The Race to Monetize Fear

How the age of taking advantage nixed editorial accountability

Photo by Serpstat from Pexels

As Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar warns in his 2015 work of the same name, “be afraid of the enormity of the possible.” He isn’t talking about the outsize success we might have if we trusted ourselves more but of the outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral acts we might perpetrate in the name of money.

And here we are: The present is funded by fear.

Social media platforms have encouraged, enabled, and empowered the zeitgeist, so did users. So did journalism, so did writers. There. Directly or indirectly, we’re all involved in, well, designing this moral maze no one can get out of easily or unscathed.

After all, dumb isn’t illegal. It thrives by pandering to lowest common denominator culture, reaches critical mass quickly, compounds, and grows until it takes over what passes for civic engagement and conversation online, at which point it goes from problematic to lucrative to terrifying yet still lucrative.

But mention accountability openly and everyone looks away, ashamed and embarrassed of having sought to take advantage of a system designed by greed.

And we should be.

Reason didn’t drown, greed drowned it out.

We didn’t stop thinking for four years but many of us stopped thinking about the value of words, their relational role, and their impact on our mental health.

Instead, we pandered to whatever paid to get paid, or not as the case may be.

Platforms, publications, and personas are pivoting in the nick of time with redemptive alliances, redemptive branding, redemptive design. But what about redemptive words? Belated lip service happens when the inevitable looms: noise, not signal.

Is this how it all ends then? Have we sold off democracy for quick short-term gains? Many writers work in an industry that has been taken over by clickbait and sensationalism, both emblematic of how the current administration communicates.

Up to now, the choice for writers has been binary: Sell out or go hungry.

Problematically, we also all fund this industry with our attention, our money, and our creative output.

No wonder it feels like the walls are closing in on us whenever we look at a screen.

Had we been more discerning, more curious, and less desperate, would we have gotten to this point?

The problem isn’t discernment — everyone has likes and dislikes— but curiosity and desperation. Lowest common denominator culture tells us what we’re looking at to pre-empt questions. So we lose the habit of asking them.

Eventually, we also lose the habit of being observant as we’re in a constant state of data overload. Whatever illusion of creative and financial independence we were sold was a lie. Instead, we’ve been fattening psychometric databases with our emotions, and training algorithms to keep us engaged, entertained, always hungering for more.

But hunger is distracting, it makes creativity evaporate.

The temptation to produce algorithm-pleasing fodder gets a little more irresistible with every stomach rumble. For editorial professionals and academics who understand exactly how the sausage is made, it’s an endless tug-of-war between appetite, ethics, and editorial values.

Some use a pen name, others go vegan.

To understand America, follow the money. Who gets paid by whom and what for? Think of the money: The why is always the money.

Everyone needs to earn a living so we do what it takes, within the limits of what our ethics allow. And it’s not until we cannot afford them anymore that we really find out if we really had any in the first place.

We do heartbreaking and disheartening things to capture attention and survive another day and none of it is working, not really. Money stops being a good muse once you get used to it; the fear of scarcity never goes away. This is how capitalism works: We are supposed to want more than we need.

When human worth is reduced to a dollar figure, you can never be rich enough. When success is reduced to a dollar figure, you can never be rich enough. When self-worth is reduced to a dollar figure, you can never be rich enough.

Cue an internet full of noise where signal has become inaudible.

There’s no art form more self-referential than writing, perhaps because writers are prone to wondering out loud in print how to maximize financial compensation for creative and intellectual labor in a culture that openly despises it.

We write for an audience of none yet nothing will stop us writing: We have too many questions.

For writers, words do more than decorate the internet and conjure up dollars. We are looking for something that escapes us still, something that might illuminate the way forward, something that satisfies our hope of different. We write to figure out if and how and where we fit in. Sooner or later, a great many of us reach the same conclusion: We fit on the page and that’s about it.

We stick out everywhere else.

Precariousness is the norm for many more of us than are willing to publicly admit it out of modesty. Creative crises of faith are so frequent they feel like a continuum now. What’s the point? Why pour your heart and guts into words that remain unread while the masses feast at the trough of celebrity clickbait and assorted tall tales. Why bother?

We thrust our words at the ugliness of the world anyway, on the off-chance they might stick. And they slide right off the dumb-coated zeitgeist. Despair isn’t only a trap, it’s also a failure of imagination and writers know better.

Now isn’t the time to run out of steam. Now isn’t the time to surrender or quit. Now isn’t the time to doubt either.

The next chapter awaits, and we’re writing it now. Good, gentle, generous words make the moment tolerable and the later possible.

They’re an investment into a future funded by hope.

Sometimes, they even bring us together.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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