Speaking of using the right word, I’m all for neologisms that actually do some neglected work, and especially portmanteau words that I find clever.

I just ran across the term newsjacking, and I like it even though it was appropriated by (or maybe created by?) a marketing guy to describe a PR strategy he pushes, To newsjack an event is to somehow inject oneself into a trending story, in hopes of riding its coattails.

I think it points to a basic but unnamed impulse that has flourished along with the internet. For a long time I’ve noticed it primarily in comment threads on blogs, where people often don’t interact with the content of a post but simply use it as a springboard to talk about themselves. When I called the technique anything at all, I would call it (somewhat meanly) “That reminds me of … ME!” It is not the same as hijacking a thread, which involves redirecting the entire discussion somewhere the original post didn’t go. It is smaller and self-contained, a way of injecting oneself into a discussion without actually needing to address the topic at hand. Or, to be mean again, a natural result when the commenter finds their own experiences and opinions more worthy of comment than those of the blogger.

Hold on … memories are flooding in … aha, now I remember that there is a pre-internet precedent. I used to listen to a fair amount of talk radio, and I distinctly remember a shift in the late 1980s. Before that time call-in shows (Larry King being a prime example) would always answer the phone with “Hello, what’s your question?” … and the caller would always ask a question! Generally it was a question about the current topic, which either the host or a guest expert would proceed to answer. But at some point—probably when Rush Limbaugh revived AM radio—callers started opening their questions with long stretches of soapbox speech, and often never even got around to anything resembling a question. Soon enough the question charade faded away, and callers would begin by saying, “My point is …”

So talk radio apparently dredged up something that had been lurking in us all along, brushed it off, and put it on public display. (And monetized it.) Then the internet came along and saved everyone the trouble of getting in line to have their phone call answered. I’m not referring here to the impulse to publish, which may be related but at least requires initiative—to figure out what to write about, no matter how mundane. Commenting lowers the bar even further; now anything that comes to mind is fair game.

A couple of years ago I ran across an essay by Paul Ford which claims that every medium—print, radio, television, telephone, telegraph—is the answer to some fundamental question, and that we misunderstand the internet when we think that, because it can replace those media, it answers those fundamental questions. But Ford claims that the internet actually answers another, very different question.

“Why wasn’t I consulted,” which I abbreviate as WWIC, is the fundamental question of the web. It is the rule from which other rules are derived. Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.

Ford first noticed this as a web designer. The scenario he describes here is not just common, it is definitive:

I first wrote about this in 2007, after 18 months of isolating and frustrating work on a website:

Brace yourself for the initial angry wave of criticism: How dare you, I hate it, it’s ugly, you’re stupid. The Internet runs on knee-jerk reactions. People will test your work against their pet theories: It is not free, and thus has no value; it lacks community features; I can’t believe you don’t use dotcaps, lampsheets, or pixel scrims; it is not written in Rusp or Erskell; my cat is displeased. The ultimate question lurks beneath these curses: why wasn’t I consulted?

That line was tossed off, but since I wrote it I’ve seen the same pattern everywhere. I’ve explained it to many other web people, and they laugh, but then a few months later some say, “you know…” [Emphasis added]

Ford then points to this cartoon, which was the sole content of a comment on a blog post about computer pioneer Clive Sinclair marrying a younger woman:

I dearly love this cartoon, and I didn’t need to read Ford’s exegesis to know how right he was, that this is what the internet is about. But here’s how Ford explains it:

Consider what that cartoon means in that context: It implies that the commenter feels—with some irony and self-awareness, I’m sure—that his opinion, in some way, is relevant to the question of whether Clive Sinclair should marry a particular woman. This is, for many obvious reasons, completely insane. And yet there was an image already sketched and available to that commenter so that he could express this exact sentiment of choosing not to be outraged at a situation he read about on the Internet. WWIC in action. [Emphasis added]

"It is important you know I am not outraged by this." Exactly.

So, how does this relate to newsjacking? I think that in newsjacking, WWIC is simply bumped up a level. At the lower level we lazily inject ourselves into ongoing discussions, while in newsjacking we latch onto trending stories and inject ourselves by starting a discussion, asserting that it is important (and urgent) that we be consulted about what is going on in Iraq or Ukraine or Ferguson, or west Africa, or at Mars Hill Church. Not only important and urgent, but maybe even a vehicle to notoriety, which can then be somehow monetized.

Here are two recent examples of newsjacking, one entirely expected and one maybe not so much. The first is Ann Coulter’s recent column about the American missionaries who contracted the Ebola virus in Liberia. Coulter took some interesting questions about the worth of foreign missions, mixed them with her usual large helping of jingoism, and set the result loose on the internet—where it provoked a completely predictable and probably lucrative (for her) outrage. Was her purpose to begin a thoughtful discussion about foreign mission work? Not likely. In fact, the punches she landed in her original piece were completely disregarded by her critics, as far as I’ve read them. She points that out in her followup column—but tellingly, she doesn’t really complain that no one responded to her original points in any substantial way. I don’t think that matters to either her or her critics. What matters is that they were all spared the need to think, either about the original piece or their response. All that was required was a reaction to the initial outrage, which allowed for reactions to the reactions, ad infinitum.

The second is Matt Walsh’s post about Robin Williams’s suicide, which was shallow and provocative and ill-timed—exactly what is called for in a newsjacking, since if one of those qualities were lacking—if the post had looked thoughtfully at the social and moral issues surrounding suicide, or if Walsh had tempered his language to avoid unnecessary outrage, or if he had waited a decent interval to publish it—then the post would have had little or no impact. But because the post was accurately targeted to provoke outrage, it became one of the lucky ones—viewed more than 3 million times, the recipient of 10,000 comments before the system crashed. Walsh gained in notoriety, his critics (and defenders) all seized the opportunity to be consulted on a matter that everyone was talking about.

And then Walsh took the opportunity to spin the entire episode for the benefit of his (now presumably larger) fanbase:

Something happened yesterday.

It began with a post I wrote about depression and suicide called “Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice.”

When I clicked “publish” on that piece, I felt confident. I was sad that it had to be written, and upset about the circumstances surrounding it, but sure that I was saying something that needed to be said; something truthful but uplifting, frank but compassionate. I actually found myself getting emotional as I wrote it. I’m not suicidal but I have demons of my own, so I submitted that post to the public, praying others would find the same solace in the promise of hope and the power of free will.

But then things got out of control. Rapidly.

Out of control? Gee, that’s rough. But who could have anticipated such a thing?


One thought on “Newsjacking

  1. Thanks for leading me here (and to the Ford essay). I think arguably there’s something different going on when a major figure (in whichever context; Walsh isn’t one of my most admired thinkers, but a lot of people do admire him, apparently) comments or newsjacks, as opposed to when an everyday person does, but there’s a lot to this. (Now I feel consulted! But I also comment in order to let people know someone was there.)

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