Lessons From the "THIS!" Factory

Underpaid, overworked, mad all the time. Sounds healthy!

Welcome to Much 2 Consider, a new semi-regular column from John Paul Brammer wherein he unpacks something cursed, complicated, or current in a vain attempt to make sense of it. This time, it’s about how content mills are ruining things or whatever. Subscribe to get ¡Hola Papi! and more essays like this delivered right to your inbox!

Not that anyone asked, but I used to work in a THIS! factory. What do I mean by that? Well, I used to write for a content mill where my primary objective was to get a subset of the internet to emphatically agree with me. Enough to make them hit the “share” button on my article and say, well, “This!” I was 23, living in Washington D.C., and I was good at my job. I knew which buttons to push.

There was a TV screen in our office in Old Town Alexandria that gave us live reports on traffic: a line chart with peaks and dips, a ranking of authors by view count, and, most exciting to me, the cities where our posts were being read. As a wannabe writer from rural Oklahoma, my goal had always been to have my stuff read on a smartphone on a bus in Chicago or New York; places that mattered. I’d see “ATLANTA: 2” and know that two people out there were reading me.

I ended up at the THIS! factory for the regular reasons. I saw myself as a creative with a knack for writing, and I had to negotiate that with the reality of industry. I suppose I could have done something entirely different and written the things I wanted to write on the side. But I had this notion that I was a writer, not just a person who writes. I told myself I ought to bring my life into alignment with that idea whenever possible, consequences be damned.

Sure, I lacked experience. I didn’t go to a fancy college, nor was I born into connections. I hadn’t done an internship in New York for a prestige media outlet. But I had my devices. I was hired with the not so subtle understanding that there was a need for someone to write on LGBT topics and someone to write on Latino issues, and that I was “two in one.” I was and continue to be a gay Mexican. So I ran with that. 

I hunted down the most terrible things that were happening to my communities and wrote them up, conjuring my own (very real) pain to make my brief posts all the more compelling. The more pain I imbued, the more dire the story became, the more people felt the need to share it and hold it up to the world as if they’d overturned a stone and found it themselves. That was the goal.

The THIS! factory is a business. It’s a facile observation to make, but people have this idea that information ought to support the way they already see things. People who affirm their perspective couldn’t possibly be selling anything. They’re truth tellers. You know it’s the truth, because it supports your personal truth. That’s how a business can come to look more like a compatriot. Being affirmed feels good. You might want to share this affirmation with the world. You might want to hold it up and say, “this!”

I, a lowly, underpaid writer, inexperienced and impressionable, was tasked with making that happen at the behest of investors and people in suits who would visit every now and then. We’d show up extra early and dress nice on those days. These people would suck up all the data in the TV screen and make their life-altering (for us) decisions accordingly.

We, the people who actually wrote and edited things, were meant to be true believers: in “the mission,” in “the exciting stuff in the calendar.” Our “stuff” was meant to be bold, or brave, or new, or needed, or important. Whether it was a personal essay about an experience with racism or a puff piece about a Democrat who “clapped back” against a Republican, we were meant to bring these values and buzzwords to it. 

I don’t think a single writer or editor or social media person actually, fully believed in “the mission” or the word cloud around it. But the words were banded about nonetheless, as vague threats: Your piece about Nancy Pelosi’s effortless slay on the House floor yesterday wasn’t as “bold” or “needed” or “important” as it could have been. So, you know. Work on that. 

I’m not interested in shaming my coworkers or my bosses or the faceless investors at the THIS! factory. With a few exceptions, none of them were especially heinous. What I’m obsessed with, what keeps me up at night, is how I saw myself, how I saw my work, and how disconnected I was from what I was actually doing, from the systems at play that have come to define our present media landscape and general milieu.

