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On Incentives

One of the podcasts I’ve been periodically dropping in on lately is Bari Weiss’s Honestly. Weiss’s story is an interesting one to me. She had the job I imagine many writers covet. She was an editor and writer at The New York Times, the journalistic equivalent of reaching the summit of the mountaintop. It’s not the sort of job you leave. But last year she did. In her resignation letter, Weiss cited the Times’ drift from being a publication that at least attempted an objective pursuit of the truth toward being a tool for disseminating an implicit (or explicit) orthodoxy that is “already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.” This was not what Weiss signed up for as a journalist. 

So, she walked away. She started writing on Substack. She began podcasting. She left the security of an institution that she considered to have betrayed its core values and ventured out on her own. She took a professional gamble, believing that there were still people out there who craved (and would pay for) media that didn’t come heavily filtered through the wearisome and predictable left/right liberal/conservative lenses. She wanted to be able to talk about hard issues, even when the facts were inconvenient and didn’t fit the preferred narrative. She didn’t want to feel the pressure to produce only those stories that reflected the worldview of the editors of The New York Times.

I don’t agree with Bari Weiss on everything, but I am drawn to and interested in people who refuse to go along with the herd and who make costly sacrifices for their convictions. Like many, I find our present media landscape to be depressing, to say the least. I nearly always feel like I am being lied to or misled, that certain things aren’t being said, that certain lines are being dutifully recited, and, most crucially, that everything that my eyeballs encounter online emerges via a process where writers and editors are heavily incentivized to produce only what will titillate and tantalize, what will raise eyebrows and generate reaction (because reaction now counts as news), what will ratchet up fear and anxiety, what will deepen divisions and reinforce self-righteousness in the endless moral sorting game that is twenty-first century digital life. In the midst of all this, it’s refreshing to hear someone at least say that they’re opting out, that they simply want to speak plainly, honestly, and without fear.

It’s not easy, though. It’s tough to go it alone. I think Weiss is doing fairly well, by most accounts, but I can imagine that relying on individual subscribers to your blog feels a bit less secure than a regular paycheque from the Times. It’s also not easy because you can never really escape the problem of incentives. In a recent conversation with Ryan Holiday on her podcast, Weiss perhaps almost inadvertently mused on the fact that over the course of her first year on Substack, she has come to know very well which pieces of hers will get more traffic than others. A piece on Critical Race Theory in American schools, for example, will go viral while an article on the demise of a Hong Kong newspaper will not. Weiss knows very well what will generate heat (anything about identity) and what won’t (everything else). And it can be very tempting—particularly when your livelihood depends on it—to write those pieces that are most likely to generate more traffic, subscriptions, revenue, etc.

She didn’t say this explicitly, but I’m sure Weiss gets the irony. The dynamics at play in her writing on Substack and on her podcast are precisely the same as the ones she found so stifling and oppressive at The New York Times. The Times knows very well who’s reading their paper. Its readership is overwhelmingly liberal, secular, Democrat, and upper middle class. And so, the Times is heavily incentivized to produce the news that this demographic prefers, which is to say a very left-leaning version of reality. This is what will keep the advertising revenue flowing and the subscriptions coming. Weiss’s target audience might be a bit more centrist, a bit more contrarian, a bit more whatever, but the same mechanisms and temptations are at work. Whether it’s a massive historical institution or a solitary writer trying to make a go of it on Substack, the incentive is always to produce what the customer demands.

(I should say that I am very aware that the same incentives are at play in the church. Pastors, no less than editors and writers, can very easily be tempted to produce content that they know will reliably generate the desired effect. This is as true for mega-church pastors presiding over media empires in big cities as it is for pastors of tiny churches in the middle of nowhere.)

Obviously, incentives have always been at work in media, but it seems like the Internet ratchets things up to a whole new level. Everything is monitored in real time, metrics are readily and instantly accessible, reaction (negative or positive) pours in unfiltered. Our digital age takes incentives that were perhaps once operating under the surface in more muted ways and sends them roaring belligerently to the surface. This isn’t good for us. It’s not good for our collective discourse. It’s not good for our pursuit of truth. It’s not good for the building of genuine community. It’s not good for the cultivation of virtues like patience, kindness, compassion, forbearance, etc. It’s not good for our individual souls.

I am increasingly convinced that one of the crucial tasks of Christian discipleship in our time and place is learning how to model a different way of digital being. Part of this means recognizing the forces that work against the human flourishing that, at our best, we long for. We live and move in a media ecosystem that is heavily incentivized toward castastrophizing, sensationalizing, and generally ratcheting up fear, anger, resentment, division. These are profitable emotions. I think it’s virtually impossible to overstate the importance of this. It’s sobering to think that almost everything we come across online—even in old and venerable media institutions—has a vested interest in making us afraid, anxious, and angry.

