Friday, July 31, 2009

Stop Gushing: A "Stop Snitching" for the Hipster Set

I wasn't on Twitter for very long, and one of the reasons I jumped off that apparently sinking ship was the tendency of Twitterers to gush. Bloggers do it, too — everything is "the best [X] in the history of human endeavor," and everyone is "brilliant," "inimitable," or "freakishly smart." I'm tempermentally grouchy enough that there are lots of New Media tics that bother me, but gushing is the only one I think is actually problematic. (By contrast, I don't really care that Matt Yglesias is a machine for the production of typos.)

It's important to notice that gushing isn't part of a more general tendency to exaggerate. If bloggers threw around "worst ever" and "complete moron" as freely as "best ever" and "genius," I might be okay with it. Bombast is a kind of style. But only praise gets inflated, at least in the TAS-Atlantic-Ordinary Gentlemen corner of the blogosphere. It's not the imprecision that bothers me, it's the hugginess.

The blogosphere still has the spectre of Livejournal to worry about, and when we run around like teenyboppers with signs that say "OMG MARC AMBINDER MARRY ME," it's adolescent. I'm all for the intellectual infatuations of youth; when a seventeen-year-old says that Middlesex is "the best thing anyone has ever written," it means that literary genius is a thing he cares about, which makes him an exceptional seventeen-year-old. But when a grown man talks like that about an essay he read this morning — or a YouTube clip — it only proves that he's too dumb to know better. Adults don't talk that way, the same way adults don't hug people they've just met, play beer-pong, or cuddle on couches at parties with people they aren't dating.

Julian Sanchez once wrote that some people are "just good enough to suck":
Just anecdotally, genuinely smart and competent people tend not to be enormously impressed with their own intelligence or competence, not because they’re intrinsically humble, but because they end up surrounded by other equally (or, at any rate, variously and complementarily) smart, competent people, who provide the relevant yardstick. As Robert Nozick once put it, very few of us think: “Yeah, I’m pretty good for a primate; I can use tools and have mastered a natural language.”

Folks at the high end of mediocrity—the big fish in the shallow pond—look around and conclude they’re incredibly special. Probably the same obtains down the scale. It’s a pretty good rule of thumb that if you think you’re the smartest person you know (and not a Nobel Laureate), you’re probably just not quite sharp enough to have brighter friends. In other words: just short of good-enough-to-suck.
I'm inclined to think that the convention of calling everything "genius" says something about the way these bloggers think, that it isn't just an accident of history or a concession to the 140-character limit. Maybe it means that they live their intellectual lives moment by moment without stopping to think how excited they'll still be about that interesting idea tomorrow. Maybe it's a solidarity thing — the feminists at Yale could never bear to say mean things to each other, either. Maybe they really believe that a nurturing atmosphere yields better debate than a combative one. Or maybe they're just not quite good enough to suck.

On a less cranky note, escaping the style of "Oh my God, this will change the way you breathe!" is good discipline. At the end of the day, it's better to tell why you liked something than just that you liked it. The latter is lazy.

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