My work was ostensibly progressive. It was attached to a cause, and our values were ones I agreed with: anti-racism, LGBTQ equality, and so on. They are values I still hold. But after working in media for a few years I’ve become disenchanted with the digital ecosystem that uses those values to sustain itself without really doing much to materially benefit their affiliated communities. I’ll start with a prominent example.

Mic.com set out to be CNN for millennials. Launched in 2010 as PolicyMic, the site differentiated itself from its competitors by caring, just like millennials do! Or did.I don’t know. Unclear. Anyway, Mic was different because it believed. It fought for social justice. It took the issue of manspreading very seriously. It presented a world wherein conservative foes could be “destroyed” in “just one tweet” from a politician or celebrity. 

“In the Mic universe, heroes fought for equality against villains who tried to take it away,” wrote Adrianne Jeffries at The Outline. “Every day, there was someone, like plus-size model Ashley Graham, to cheer for, and someone else, like manspreaders, to excoriate. Kim Kardashian annihilated slut shamers, George Takei clapped back at transphobes.”

Of course, that Outline piece was written because Mic eventually fell, and when it did it exposed the cracks in its progressive facade. In 2017, Mic laid off 25 staffers in a “pivot to video,” whatever that meant. “We were run by people who did not believe the things that their staffers were hired to write about and their staffers truly believed in,” one former staffer told Jeffries.

It’s easy to see in hindsight, but Mic (a business) wasn’t built on values. It was built on a narrative about values. People online (mostly Facebook) were engaged with that narrative in positive and negative ways, which is fine because engagement itself is all that matters. Half the clicks could be rage clicks because, in the end, the number is what decisions are made on. That’s partly why you see so many young writers stumbling into publishing ragebait. They take all the heat while the clicks pile up.

While that machine was humming away at various websites, we, their underpaid, mostly inexperienced staffers were being encouraged to literally recontextualize the way we saw our lives: there was a real incentive to granulize our pain, our traumas, our daily interactions with the systems that pushed us to the margins no matter how microscopic those interactions might be.

Having a platform to share these stories might sound good (it can be!), but the ideal version of these posts, the kind that performed best, had a mandatory flatness to it. In the THIS! universe imaginary, identity was a flat thing: as long as the author had some realistic claim to a marginalized identity, they had access to that community’s collective trauma. Nuances in class, colorism, or citizenship, to name a few, were often papered over to raise the stakes for the protagonist of the story, the writer or celebrity or victim.

The purpose wasn’t to distort the reality of generational racism or homophobia or whatever social ill was at hand, though many a right-winger would probably make that case. The purpose was to demolish all sense of scale, to invoke a hugeness to the problem that suggested a silent pandemic: shouldn’t we be making more noise about this serious problem that’s low-key everywhere?

The end product was rarely meant to be a genuine, meaningful threat to the systems that facilitate marginalization. The preferred product, the desired outcome, was “THIS!” The narratives (read: posts) were meant to elicit cathartic recognition from those who shared the identity of the author and smug satisfaction from allies who could then decorate their page with it like magpies building a shiny nest.

Jia Tolentino put it well in Trick Mirror: “Online reward mechanisms beg to substitute for offline ones, and then overtake them. This is why everyone tries to look so hot and well-traveled on Instagram; this is why everyone seems so smug and triumphant on Facebook; this is why, on Twitter, making a righteous political statement has come to seem, for many people, like a political good in itself.”

This isn’t to say we don’t need stories about the lived experiences of marginalized people. On the contrary, we desperately do. I wouldn’t even say the content mills never produced valuable insights from underrepresented voices. I believe they did. Nor do I think, by the way, that sharing an article or essay or video is a bad thing, or that doing so is always in bad faith. That’d be pretty silly. I’m a writer. I love being shared. Being shared is what I live for. Feels good!

No. For me, it’s more about how stories involving marginalized people are too often delivered, the strict parameters those stories must follow, and the grim process for the human beings tasked with making them. Industry sets these expectations, and I find that they work to limit marginalized writers’ material.

