The Ideas Bubble

Kyle Chayka   July 29, 2014

Where technology start-ups have disruption, editorial outfits both online and off are now laying claim to a meaningless shibboleth of their own: the idea.

Ideas are blooming everywhere. The New Yorker recently launched a “new blog about ideas” by its archive editor Joshua Rothman, himself an alumnus of The Boston Globe’s Ideas section. The Atlantic just completed its annual Aspen Ideas Festival, a profitable conference tackling political and social issues via prominent idea-havers ranging from Moby to David Brooks and Megan Garber. Aeon presents an online magazine of “ideas and culture.” BuzzFeed even hosts a BuzzFeed Ideas vertical.

The idea label by its very name suggests an abundance of fresh thought and compelling content—certainly positive goals for writers and editors to aspire to. After all, shouldn’t every piece of writing contain an idea, or even several? Unfortunately, the new fad serves more to underline just how vacant most published writing has become in media companies’ ongoing competition over “eyeballs” online.

Increasingly, breaking news is a job only for the heritage media institutions with enough money to do it. Lightning-fast aggregation has leeched the significance out of even rehashing it. So the thinkpiece is now the dominant currency of the online news cycle because it traffics in something that writers stuck at desks in midtown offices can uniquely provide: “smart takes,” “new angles,” and, of course, ideas.

Furthermore, by segregating idea writing into its own section, editors teach audiences not to expect so many ideas elsewhere. In this way they make more room for the viral pageview bombs cropping up in other, less prestigious corners of heritage media websites.

Each publication has its own rubric for the idea article. The genre’s general formula, however, is as follows: a story first poses a problem to be solved, seducing the reader with a narrative hook in lieu of a news peg. It establishes authority by citing studies and conversations with scholars or practitioners relevant to the problem. Then, it splashes in a hefty handful of the writer’s own experience and analysis, an empathic background that makes the reader feel understood (Hey! I, too, could have these ideas!). Finally, the writer and the reader arrive at a mutual climax of epiphany that the article’s author has, like an attentive lover, anticipated long beforehand. (The idea was there all along!)

Let us now examine some examples of the species.

In the debut post of his New Yorker ideas blog, Rothman pens an anecdotal manifesto in which he recounts various disciplines of graduate student coming together in a single linguistics course. In the course of discussion, their diverse perspectives collide to induce a realization. “Ideas have social lives,” Rothman says he has come to understand. “They’re one way when they’re by themselves, and another when they’re surrounded by their peers.” Ideas surrounded by other ideas produce… new ideas!

The thorough, well-written posts that follow range from explorations of big data’s role in the office to recommendations on repairing our PhD system, and from an interview with a man whose job it is to communicate with aliens to and a meditation on the ephemerality of Greek armor. The eclectic compilation is redolent of worldly erudition. Rothman’s idea of the idea resides in academia and historiography, focusing on topics that likely prove grabby for the magazine’s core audience of white, male armchair professors.

The ancestral Globe’s ideas section is more diverse and extroverted. It traffics in a Gladwellian type of counterintuitive conclusion, taking on, for instance, “the surprising appeal of ISIS” (saving you a click: it acts more like a state than the Iraq government does) and “how amusement parks hijack your brain” (via thrill, nostalgia, and love). The site introduces a more progressive bent into the ideas idea, adding sociology and behavioral analyses that claim to explain the secret reasons why we act the way we do, taking full advantage of its assumptions about readers’ natural narcissism. Any new path into our own navels is an undeniable temptation for the ideal ideas editor.

Ideas sections also promote a certain healthy paranoia that we must constantly reconsider our assumptions—it’s taken as a given here that old ideas are mostly bad ones. Ayesha Siddiqi, the first (and so far only) editor of the BuzzFeed Ideas vertical, took identity politics as her mandate with a manifesto so fuzzy that one wondered if it wasn’t somehow a veiled jab at her employer. “There’s no other time in history I envy compared with the present,” she wrote in April. “‘Mass communication’ has finally become more practice than product…. The public sphere now means a larger, more empowered public, and no new venture will survive without appreciating that fact.”

Before Siddiqi was let go from her position in May, her section published probing essays on women and labor, technological racism, and diversity in publishing. One of the more recent entries, however, imagines the food diaries of famous authors. Which is also an idea, I guess?

The problem here is not with the quality of the writing—many ideas articles are compelling and provocative—nor with the writers themselves. Like vultures in a barren desert flocking to a single elephant carcass, it is the writers’ environment that causes them to seek out ideas. The issue we face is that ideas-writing undermines critical dialogue online by isolating original thought in a silo that previously didn’t exist.

In more golden ages of publishing, writers have used the critical trope of the book review as an excuse for engaging with concepts they might not otherwise have a reason to discuss. Book reviews often meander through memoir, theoretical dissection, and news commentating over the course of a single article, evoking a certain all-over insight. The idea story simply ditches the inconvenience of having to read a book. It is a review of the world—timely at its best, but, at its worst, nothing more than the whim of its author packaged into a clickable headline-thesis related to some theoretically overlooked aspect of daily life. (I’m looking at you, Science of Us.)

If ideas writing is writing about ideas, then what is everything else? And why have an ideas-only treehouse if not to compensate for the lack of the same elsewhere? While the format might presently provide a solution to the noisy publishing environment of the web, its omnipresence already suggests that it will rapidly lose its power to draw readers’ attention. So let’s all just go back to weaving the ideas into the writing rather than just slapping the label on up top.

This is not to say the word should disappear entirely. Our ability to form and follow creative ideas is, after all, what makes us human—and when the seas evaporate, the crops die, and the robots we’ve invented steal our jobs, humanity will at least be left with its own ideas for comfort. And in that post-apocalyptic hellscape, writers will probably still be there, cockroach-like, to explain them.

Kyle Chayka is a freelance writer in Brooklyn for publications like Newsweek, Time, and The New Yorker. He writes a weekly column on the future of money for Pacific Standard and is the author of an e-book, The Printed Gun.

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