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The End of the Intellectual Focal Point
(Put on Don Henley's "The End of the Innocence" while reading this one).
One of the key themes from The Ideas Industry was that the barriers to entry for entering the marketplace of ideas had been lowered. Traditional gatekeepers — like, say, the op-ed editors of the New York Times or Washington Post — exercised less power than they used to. It has become easier for a thought leader to bypass establishment venues and essentially engage in the intellectual equivalent of direct marketing.
That said, the dramatic shifts in the social media landscape over the past six months should remind everyone that the relationship between traditional gatekeepers and thought leaders might be a bit more complicated. Thought leaders might not want to be constrained by establishments, but they do want to be talked about by establishments. They like long profiles about their intellectual arc or consideration of just how transgressive their ideas really are. Indeed, antagonizing the establishment is a surefire means of building a brand for a lot of thought leaders.
What if, however, there is no longer an establishment to push against?
Writing an Opinion column for the Times was once a job that took place within fixed and narrow parameters: around eight hundred words, twice a week. Such columns—along with their counterparts at a handful of papers, newsweeklies, and TV networks—represented “a really small world of pronouncers pronouncing,” David Shipley, who used to oversee the Times Op-Ed page, told me. Shipley left the Times in 2011; he helped found Bloomberg Opinion, and last year took over the Washington Post Opinions section, where he’s been encouraging writers to experiment with new formats. Likewise, the Times has “made a concerted effort” in recent years to give columnists “more space and freedom to explore the issues of the day that most interest them, beyond the form of an 800-word piece,” Kathleen Kingsbury, the Times’ opinion editor, wrote in an e-mail. “Columnists work with our video teams, write newsletters, record podcasts and often report out long-form work.”
But, if the old Opinion columns came with formal constraints, they also came with outsized power. “They set an agenda,” Frank Rich, a Times columnist from 1994 to 2011, told me. “They had a quasi-monopoly in public discourse, because everyone read them.”
You might think that a New Yorker profile of Paul suggests that power is enduring, but it increasingly seems as though those establishment outlets do not pack the same punch. More importantly, I am skeptical that they are able to set an agenda. There are exceptions, but they are few (and potentially disturbing). Indeed, the primary way in which many of them set an agenda now is not by producing ideas but by being the object of increasingly toxic culture debates (hence the profile of Paul).
Why is this happening now? I have a prime suspect:
Despite its many, many flaws, Twitter had proved to be a useful focal point to see what everyone else was talking about — and then comment on what everyone else was talking about.
Elon Musk managed to change all of that in less than four months. As a news aggregator it still has some utility. As a place for commentary and analysis it has become a ghost town. As Dave Karpf noted in a recent Substack post:
If I want to promote a new essay that I’ve written, Twitter is my bread and butter. That’s where people will see it and share it.
(This is a classic “network effects” story. The value of Twitter is derived from the number of people who are also using it. Twitter is the solution to a coordination game. Mass-scale coordination games are not easy to solve.)
But that number — 42,000 Twitter followers — has begun to seem hollow. When I tweet something, it isn’t actually viewed by 42,000 individuals. It’s seen by the subset of those 42,000 people that happen to be staring at Twitter’s chronological timeline at the time I send the tweet, plus anyone who is shown the tweet through Twitter’s algorithmic timeline. And that reduced-megaphone turns out to be a lot less irreplaceable.
I have a larger Twitter following than Karpf and have experienced the same phenomenon. There are fewer eyeballs and almost zero engagement. I’ll concede the possibility of a partisan skew to this; perhaps more right-wing analysts find Twitter more engaging than before. But I also suspect that they are bemoaning the lack of engagement with the mainstream media commentators they are trying to provoke.
The enervation of Twitter and the absence of any genuine substitute (Mastodon is even kludgier than broken-down Twitter; Post remains something of a mystery to me) means that there is no longer any focal point. It is possible that a new one will be created (or that folks will flock back to Twitter) but it will take time. And the mainstream media is too busy engaging in mass layoffs to take up the mantle they used to call home.
The hard-working staff here at Drezner’ World is uncertain about what this means for the future of the take industry. My depressing hunch, however, is even more fragmentation of political discourse.
What do you think? Am I overreacting? I might be overreacting!