Bloggers gone wild

October 29, 2009

“You didn’t get this from me,” a student I had talked to for a few past news stories wrote me on GChat a couple of weeks ago, “But this is too ridiculous not to show the Vox editor,” he continued, sending along a link to a job posting by Charley Cooper (MSB ’12), an undergraduate with a part-time job in “the financial services industry” who was searching for a personal assistant.

And with that, the latest media tempest in Georgetown’s teapot was unwittingly born.

I thought the ad was an amusing embodiment of some of the more ridiculous stereotypes about Georgetown students, particularly MSBers, of being spoiled, upper-class louts, so I wrote up a quick post about it for Vox Populi, the Voice’s blog.  I expected the post would get some attention on campus, a few commenters would weigh in on the poster’s precise level of jerkiness, and that would be that.

In retrospect, I should have realized that the job posting contained several explosive elements: arrogance at elite universities and in the financial sector, class tension, the tremendous laziness of our generation, and the opportunity for ad hominem attacks.

Comments started pouring in.  For the most part they were populist invectives against Cooper, but there were enough capitalist apologists to keep the discussion going over the weekend.

While it’s always gratifying to see something you wrote get attention, the tone of many of the comments started to concern me.  Sure, the job posting read as pretty presumptuous, but it didn’t merit responses like “I hope Mr. Cooper gets hit by a bus,” “fuckers like this are the ones who ruined our economy” and “[he] definitely either knew someone here to get in or paid the school off.”  I had purposely decided not to include Cooper’s name in the post in the hopes of not destroying his search engine results, but the commenters started calling him out by name nonetheless.

Just as the comments were settling down, the item was picked up by local blogs Wonkette, DCist, and Inside Higher Education’s blog, and traffic and comments, more heated than ever, surged again.

And then came the Post. I received an email from a Washington Post reporter last Tuesday saying she was working on a story about the job posting, asking to talk to me about it.  They ended up running a full feature article on the front page of the local section, detailing why Cooper decided he needed an assistant, interviewing other students about campus sentiment, and asking a professional PA about whether college students would be mature enough to handle such a responsibility.

Say what you will about the death of print media, but even in the Internet age, major newspapers like the Post still play a huge role in dictating the news cycle.  After the Post article ran, our original post was linked to by sites like Gawker, Consumerist, Politico, BuzzFeed, and Reddit and was featured on the homepages of MSN and Google News.  Friends told me they had seen the story on CNN, NBC and FOX, where Newt Gingrich mentioned it.  So far, our blog post has been viewed over 49,000 times and has provoked 233 comments, both records for Vox.

The story has been a boon for the blog, but for me personally, the whole experience has been disillusioning.  Regardless of the class issues it raises, the story is essentially frivolous.  Its real appeal stems from some of our baser instincts: the smugness of knowing you’re able to handle your obligations without a PA, and the joy of collective shaming.

This semester alone, the Voice has run thoroughly-reported long-form articles about the University’s finances, the Hoya’s independence struggle, and a first-hand account of the election in Iran.  The fact that none of these serious articles, which the authors spent significant amounts of time reporting and writing, got outside attention—while a silly story we devoted a couple sentences to on the blog got so much coverage—erodes my faith in modern journalism.

The past few weeks have also been a painful illustration of the media’s mob mentality.  While the proliferation of blogs means there are more and more news outlets, their tendency to re-package content often makes the current media landscape resemble an echo chamber.   As editor of Vox, I’ve done my fair share of re-appropriating other media outlets’ news stories, but seeing one of my own stories—and one of my most frivolous ones at that—make the journalistic rounds made me realize how much groupthink dictates the news cycle.

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    ,..] http://www.georgetownvoice.com is one useful source on this subject,..]