone of BuzzFeed Life.”
The original post was written by BuzzFeed beauty editor Arabelle Sicardi (who has contributed to Jezebel before), and had calmly criticized Dove’s history of “empowering” women through perpetuating, overblowing and then monetizing the (false) idea that women all have terrible self-esteem. You can read the whole post here: it’s good, clear and thoughtful, and though it was pegged to the news cycle, it was not, as BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith put it, a “hot take.”
It is interesting to see BuzzFeed self-identify one of its pieces as a “hot take.” Hot takes, #SlatePitches, clickbait, “race bait”: these are categories mostly built out of the projections of irritated readers. Anything can look like clickbait, hot-takery, contrarianism if you simply disagree. Ben Smith calling Arabelle Sicardi’s post an example of a “hot take,” which they’re “trying not to do,” is weird—and not just because he’s wrong. It’s like an editor-in-chief tweeting, “This post was clickbait, so we took it down.”
Of course, many of the most irritated readers of internet content are also the editors and writers of irritating internet content, and what you dislike as a reader you’d naturally try to avoid on the other side. But the process of incorporating these external definitions into a workable in-house strategy is not going very clearly for BuzzFeed, as seen in the staff email that accompanies Smith’s tweet, which lays out the contours of the Hot Take, To Be Avoided:
We can and should report on conversations that are happening around something that we have opinions about, but using our own voices (and hence, BuzzFeed’s voice) to advance a personal opinion often isn’t in line with BuzzFeed Life’s tone and editorial mission.
[....] The main takeaway is: When we write about news-related topics revolving around class, race, and feminism and other heated topics, it’s important that we show the conversation that is happening, or find other people who can give smart and valid quotes to make the point, or, ideally, add to the conversation with something substantively new.
So. In order to avoid a hot take by BuzzFeed standards, you’ve got to “avoid using [your] own voices to advance a personal opinion,” and get more of “the conversation” in there. More precisely on that last point, you should get other people to help “make the point”—though it is a dubious proposition that two people saying the same thing ever makes a point any stronger—or “ideally, add to the conversation with something substantially new.”
In other words, the ideal situation is for the take to be cooled down a bit via crowdsourcing; the “hot take,” by these definitions, is a personal opinion that comes on too strong.
But that’s not what Sicardi’s piece was: it was an argument, which would not get any stronger with the addition of other people. Arguments are not aggregated opinions; they’re a series of propositions stacked up to a point. Arguments are also, it should be said, not mandates:
BuzzFeed Life has had such a huge positive impact on people’s lives by communicating our values in a fair and demonstrative way, rather than telling our audience how to think and feel.
Nothing is an interpersonal mandate unless it’s genuinely persuasive enough to be so. I’d argue that the person telling their audience how to think and feel, in this scenario, is Dove.
And now Smith has reinstated the post, saying that the decision to delete it involved “an overreaction to questions we’ve been wrestling about the placement of personal opinion pieces.”
“The answer is no.” God, it’s messy in this dumpster, isn’t it?
All this about a post about a soap ad. BuzzFeed seems very afraid of personal opinions in these in-house emails, which is a stance I support but find untenable editorially. There are lots of ideas getting jumbled here, and I’d like to suggest a brief and highly subjective taxonomy of some words that I think are being misused.
A personal judgment that can exist supported by facts or reason, but would still exist without any support at all.
Most opinions are bad, because most opinions do not materially affect the life of the opinion-haver. Some of the worst types of opinions are those that involve in-depth estimations of other people (it does not matter what you think of another person unless they are your close personal friend or stated nemesis), those that involve institutions that you will never come close to reforming or affecting (a city-dwelling feminist saying “fraternities are bad”), etc.
But, some opinions are good. If the Dove post had—as that staff email stated—actually been nothing but Sicardi’s personal opinion (“Dove Soap is bad”), that’s still a pretty good opinion. Sicardi is a beauty editor. All beauty advertising relies on insecurity; the most evil of this kind of advertising passes off insecurity as validation. That is a material, viable opinion.
An opinion with the addition of logic, ideally of the actionable kind.
Here is a good proposition in Sicardi’s post:
You don’t have to be beautiful (or at the very least, you shouldn’t have to be), and not being beautiful doesn’t mean you’re average. Feeling beautiful is an obligation and a pressure — and sometimes a pleasure, but not always. Feeling beautiful is so much work: work that beauty companies cash in on and exploit.
At the very least, we don’t need our soap to try to be our therapist. Just work and let us think for ourselves.
The totality of a set of propositions, plus a conclusion, also ideally actionable. Sicardi’s conclusion is mostly unspoken: Don’t buy this Dove shit, both literally and in theory. I would surmise, as Gawker has, that this is very obviously the part that BuzzFeed finds objectionable—the fact that their beauty editor is telling their audience not to buy Dove.
There are some existing theories about hot takes: John Herrman defined the hot take as “the internet’s evolutionary defense against attention surplus,” which is an excellent definition—the hot take as something produced in order to be able to throw some words into a gaping void. Alex Pareene defined the hot take by what it lacks: “content related to some sort of news (or pseudo-news), despite having no original reporting or intelligent analysis to add.”
I agree with both of those, and Sicardi’s post is obviously neither. It also does not fit my personal definition of a hot take, which is pretty close to Herrman’s and Pareene’s: a piece of writing that is (1) primarily gestural and (2) primarily based on reaction—both the illusory need to react, and the idea that a reaction is worth paying attention to simply because it exists (a common and bad idea, also frequently found clinging to the opinion).
My personal definition of a hot take is also close to my personal definition of trolling.
Anything that is a means to an end—a reaction—rather than an end in itself. I am not against trolling as a category at all: Grantland’s song tournaments and Kara Brown’s “Adults Should Not Be Drinking Milk” post are two of the most wonderful examples of the form, the latter containing the first three categories as a bonus.
Different from a hot take in that it’s not inherently reactionary. Similar to a hot take in that it is produced primarily out of an illusory demand for “thought” (no one cares what we think), as well as the idea that a thought is worth paying attention to simply because it exists.
As John Herrman wrote at the Awl, the idea is the ostensible teleological end of all of this, but not the actual one. Almost everything we say on the internet is irrelevant: ashes of opinions to ashes of takes, dust garbage to garbage dust. But, very good opinions can sometimes become very good propositions that can sometimes build into very good arguments.
Along the way, these good arguments—occasionally and somewhat legitimately marked by topicality, the youth of the writer, or inherent pugnaciousness—will be mistaken by some as “hot takes.” This is inevitable and fine. But sometimes those arguments will make it through the wilderness of our garbage brains and emerge as a real idea, such as “Stevie Wonder Is Not Actually Blind.”
Almost all of the above, including this post, which is full of opinions and is a take about takes :/
But Sicardi’s post was not garbage, and not a hot take. It was actually in service of an idea. She’s not the first to write about the hollow, rude condescension of corporate empowerment marketing; she won’t be the last. But she was writing in service of a real understanding that could legitimately change the way that—aren’t these stakes so fucking miserable—women are talked to by brands, either the ones that pay us or sell us things, although, as BuzzFeed shows us, it’s often all the same in the end.
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