All the infighting among the wannabe big dogs in Our Thing makes me think about Bill Simmons.
If you weren’t a sports fan back in the early days of Web 2.0, you may never have heard him, as it seems he’s mostly a producer now. But back in the mid-90s he made a name for himself as “the Boston Sports Guy.” At that time, sports reporting was mostly still done on newsprint, by crusty old hacks who once saw Ted Williams play and never got over it. Simmons made sports coverage immediate. He pioneered the snarky, whiny, pop culture-heavy, hot takes / muh feelings! style that’s one of the Millennial generation’s most charming traits. (To give you an idea of how ahead of his time Simmons was with this, he’s older than me… and I’m well into middle age). He parlayed this into enormous success, writing for The Jimmy Kimmel Show before going on to sign lucrative production deals with ESPN and HBO.
The problem is, his path to success isn’t replicable, or even sustainable. Simmons’s debut as a tv host, the HBO series Any Given Wednesday, was reputedly a $20 million, three-year deal. It got cancelled after five months. The problem, as the mostly brutal reviews noted, is that “snarkmeister” is not a rare skillset these days. Snark is, indeed, the Millennials’ default mode of expression, so why are you paying some waaaay over-the-hill dude Clinton Foundation-level money to do it with his equally waaay over-the-hill actor pals like (presumably drunk) Ben Affleck? Simmons made it look easy back in 1994, but only because it is, actually, really fucking easy. See, watch: “LeBron James’s jump shot is like having sex with Charlize Theron — it’s not always available, and it costs way too damn much, but something something she’s old now anyway.” (What, you want me to fill in the “something something”? That’s why my blog posts are free and Simmons got $20 million. See what I mean?).
Such is the fate of any New Media trend surfer. Since we’re stewing in it, it’s easy to forget just how new social media really is. Facebook was founded in 2004; Twitter in 2006. These are about the only platforms on which personalities (as opposed to bikini models and other flavors of camwhore) can exist, and they’ve barely been around a decade. Most kids currently in high school grew up in a social media-less world. We’re still ironing out the kinks.
So who will survive? Pioneers that got smart, like Simmons, dialed down their cults of personality and made nicey-nice with as many Old Media people as would return their phone calls. But now that Old Media is dying, too, the lifestyle gurus who haven’t yet snagged book deals and permanent guest panelist spots on the last of the dinosaur yak shows are going to go hungry. As it happens, the ability to churn out engaging prose on command — to provide readable “hot takes” — is about as rare as the ability to snark about sports…
…. which, I think, mostly explains the infighting in Our Thing. It’s a turf war. Jordan Peterson is a smart guy. He hit the lotto on YouTube, and he surely knows it, so he’s trying to parlay that, Simmons-style, into a permanent Old Media gig. Some of the other big names make a big production about eschewing the Old Media, but are — if you study their business models for five seconds — entirely parasitic on it (they’re trying to build new platforms within the old paradigm). Whether that will work out any better than Peterson’s strategy remains to be seen, but right now they’re all fighting over what amounts to market share.
What does it actually take to report the news? What does it take to build an online following? Are those mutually exclusive skillsets? Based on my years in academia, I think they almost are — good researchers are usually terrible writers and vice versa. BUT: There are enough people who are good at both to fill an entirely new media market. It may seem like the biggest news in the world right now, but ultimately it’s tempest-in-a-teapot stuff. If I were an entrepreneurial alt-righter, I’d start looking into what it takes to build “guerrilla news.” Find some researchers, team them up with some writers, make the whole thing online — it costs nothing to send data globally now — and market the whole thing as exactly that: GUERRILLA news. Make it subscriber-only, and make subscribing an act of political defiance. #WeAreTheRealResistance or something.
Just be sure to keep it faceless (the guerrilla aesthetic is key), both for security reasons and, most importantly, to keep the old New Media parasites from anointing themselves your leaders (if you want to interview Peterson, for example, make him wear a hood and transport him to a secret location, like a terrorist video from the 1970s). Watch how Simmons did it, but for pete’s sake don’t try to be Simmons. Or Peterson. Or Milo. Or anyone else. In the kingdom of the blind, the guy who knows braille is king.