This week, Esquire magazine joined the proud tradition of media trolling with its Sex Issue, a cocktail of self-aware misogyny, arm-chair sociology, and pinup photos that engendered near-universal disgust, resulting in lots of "buzz." The publishing world's intentional plot to "stir up the shit" and get some attention is nothing new, but every time a media organization goes trolling, it seems to get exactly the response it wants, inspiring more blatant attempts at manufacturing pseudo-controversy.
But how is it done, you ask? Here's a short guide of the most common techniques for raising outrage (and traffic):
This Person Who Just Died Was a Piece of Shit Ah, the timely anti-obituary. Some are more justified than others but it's clear that the quickly-written character assassination of the recently-departed has become something of a trend. Whether it's an assault on Christopher Hitchens, Steve Jobs or the creator of the Berenstain Bears (for Christ's sake), we can all admit that the routinized dancing on the graves of public figures could be scaled back just a tad.
Is the Opposite of What You Think True? Counter-intuitive writing is a blessing, and Slate has published many great works in this vein, but it's also taken this editorial approach to levels of almost comical parody. William Saletan's "Bush the Liberal" and Christopher Hitchens's "How Did I Get Iraq Wrong? I Didn't" are splendid examples.
This Tech Device/Company/Fad Is Dead A favorite among the tech blogging world, boldly declaring the death of Twitter, Google, Facebook, the Internet, the hipster, etc. is a surefire way to generate buzz. Unfortunately, it's increasingly annoying and routinely premature. Stop doing it.
The TV Show that Smart People Love Is Actually Really Bad Last year, The New York Review of Books' Daniel Mendelsohn perfected the form of this technique with his savaging takedown of AMC's Mad Men. "Most of the show’s flaws can, in fact, be attributed to the way it waves certain flags in your face and leaves things at that, without serious thought about dramatic appropriateness or textured characterization." Eliciting its intended effect, it drove people nuts, which may explain by NYRB did it again with James Fenton's takedown of Downton Abbey.
This Famous Person Is Crazy, Just Look at This Crazy Picture of Them Many examples abound but troll queen Tina Brown took this age-old technique to new heights (or depths?) last August with a withering cover story of Michele Bachmann promoted with a photo of her looking absolutely insane. The reaction was harsh and mostly deserved but the cover itself wasn't terribly outside the bounds of what happens regularly with public figures who controversy-seeking editors have millions of photographs of. Sure it's a low blow but it's also a technique that's prone to over-reaction (see: Washington City Paper's famous "antisemitic" cover of Dan Snyder).
This Book You Love Is Terrible The heretical book review is an industry classic but few have carried the torch so proudly and so thoroughly as The New Republic, what with Dale Peck's claim that “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation,” Ruth Franklin's epic takedown of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (which The Atlantic, as it happens, didn't much like either) or Bill Deresiewicz’s hit piece on Harold Bloom's The Anatomy of Influence.
These Petty Criminals Happen to Be Black A favorite of the Drudge Report, the highlighting of a petty theft by African Americans in random cities isn't trying to make any particular point, it's just, you know, sayin'. A couple separate examples below:
This Terrible Mainstream Artist Is Great When a trite mainstream artist reaches commercial success, it doesn't deserve to be defended for its latent (read: non-existent) merits. See: Jonah Weiner's defense of Creed in Slate and my good friend Derek Thompson's defense of Coldplay.
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