What would it look like to model a different way of being in this context? What would it look like to choose a different set of incentives to guide our speech and actions? What disciplines might sustain those who have been wearied and ground down by the pressure to always be performing, always seeking a reaction? What “no’s” might be required to make possible some better “yes’s?” I don’t have all the answers to these questions, but I am certain that the world is in desperate need of people who refuse to play a game that increasingly seems to be producing a lot more losers than winners.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mike #

    OOOOOhhh, this is going to be G O O D!!

    August 12, 2021
    • Allow me to start off with this for some context:

      August 12, 2021
      • “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.” – Edward Bernays, Propaganda (1928)

        August 12, 2021
  2. Whatever we think of the present state of human affairs it seems clear to me that we are at a seminal moment in our collective history while simultaneously possessing a technology that will likely make our, “new frontiers” definitive and permanent.

    There is so much we could say. So much to question. So much to challenge. So much to fear. So much to preserve that will be lost. So many people likely to die. The potential for disaster is staggering to me.

    Maybe that’s a primary disposition for a Christian to have. “Fear of God” experienced as, humankinds potential for malevolence and destruction.

    Whatever our outcomes personally and collectively all that has any meaning is His word, His love, His way.

    Accept in your private moments with Him, the love He offers you. Just for you. 🙂
    Love yourself as He loves you.
    Love your family as he loves you.
    Love your friends as he loves you.
    Love you neighbours as He loves you.
    Love the stranger as He loves you.
    Love your enemies as he loves you.

    Spend time with Him. Just you and Him. Feel His love for you. It will nourish and sustain you. Ensure wisdom in your choices. Give love to your actions..

    If I know anything of value, I would say I have an awareness of the Holy Spirit. Not because I am smart, not because I am good, not because I am strong. I think it’s mostly because, in spite of my deficiencies, I persist often enough with a sincere heart. Sincerity of heart means everything to the Lord. It is really all he asks of you. He does the rest. 🙂

    So stay grounded in your life and the people and the blessings around you. Share your love. It will bring joy to you and those around you. It will make your Father in heaven proud. It will bring you His peace. The peace you can never find through yourself, or another, or through the world. The peace we all crave and instinctively know, whether we believe or not, we are lacking.

    Give thanks be grateful. Spend time with Him. Just you and Him. It is enough. It has always been enough. It always will be enough…

    As for, “digital being” I can only say this. I believe, “digital being” is not God’s plan for His children. I do not find the presence of the Holy Spirit anywhere on-line. Only in prayer, communal worship and real time, person to person, relationships….

    So before I sat down to write this, I was listening to the music of, “Yes”. The song, “I’ve seen all good people” and In the chorus is a line that says all I could ever want to say about social media and Facebook, in particular. It goes, “don’t surround yourself with yourself”…great advice.

    His peace be with us all. 🙂

    August 13, 2021
    • Thank you for this erahjohn. You are a voice of reason whom I can hear, always putting things back into proper perspective. I appreciate you.

      August 18, 2021
      • 🙂 As I appreciate you, Mike.

        War is coming. Hold fast to our Lord.

        August 18, 2021
  3. I consider myself a “Woke” person in the sense that a few years ago I began to notice odd similarities in the selection and presentation of “News” stories being fed to the Public, not only on TV but also on radio, an example of this can be found on AM radio during the News Break segment, if you scan up the dial you will notice that the numerous stations scattered across the country are broadcasting the same exact line word for word on SELECT National stories, same with TV.
    The big question is WHO is determining/scripting and feeding this “information” to the big aggregates at the top of the news chain AP/UPI/REUTERS which then trickles down to the citizenry through the National Networks and how “unbiased” or truthful is this information?. I am now convinced more than ever, from years of reading, that the U.S. Intelligence community is in fact the illusive “Shadow Government”, often referred to in conversation as the mysterious “They” and “they” control much much more than just the media, and not only in the U.S. but throughout the World as well. The former U.S. President clearly proved this when he dared to take on the CIA and the Intelligence community. Blah-Blah-Blah I could go on and on.

    “Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated
    are confident they are acting on their own free will”. (Joseph Goebbels)

    August 13, 2021
  4. Elizabeth #

    I read a meme recently that said, Better to choose short term discomfort over long term dysfunction.” I am reminded of this now while reading your post. Specifically about the part where people seek reactions.

    I think society has become chained by the very profitable emotions you mention. Everyone just wants to feel SOMETHING. This can be compared to negative attention seekers, who just want attention at any cost and don’t know or remember how to be real and authentic.

    Ryan, thank you so much for your posts. You certainly make me think.

    September 1, 2021
    • Thanks so much, Elizabeth. I appreciate this encouragement. And I 100% agree with what you say about people being so desperate to to feel something… We will wander down all kinds of toxic roads in this pursuit.

      September 2, 2021

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