It’s not just that we are limited to writing on pain. Pain is important, rich, and complicated. It’s that we are limited to a one-dimensional understanding of pain, the kind where there is a victim, an aggressor, and an outrage. It is an outsider’s expectation of what pain ought to look like and how those afflicted ought to respond: with righteous fury.

To no surprise, this itself can inflict pain. 

I can’t speak for everyone, but when I was meeting story quotas and sifting through my life to find the most clickable moments to launder into content, I was miserable. I was drinking to cope and I would spiral into long bouts of depression. There was also the constant low grade ache that came with seeing the world this way: as a bad place that would subject me to one indignity after another, where my only method of retaliation was to describe them and yell about them.

Because my identity was so married to my work, and because my identity was so valuable to my metrics of success, it became all the easier to buy into the fake reality the THIS! factory presented. This was an apathetic world that was letting you suffer, a world asleep at the wheel and your job was to scream it awake, even if doing so blew your lungs out. 

My optimal state of being for such a task was anger, because anger was righteous. Anger meant you were sure of something. Anger is a confident emotion, and it made my pieces that much more urgent and in need of amplification. The fact that people profited off of this, and that they themselves didn’t need to exist in such a state, is not a truth that occurred to me much, or when it did, I ignored it.

This is by no means a phenomenon exclusive to progressives, even if it might seem more hypocritical in that context and more delicious to observe on the left. In fact, if you ask me, the right is doing it way better.

Mic’s evil sibling, Independent Journalism Review (IJR) was shown to our team over at my THIS! factory many times as a shining example of what we should be doing: punchy headlines, clear villains, and, at the center of it all, there was you. You, the unwitting victim. You, the person they are out to get. You, a click away from being an agent of change by sharing this post. 

It seems to me that while the ideologies they cater to are different, these websites shared an intimate understanding of the indignity that proliferates our present and found a way to monetize it. Isolated, infantilized, subjected to a never ending march of outrages they can do little to stop or change, this induced helplessness is a key trait of the ideal THIS! customer. They want to be heard. They want to be understood. They want to do something in a world where they feel they can’t do much at all. Clicking “share” can approximate that feeling.

As bad as that all sounds, I honestly think I could accept it if there weren’t more to it than that. Companies bad, people good, and we need only wrest our power from the shadowy execs who exploit our pain for profit so we can tell our stories on our own terms. That sounds great to me. But I don’t think the THIS! factories came up with the game they’re playing. They refined it and capitalized on it, but the sentiment they mined existed before them and will exist after them. 

I think if we live online, if we get our news from social media, if we identify as part of a digital community loosely bonded by shared values, then we’ve probably dabbled in the same tactics as the THIS! factories. The oversimplification of complicated matters, the flattening of nuanced identities to cynically deploy their collective pain for points, the rage-baiting, the signaling to others that we and we alone know better; these behaviors continue unabated and are often, though not always, rewarded. 

Mic (again, just one example) as it used to exist has been wiped off the board, but we’re still playing the same game. We have influencers, brands, and public figures (like me, I guess!) who have accrued social capital by winning at it. People with tiny follower counts can win at it. We’re all mad all the time, and the world gives us ample reason, and why not turn that rage into something, like followers or money or approval?

I worry that corporate media, having appropriated and capitalized on social justice, has helped to irreversibly shape and limit the vocabulary we use online to discuss important issues in a world where social media will only grow in popularity as the theater where those conversations happen. Or, I guess, the place where presidents can unceremoniously announce wars. Everything happens so much.

Yes, offline organizing is happening, “Twitter isn’t real,” and those facts genuinely bring me comfort. But social media need not be the only or even the biggest arena of political thought for it to matter on its own terms. I don’t want to blow it up as a bigger problem than it really is (that was my old job! Ha! Ha!). But I do think we should take its lessons seriously and engage with them critically. 

And if you agree, be sure to share this essay with absolutely everyone you know.